By Gina Trippi
How many times have you heard someone say, “I don’t like chardonnay”? Maybe they don’t, but maybe they just have not found their style. Chardonnay varies in style and quality within states, from state to state, within countries and from country to country around the world. Let’s explore!
We start with the gold standard, French chardonnay, also known as white Burgundy. What distinguishes French chardonnay is the soil and climate. Composed of ancient limestone and clay, the soil provides structure and lively acidity while the climate forces the vines to struggle, which yields complexity.
California now has more than 100,000 acres of chardonnay vines and hundreds of different styles. The most prominent differences between French and California chardonnay wines are soil, the use of oak and malolactic acid. California soil consists mainly of sandstone, volcanic lava and fine grain quartz, making the wines just a little less sharp than the French.
Some California chardonnays have been described as “buttery.” White wine naturally goes through a process called malolactic fermentation, kickstarted by a benign bacteria, during barrel aging. During this process, a buttery flavored compound called diacetyl, regularly added to margarine, is produced, making the wine softer and rounder.
If a winemaker wants to preserve a tart acidity, producing a wine more French in style, the malolactic process can be skipped or shortened. Likewise, if the desired result is a softer texture, the process can also be lengthened, making the wine more “buttery.”
Oak aging also contributes to the buttery taste as well as adding flavors including vanilla, baked tart and coconut.
Three countries staking out territory in the world of chardonnay are Argentina, South Africa and Australia.
Known for Malbec, Argentina also produces stunning chardonnay. The reason that Malbec thrives in Argentina is the same reason chardonnay works: the Andes Mountain Range. The altitude provides the perfect combination of intense sunlight to ripen the grapes and cool temperatures to preserve acidity and freshness. Chardonnay from Mendoza will show tropical fruit flavors and, reflecting that cooler temperature, citrus.
While the most popular white grape in South Africa is chenin blanc, chardonnay is now competing on the world stage. Styles range from un-oaked, steely and clean to oaked with a rich and buttery consistency. All styles present the characteristic citrus and tropical fruit flavors.
Generally speaking, South African chardonnays are simpler than the French version and more tropical than most California chardonnays. DMZ chardonnay offers aromas of vanilla, almond, tropical fruit and grapefruit, and apple, butterscotch, caramel and toast on the palate with a French acidity and a minerally edge.
Once described as big, fat, brassy and oaky, advances in technology and the advantage of cooler climate regions have put Australian chardonnay, particularly those from Yarra Valley, on the wine map.
In Italy, some of the most respected wineries, including Antinori, making wine since the 14th century, are offering chardonnay from Piedmont to Puglia. And cool climate chardonnay from the Navarra region in Spain has been said to rival the best white burgundies. Explore the world of chardonnay!
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