April 14, 2020
Chardonnay is an example of a neutral grape variety – meaning it doesn’t really have very many overt aromas that transfer through and into the wine when fermentation is complete – unlike Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc which have many. The vast majority of aromas and flavors of Chardonnay come from the management of fruit once it arrives into the winery.
Winemakers use their skills to shape the aromas and textures of Chardonnay through particular techniques - for example, leaving some grape solids in the juice before fermentation, fermenting in stainless steel, concrete eggs or vats, large plastic tubs, new or used oak barrels of varying sizes and toast levels. Some producers can add oak flavor by suspending large bags of toasted oak chips inside a stainless-steel tank as a cost saving measure (oak barrels are very expensive). The fermentation stage is the most critical because it locks in most of the flavors we recognize.
The technique of using only the yeast that is stuck to the grape skin for fermentation can yield different flavors, in the finished wine, from say an inoculated ferment where a specific yeast is used to control some flavors and alcohol level.
Chardonnay can age quite well, but only if provenance, yield, winemaking then storage are in the right combinations.
There are some predictable or ‘traditional’ expressions of Chardonnay still popular and available. The creamy, fruity, oaky and buttery style is still very popular. These wines are made in a specific way that uses an acid conversion technique called Malolactic Fermentation (MLF). Here’s how it works: chardonnay is susceptible to bacteria and can form naturally in a wine [typically] after fermentation and the enzyme that is activated by the bacteria converts some or all of the malic acid into a softer milky lactic acid. You may recognize this in the wine as a buttery texture. Combined with the flavors of new oak the nutty, smoky and even butterscotch flavors can be delicious for many. Other styles include wine with no oak, old oak and even extended lees ageing.
Evolution and change in Chardonnay styles, from New Zealand in particular, are inevitable. Mainly because viticulture and wine making itself is responding and changing to conditions in weather, soil, environment and even market demands. This suggests that all grapes are affected by these changes – and you’d be right. Chardonnay is one of those wine styles that can polarize a wine audience easily.
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