Parsing Chardonnay

I don’t like Chardonnay.” she said.
So you don’t want any of this Puligny Montrachet les Folatieres?” he replied.
Of course I do … but that’s White Burgundy.”
Which is Chardonnay.”
So why do I like White Burgundy but not Chardonnay?”
That’s a good question . . .

If you’ve ever asked that question, if you’ve ever wondered why wines taste the way they do, the answer is that it is because of where they’re from (place) – and where they were made, what they’re made from (grapes), how they’re made (technique, tradition, and even law), who made them (person – which, in fact, has a lot to do with how), and when they were made (vintage). So Chardonnay from Chablis will taste different than Chardonnay from Puligny and Chardonnay from Puligny will taste different than Chardonnay from Carneros – which will taste different than Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast.

If you have a good knowledge about wine and you taste a Chardonnay, you may (or may not) be able to come to some conclusions about the where, the what, the how, and more. And, if you know the technical information about (the where and what and how, etc.) a particular wine, you may be able to (maybe should be able to) predict what the wine will taste like. That’s why we (the “collective we” of all of us wine geeks) go to the trouble to taste a lot of wine and learn about wine: we want to be able to more accurately pick wines we will enjoy drinking.

Just so you know: In the US, more people drink Chardonnay than any other kind of wine. Over 19% of all the wine purchased from Spec’s says “Chardonnay” on the label – and that doesn’t include any of the French Chardonnays labeled with place names like Puligny Montrachet or Pouilly Fuisse, Meursault or Macon, Chassagne or Chablis. This, even though many if not most people who are professionals in the wine business or who write about wine drink little if any wine labeled Chardonnay. Oddly enough, as they drink so little Chardonnay, many if not most of these professionals are not qualified to recommend Chardonnay. Many are not even comfortable talking about Chardonnay.

If we’re going to look at Chardonnay, lets start with “What.” Chardonnay is a green skinned grape yielding clear juice, likely native to France’ Burgundy region, used to make white wine. A crossing of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc (an almost extinct white variety that has served as a parent to several better known varieties), Chardonnay is the second most planted white wine variety and may soon pass Airen (grown only in Spain and used mostly to make brandy) to take the number one spot. Chardonnay is planted in more wine producing regions around the world than any other variety. While it is a fairly neutral variety that shows the influence of place and technique, there are some Chardonnay fruit characteristics. In the coolest climates, Chardonnay can offer a lemony citrus component along with green tree fruit (apple and pear) and green banana. In more moderate climates, more ripeness can bring a broader range of citrus with riper tree fruit, occasionally some stone fruit (peach is possible) and even some melon and other tropical notes. In the warmest areas where Chardonnay is grown, the fruit can get into the pineapple, mango, and ripe banana range without necessarily loosing all of its citrus freshness. One of the telltales for Chardonnay is a nuance of banana fruit anywhere on the scale from green to over-ripe. Maybe it easier to define in the negative: All other things being equal, Chardonnay is less grassy than Sauvignon Blanc, less juicy than Riesling, less fat than Viognier, less fresh than Pinot Gris (Grigio), etc.

Moving to where, if Chardonnay is cropped at reasonable yield levels (say from under 2 to 4 tons per acre) in a balanced vineyard (one where yields are in balance with the vigor of the vines and the soil), Chardonnay will reflect the character of the place as much as any other white wine producing grape. If the yields are too low, Chardonnay can lose its place by becoming overly extracted and even gritty tasting. If yields are too high (some Australian vineyards have “achieved” from 12 to 20 or more tons per acre), place disappears into simplistic pineapple popsicle fruit. Which is not to say that all places are good places or that all or even most places even have a recognizable character. It’s just that if there is a distinctive mark of place to be found, good Chardonnay is most likely to show it.

As Chardonnay’s spiritual home is Burgundy, it seems clear that Chardonnay should grow well in chalky soils (Chablis, and coincidentally, Champagne) and on limestone (the Cote d’Or, Cote Chalonnaise, and Macon) – and it does. What is amazing is how well Chardonnay can do in other areas where the soils range from sedimentary to volcanic in origin or even on some of California’s (and Chile’s) granitic soils. Outside of Burgundy, “great” Chardonnay has come from Texas (clay over limestone), Carneros (marine sediments), New Zealand (especially Marlborough and Central Otago), and various parts of Australia (especially Margaret River). Each of these places can have a unique gout de terroir (smell of place) that can (in the best cases) mark the wine making “Where?” an answerable question.

As to how, if it is a white winemaking technique, it has been tried on Chardonnay. About the only thing that seems never to work is trying to make Chardonnay into a sweet dessert style wine. To oversimplify: If you start with 22.5% sugar, higher acidity grapes and ferment slowly in cool stainless steel tanks and block malo-lactic fermentation and minimize subsequent air contact with no barrel aging, you get a completely different result than if you start with 25% sugar, lower acidity grapes and barrel ferment (with, let’s say, at least one third new barrels) and age the wine with lees-stirring and full malo-lactic fermentation in those barrels for 12 or so months. The first sort (as made in Chablis) offers a steelier, more focused style with fresher and maybe leaner fruit and usually (at least in Chablis) a sort of chalky-limestone minerality. The second sort (as made in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley) is likely to offer riper but less intense or even ill-defined fruit flavors with lots of milky-buttery-creamy aromas, flavors, and textures accented by an almost sawdust oak component and a toasty (from the lees) richness. The first sort is all about the fruit and the place. The second sort is at least as much (and often more) about the winemaking (technique and style) and the stamp of the winemaker as it is about fruit or place, especially as both fruit and place can so easily be overwhelmed by technique (aka “winemaking load”).

Technical Considerations (The Vineyard)
Where to plant, rootstocks, genetic material (whether clones or a massal selection), row orientation, and even trellising systems are all early on decisions that can affect the wine for many vintages. Healthy vineyards are rarely replanted before they are 30 years old and often (in the best sites) not before they are 75 or more years old. Farming techniques such as sustainable agriculture, organic agriculture, or even biodynamic farming also have a large effect but those effects are more immediate than which variety is planted.

When working the vines, are horses or tractors used? Horses are gentler and less compacting to the earth and often leave something beneficial behind. Tractors are faster and easier but they compact the ground and leave behind diesel fumes.
Picking date is a different “when” than “vintage.” Picking earlier gives more acid (and lower pH) and brighter fruit with potentially lower alcohol. Of course, picking too early leads to under ripe or even green flavors. Picking later brings lower total acidity and higher pH, more sugar (and so riper fruit flavors and higher potential alcohol) and other, not always positive, possibilities.

Technical Considerations (The Winery and Cellar)
How much sorting was done in the field and in the winery? (Sometimes too much sorting can lead to boring, homogenous wines.) Were the harvested grape clusters crushed and de-stemmed, just de-stemmed (whole berries), or left to go into the press as whole clusters. Was sulfur-dioxide used to kill any native yeast or other microbes from the vineyard before fermentation?

Was a basket, bladder, or screw press used? (Too clean juice is the current most popular villan in the effort to find the cause of “prem-ox” or premature oxidation in white Burgundy.) What “cut of the juice” was kept to be fermented into wine and what percentage was rejected as being too phenolic due to too much pressing? Was the pressing super-gentle resulting in light clear juice (again a prem-ox issue) or was there enough violence to it to put some solids from the pulp and skins into the juice. Was the juice run from the press straight into the fermenting vessels (whether tanks or barrels or even concrete eggs) or was it first run into a tank to settle and maybe even to oxidize before it was moved to the fermentation vessels.

Were those fermentation vessels temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, oak barrels, or new fangled concrete eggs? If they were oak barrels, how big were they 225 liters (a standard barrel or barrique)? 300 liters (a puncheon)? 500 liters (also called a puncheon)? Or even 600 liters (demi-muids)? And what percentage of the barrels were new? The bigger the barrel, the less flavor it imparts. And the newer the barrels, the more flavor it imparts. If the wine was fermented in tanks, were oak chips or inner-staves added to layer in an oak nuance to a non-barrel-fermented wine. Wines made with no oak contact (from barrels or chips or inner-staves) are called un-oaked or un-wooded.
If oak was used, where did the wood for the barrels (or chips or stave) grow? Some forests have tighter grain and some looser which effects the density and porosity of the wood which effects both evaporation rates and how much flavor the wood imparts. How long was the wood allowed to air dry before coopering? Two years is standard, three years is better, four to five years is best. Longer air-drying means more of the harsher elements have been leeched from the wood and so the longer air dried staves impart a more subtle and somehow cleaner set of flavors. Which cooperage(s) made the barrels? Some coopers (barrel-makers) – such as François Freres – are known for heavier toasting or a distinctive style imparted by their barrels. In some cases it’s possible to discern the cooper in the finished wine.

Was naturally present yeast utilized for fermentation or were the tanks or barrels inoculated with a cultured yeast mix. Natural fermentations sometimes develop more flavors but they may stick (as in stop before all the sugar is fermented) or develop off aromas. Inoculated fermentations are safer and better controlled but sometimes may result in bland or “corporate” tasting wines. Which yeast are “naturally present” can have a lot to do with both where the grapes were grown and how they were farmed and with the location and conditions at the winery. Organic or biodynamic farming would seem to be more conducive to a healthy yeast population in the vineyard. Chemical intensive commercial farming might not. A modern steel and concrete winery with temperature and humidity controls that was designed to be clean and sterile may not develop or maintain a beneficial yeast population. An old gravel-floored, stone and wood building that is naturally cool and humid will develop a diverse population of natural flora including yeasts and malo-lactic bacteria – and a variety of molds. Because these sorts of cellars and their flora are unique, that older-style cellar can add a further sense of place to the wine.

After the alcoholic fermentation, was malo-lactic fermentation (often “ML” or sometimes “malo”) blocked, allowed, or encouraged? If blocked, how? A blocked malo can emphasize fruit but reduce complexity. If allowed, how long was the time gap between the end of alcoholic fermentation and the onset of ML? How long did the malo-lactic fermentation take? Were the wines sulfured and racked after malo finished? ML can add richness and complexity but too much malo-lactic character can hide the fruit and make a wine too rich (too buttery, too creamy, too milky) and even blousy. Was malo stopped before it completed? If so, how? A partial malo-lactic fermentation can give the best of both worlds in adding some richness while retaining some fruit flavors. If ML was encouraged, how – and how soon after the end of primary? Later malo-lactic fermentations tend to “set the fruit” better than earlier malls.

Were the lees stirred? If so, how vigorously and how often? Lees stirring can add richness but as with malo-lactic fermentation and new oak barrels, not all wines have enough fruit to handle that level of winemaking load.
How long was the wine left to age (in barrels or tanks) before assemblage? The longer it was in oak barrels, the more exposure it has had to air. That controlled oxidation makes it a bit darker and a bit richer but also a bit less fruity. To get one thing, you give up a bit of something else.

Was the wine fined and or filtered? Fining can help clarify the wine by removing proteins and other elements that can give it a haze so that it is bright in the bottle. Filtration can do the same thing as well as remove other detrimental elements such as Brettanomyces (a detrimental yeast that can lead to earthy, barnyardy, or even fecal smelling wines) but filtration has the potential to strip some flavor if used too aggressively.
Was the wine cold stabilized? Cold stabilization is the process of chilling the wine in tank before bottling to encourage it to precipitate its tartrates (tartaric acid) in the form of crystals in the tank before bottling. I don’t see where cold stabilization has any possible negative effects but some producers wont do it.

How was the wine bottled? Was it beat up on a high pressure, high speed bottling line or coaxed into the bottle by gravity flow, or somewhere in between.

Was it given more aging in the winery’s cellar after it was bottled?

Tasting can tell you (generally in broader strokes but sometimes in precise detail) the answers to many of these questions so in tasting wine you can often deduce a lot about how it was made. Knowing this sort of information about a wine (especially a Chardonnay) before you taste it allows you to predict how the wine will taste and the more you know, the more accurately you are likely to be (picking wine you like) in making your choices.

The Who of a wine becomes important because someone has to pick which grapes to use (what and where), when to pick, and how the wine will be made. That person’s education, experience, and personal preference is the focusing force that allows the wine to become what it is. Some winemakers are all about the place and others are determined to make the wine into what they want it to be.
It used to be that the more expensive the wine was, the more it tended to reflect the place. With the advent of superstar winemakers and big name consultants (Paul Hobbes, Helen Turley, etc.), a winemaking style may supersede place, which – if the place is very good – is often a shame. There has to be a guide or a shepherd to get the wine through the process and for better or worse, that person may leave his mark whether subtle or obvious.

Do you prefer more fruit and less “winemaking load?” Then you want a cooler climate, more focused Chardonnay fermented and aged in tank with blocked or maybe partial malo-lactic and little or no lees stirring. Or do you prefer a rich buttery-oaky-ripe style of Chardonnay layered with complexity and nuance? Then maybe you want a Chardonnay grown in a riper appellation (place) and fermented in mainly (or even all) new oak barrels with full malo-lactic and extended aging (10-14 months) with lees stirring in barrels – which can all be a lot of “winemaking load” so the quality of the fruit that is the starting point becomes paramount.

So let’s look at two wines that are made with essentially the same techniques: no sulfur at reception, whole clusters pressed with some solids making it into the juice, no settling, a naturally present yeast barrel fermentation (in high quality four-year air-dried, medium-low-toast French oak barrels from tight grain interior France forests made by top coopers) in a cool environment followed with some but not a lot of batonnage (lees stirring), a subsequent natural (un-inoculated) malo-lactic fermentation in those same barrels with sulfuring and racking after ML is complete, another 5-to-8 months in those same barrels before assemblage and bottling un-filtered and un-fined but with cold stabilization on a gravity fed-bottling line.

You might think these two wines have a lot in common – and they do – but let’s also look at the differences. One is made from biodynamically farmed Chardonnay grapes planted in clonal blocks and trellised with a double cordon using vertical shoot positioning (VSP) grown in sedimentary soils (southwest facing) in Carneros in California. The grapes were picked with a potential alcohol of almost 15% and the wine was made in a modern “warehouse” (steel and concrete) winery with concrete floors and complete climate control.

The other was made from Chardonnay grapes organically grown in Puligny Montrachet on east-facing rocky limestone slopes planted to a massal selection (lots of genetic diversity) and trellised with a single cordon and minimal catch wires (but still essentially VSP) with minimal soil. The grapes were picked with a potential alcohol content of 13.5% and the wine was made in an old stone-and-wood-cellar (under-ground in the cool natural rock) with gravel floors (to allow the humidity of the earth to keep the cellar damp which naturally slows evaporation) that has been used for winemaking for over 300 years.

Both wines are from the same fine vintage, let’s say 2009.

So how will the wines taste? Both will be excellent but there will be distinct differences.

Our Carneros Chardonnay will be fairly open and easy to evaluate and appreciate. The fruit profile will show riper citrus layered with tropical fruit. It will be riper, higher in alcohol, and a bit lower in acidity. The sense of place will be there and may manifest with a certain mushroom earthiness. There will be a lot of richness, a creamy texture, and a distinct carpenter-shop oak note. A chef might say the wine is “deconstructed” in that everything is there to see. The wine is of obvious high quality and it is certainly not “Cougar Juice.”

Our Puligny Montrachet is a bit less ripe (but not under-ripe) and so offers a more citrus and apple fruit profile. The sense of place comes through as a sort of limestone minerality (which combined with fruit profile, lower alcohol, and higher acidity might – hopefully – tell me in a blind tasting that this wine is from Burgundy. It is tightly integrated and, even though the wine was fermented in all new oak and went through full malo-lactic fermentation, neither technique is obvious. Maybe it needs decanting. Finally with a fair amount of swirling, it begins to open and show layers of slowly evolving flavor.

Both are excellent and give a high level of pleasure. One may be more of a muscular sports car and the other more of a refined sedan. In terms of longevity, I think the sports car is more fun to drive (initially at least) but will look dated while the sedan (which is still fun to drive) will age into a classic. I actually enjoy both and would be sad if I had to choose only one or the other.

What made these two wines made using essentially the same techniques so different? Place. The stamp of place in both cases was more important than all the winemaking and even the who.

What good is all of this to you? If you know what you like or what you are in the mood for, you can pick the perfect wine by picking the wine from the right place made using the right techniques to yield the combination of flavors, character, and textures you want. Parsing through the details (the Ws) helps you pick the right wine for you – and that is what wine education and wine tasting is all about.

One thought on “Parsing Chardonnay

  1. Great column, Bear. I think the reason many individuals who know wine don’t “like” Chardonnay is because they have consumed so much of it in the past that it has become cloying–in their minds, at least. They are just tired of it. For example, I would never turn down a glass of Chardonnay if offered, even the fat, fruity, buttery ones, so I like it enough to drink it, but I don’t consider buying it when I buy white wines. I buy Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs, Spanish Albariños, American Viogniers, etc. because I prefer to drink those. I also buy French Chablis when I can because its crisp and flinty fruit is what I want in a Chardonnay, but they are not easily available in many cities, including mine.

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