Explore the world of Chardonnay wines, from oak influences to winemaking styles, and unravel the complexity of its flavor nuances.
For a long time, wine lovers dismissed Chardonnay wines because of their overwhelming oak flavors, such as toasted barrels, smoked oak, or excessive oak shavings.
In the late nineties, the California wine industry was on a quest to find its identity and redefine Chardonnay wines. This led to an intriguing exploration of the aromas, tastes, and mouthfeels that American consumers truly enjoyed in Chardonnay.
At that time, while working at a large U.S. winery, my colleagues and I decided to delve into the diverse world of Chardonnay styles.
We embarked on a comprehensive tasting search, sampling over 100 different Chardonnay brands available in the U.S. market, sourced from various regions worldwide.
We discovered there were not merely a handful of styles but a total of 14 distinctive Chardonnay winemaking styles.
Here is a breakdown of the 14 Chardonnay styles we encountered, each showcasing its own unique characteristics and winemaking approach:
Neutral with natural flavor
Neutral, easy to drink, unoaked
Neutral, easy to drink, with some oak
Not fruity, some oxidation, 'European style'
Simple fruit with spicy oak
Integrated fruit and oak, slightly sweet
Barrel-fermented, Burgundian style
Oaky, buttery, 'full blown'
Elegant, cold climate fruit, subdued fruit
Burgundian with balanced fruit and oak
Burgundian with nutty-toasty, sulfide-derived complexity
Yes, fourteen different styles, with some overlaps, but distinctive enough to pursue our study with a wine representative of each Chardonnay stylistic group .
Unlike other grape varieties that possess distinct and recognizable flavors, such as Sauvignon Blanc's grapefruit or Gewurtztraminer's lychee, Chardonnay grapes do not offer a clear typicity.
Former colleagues in Burgundy spent years attempting to identify the typical flavor compounds of Chardonnay wines. Interestingly, they discovered that there is no single typical Chardonnay wine aroma.
Instead, experts were able to define a conceptual Chardonnay wine based on a specific blend of 10 different compounds . They also concluded that the "Chardonnay wine concept" was an expert construct, incorporating sensory features and perceptive similarities to create a unified profile .
Instead, the distinct flavor nuances in Chardonnay wines are derived from factors like terroir, oak barrel usage (for fermentation or aging), and the winemaker's individual style.
Mineral-driven Chardonnays from Chablis in France showcase the influence of terroir, while the Burgundian style of Meursault highlights the use of oak barrels.
I also believe the winemaking style of the maker plays a role. Indeed, I found that some winemakers have unique ways of using oak to deliver specific flavors or allow slight oxidation as a signature.
Rather than dissecting the 14 wine styles, let’s look at their main components helping define each style.
In cooler regions, like Chablis or certain parts of California, you'll taste fruit notes reminiscent of green apple, lemon, lime, and citrus fruits.
In warmer regions, like Australia or California's Central Coast, you'll experience riper fruit flavors like pineapple, peach, melon, or tropical fruits.
These flavors are linked to the grape maturity at harvest and the obvious role of heat and sun exposure during the ripening process.
Oak aging is a common practice in Chardonnay winemaking, which imparts distinct flavors.
When a Chardonnay has an oak influence, it can offer flavors of vanilla (similar to the aroma of vanilla extract or vanilla bean), toast (like the smell of toasted bread or pastry), caramel (reminiscent of caramel candies or butterscotch), or spice (such as hints of cinnamon or clove).
Winemakers can also choose to ferment their wines in oak barrels which help develop caramel-like aromas extracted from the toasted oak staves.
French oak and American oak are commonly used, each imparting distinct characteristics.
French oak contributes subtle flavors of vanilla, spice, and toast, while American oak offers more pronounced notes of coconut, dill, and sweet spices.
Barrel makers have also explored oak from other countries, such as Hungary or Canada.
Chardonnay wines grown in regions with limestone or chalk soils often exhibit mineral characteristics.
These flavors can include flint (similar to the scent of struck flint or a match), wet stones (resembling the smell of rain on hot pavement), or a subtle salinity (a hint of sea salt or oyster shell).
While minerals can’t become volatile to create these flavor nuances, other hypotheses suggest that “sensory minerality” results from the influence of water availability and temperature, induced by different proportions of limestone and clay in the soil, on the grape ripening process .
In all cases, these mineral nuances add interest and complexity to the wine.
In certain Chardonnays, particularly those from warmer regions or those that have undergone malolactic fermentation, you will experience a creamy or buttery character.
This is an acquired taste. While I enjoy the creamy mouthfeel resulting from the malolactic fermentation, I’m not a fan of heavy buttery notes, such as buttered popcorn.
Chardonnay wines can vary in acidity levels, which greatly impacts their flavor profile. That’s why they are good candidates for malolactic fermentation, transforming wine tartaric acid into a smoother lactic acid perception.
Wines with higher acidity make you salivate a lot and are reminiscent of acidic fruits such as citrus and green apples.
Wines with lower acidity exhibit a softer, rounded mouthfeel and usually riper flavor attributes, such as peaches or apricots.
The Chardonnay wine landscape has evolved so much and for the best since the nineties.
From the influence of terroir and the use of oak barrels to the unique winemaking styles, each Chardonnay will offer you a distinct sensory experience.
Cheers to that!
Published June 21, 2023
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