Chardonnay is produced in so many different styles that it can be hard to know what to expect! Wine from this popular grape expresses itself differently from country to country, region to region, and vineyard to vineyard; Chardonnay grows all over the world and matures on the vine differently in every unique climate. What’s more, the naturally subtle flavors of Chardonnay allow a vintner to get creative in the cellar, customizing the production, and putting their signature touch on every fresh bottling. Let us help you navigate the complex world of this marvelous grape with some key things to look for to help you find a Chardonnay that meets your taste perfectly!
1. Old World vs. New World Styles
In the context of wine, “Old World” represents the European Tradition of balance and restraint while “New World” suggests bold flavors and full-bodied wines. These rules are not hard and fast, but generally you can expect Chardonnay from France, Italy, and Spain to be a little more tart and delicate than versions from California, Australia, and Chile (among other non-European Countries) where the wines tend to be rounder, more intense, and fruitier.
2. Exceptions to the Old World vs. New World Dynamic
Nothing is set in stone in the world of wine, which is part of what makes it so much fun! Most of France’s Burgundy region (Chardonnay’s classic home) will produce lean and crisp wines, while the warmer southern end of the region, Macon, produces styles with a little more oomph! The same goes for places like California, where the heart of Napa and Sonoma grow uber-ripe Chardonnay that makes rich and juicy wines, while areas on their coastal and bayside fringes like the Sonoma Coast and Carneros produce more understated offerings.
3. Oaked vs. Unoaked and Everything in Between
An oaked wine is one that has been fermented or matured in oak barrels, which adds roasty and spicy complexity to the wine. The intensity of these flavors is affected by the amount of time in barrel, it’s size, and how many times it has been used before. Barrels are made by charring and bending planks together, a process called cooperage, and the degree to which the staves were toasted also plays a role in the robustness of flavor. Oak sourced from French forests often creates more savory and nutty flavors, while American oak gives notes of baking spices and coconut. Unoaked Chardonnay tends to be more fruity, focused, and refreshing.
4. Aging "Sur Lie"
"Sur lie" is the French term for aging wine with the expired yeast cells that were the catalyst for the initial fermentation from grape juice to wine. This “lees aging” gives Chardonnay a silky texture, and delicious toasty and creamy flavors.
5. Malolactic Fermentation
Malolactic Fermentation (also MLF or “Malo”) is a spontaneous process that changes the wine’s acid profile from tart malic acid (like in apples) to creamy lactic acid (like in milk). If you like that classic buttery style of Chardonnay, malo wines are for you, but not all wines that go through Malo are intensely buttery, some just have a hint of creaminess and a little edge taken off of the natural tartness of the wine. Wines where Malo is prevented tend to be more direct in their fruitiness.
All of these elements affect the complex possibilities of a Chardonnay selection. Look for signals on the bottle that may indicate which factors are playing a role in the style of your wine. You can typically find wine making details online, which will give you in depth information about how the wine was made, so that you can start to construct a flavor profile in your mind and pick which suit you best. Don’t be afraid to reach out to specialists and purveyors to help direct you. Most of all, have fun tasting these nuances and appreciate the remarkable individuality of a bottle of great Chardonnay!