The Great White Grape
The most-planted grape variety in California is also its most versatile. Like a blank slate, Chardonnay, the great white grape of Burgundy, lacks a strong character of its own, infinitely malleable by its maker. Plantings can thrive in warm and cool climates alike, and winemaking practices such as oak treatment, malolactic fermentation and battonage (the stirring of the lees, or dead yeast cells, during barrel aging) can drastically alter a wine’s character. Just about every coastal region in the state does brisk Chardonnay business.
Chardonnay’s history in the Golden State has various stylistic chapters. The first wave of producers, in the mid-twentieth century, like Hanzell, Stony Hill, Mayacamas and Mount Eden, often made wines that were lean and crisp: fermented in steel, without malolactic conversion. These decisions may have had as much to do with ensuring chemical stability in the wine as they did with style.
As technology advanced, some vintners introduced winemaking practices more clearly inspired by Burgundy’s. Fermentations in barrel, malolactic, sur-lie aging and battonage and large proportions of new oak all produced wines that were, like those of Burgundy’s famous vineyard Le Montrachet, rich and buttery.
If you’ve considered yourself part of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) club, it’s possibly because you’ve had examples of Chardonnay in that rich style, tasting of vanilla and buttered popcorn. Certainly, the popularity of that style over recent decades has produced plenty of wines that veered too far beyond Burgundian ideals: over-oaked, excessively high in alcohol, often carrying residual sugar.
But contemporary California’s spectrum of Chardonnay is exciting. There are many examples of rich, barrel-fermented, sur lie-aged Chardonnays done extremely well, their richness in beautiful tension with nervy acidity. There are likewise many excellent bottlings of wines that see no oak, or only neutral oak; did not undergo malolactic; and taste juicy, crunchy and tart. Chardonnay can do it all. —February 2017
Major California regions: Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties and sub-AVAs; Central Valley
Characteristic flavors: Green apple, lemon, fig, butter, vanilla, butterscotch, brioche, hazelnut
Word to know: Malolactic fermentation (also known as “ML” or “malo”)
All wine undergoes a primary fermentation, in which sugar converts to alcohol. Most wine also undergoes a secondary fermentation, called malolactic fermentation, in which the wine’s tart, sharp, appley malic acid (like malum, Latin for apple) converts into creamy, rich lactic acid (like lactis, Latin for milk). The process also produces the compound diacetyl, which tastes and smells just like buttered popcorn.
All red wine undergoes malo; some whites do. A winemaker can choose to arrest the process, retaining the malic acid, or to encourage the conversion. It’s one of several winemaking decisions that determines whether a Chardonnay will turn out lean or rich.
Learn More: Take the Chardonnay Style Spectrum Tour