Legend has it that when Otis Redding first heard Aretha Franklin sing one of his favorite recordings, he smiled and said “That girl stole my song.” Well Burgundy, you may be the birthplace of Chardonnay, but with all due R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Cali stole your grape. Without a doubt, the lean, expressive wines of the Cote d’Or, Mersault and Chablis are unparelleled in their excellence, but California put Chardonnay on the map. Indeed, after decades of great success, it is still America’s most popular white varietal and virtually synonymous for dry white wine.
Ironically, in terms of flavor, Chardonnay is pretty low key. The fruit profile, which ranges from green apples to coconut depending on climate, is rather elusive and delicate. Sometimes referred to as the blank canvas of wines, its real gifts are expression of terroir and responsiveness to vinification practices. Indeed, no grape is more expressive than Chardonnay in Chablis. The soil’s kimmerigean clay, laced with the fossils of prehistoric oysters creates a terroir that’s often imitiated, but never duplicated. Nonetheless, the vintner pretty much outranks mother nature when in comes to this grape. Makers can choose to highlight the fruit by using stainless steel fermentation, or create a fuller style with malolactic fermentation, lees stirring (batonnage), and the use of oak.
In addition to clarifying and stabilizing wine, the tradition of fermenting and ageing in oak barrels gives lovely flavors of vanilla, caramel, figs and even an hint of tannins. But, and this is a big but, cheap over powering oak, particularly in the form of inexpensive chips, does not a tasty wine make. Oak abuse creates more ABC backlash than overrippening and super high yields combined. However, high quality oak barrels, with just the right amount of toast (charred insides) create a fine complexity. Should the producer decide to stir up the lees (or dead yeast cells at the bottom) during the process, the wood flavor becomes subtle and integrated part of the wine.
Another important technique that gets a lot of play is malolactic fermentation. During ageing, a natural process tranforms the tart Malic acid (think apples) to a softer lactic acid (think milk). The direct result is a creamier, softer wine and a compound called diacetyl which gives Chardonnay (not to mention movie popcorn) its buttery quality. Used wisely, this makes plump, delicious wines. But enough technical talk, the main thing to remember is that Chardonnay is a versatile, friendly wine that pleases at any level. Call up some friends, pick up a few different styles, and throw some littleneck clams on the grill for your own backyard tasting.