Not All Chardonnay Is Created Equally

Do you like Chardonnay?

Most wine drinkers would say yes.

But what style of Chardonnay do you like?

The answer to that question probably is a bit more complicated, and helps illustrate how both climate and a winemaker’s style influence the perception of wine.

Let’s use Chardonnay grown and made in California and in the Burgundy region of France to point out a few of the variables.

Generally speaking, California Chardonnay is grown in areas that are warmer than Burgundy — and that includes the Golden State’s so-called “cooler” regions. As a result, the California grapes are able to attain full ripeness, and the resulting wines have a higher alcohol content. That’s why the California renditions are fuller in body and more fruitful in flavor — largely a function of Mother Nature.

Other big stylistic differences emerge in the cellar, where the winemaker lends his skills and preferences to the equation.

In California, many vintners opt to age their Chardonnay in oak barrels — French, ironically — to lend additional aromas and flavors to the finished product. They may also utilize a process called malolactic fermentation, which imparts the rich, buttery character that truly defines “California Chardonnay.”

In France, on the other hand, vintners prefer to let the grapes speak for themselves, and present “liquid pictures” of the Burgundian soil and climate. French “Chablis” often is quite austere, with a mineral-like underpinning.

Put a glass of “California Chardonnay” next to a glass of French “Chablis,” and you’d be hard-pressed to identify the two wines as coming from the same grape variety.

Likewise, there are stylistic differences in other winegrowing countries. In Australia, Chardonnay is more like the California version. In Chile, vintners tend to split the difference, often aging their Chardonnay cuvees in older oak barrels that lend more subtle aromas and flavors than new barrels.

So… do you like Chardonnay? If you have a stylistic preference, the real answer may be, “It depends on where it’s from.”

Posted in Wine in the Glass
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