Chardonnay: The ‘Red’ Wine of Whites

Our New Year’s resolution is to break last year’s resolution of staying away from Chardonnays and instead spend 2011 writing, talking and drinking this complex white wine.

Here’s the thing about Chardonnay, you either love it or you hate it, right? Ever wonder why?

Or, maybe you love one style of the wine over another.

For example, Brynn loves a full-bodied Chardonnay with a buttery finish that is a result of malolactic fermentation and aging sur lie in oak barrels. (Sur lie: keeping wine on the dead yeast cells before filtering them out. This produces a secondary dimension to wine.)

Mary considers Chardonnay the next best thing to red wine. Chardonnay has the complexity, the weight in the mouth that makes it full-bodied like red wine, she says. (And, in case you didn’t know it yet, Mary prefers red wine. But, she also loves Chard because it’s so complex).

So why are some Chardonnays buttery and oaky, while others are crisp and citrusy?

It all has do with the fermentation process.

Chardonnay’s skin is green, but depending on how it is fermented, it can come out of the bottle with a rich golden yellow color, or a lighter, sun-kissed gold appearance.

All Chards go through a primary fermentation using stainless, concrete or wood containers. After this stage the wines may go through other secondary fermentation processes, depending on what type of Chardonnay the winemaker wants to make.

Stainless steel fermentation will produce wines with higher malic acids — this creates the apple and pear flavors.

Malic acid is not to be confused with malolactic fermentation. During this process winemakers inoculate the wine, which changes the crisp citric acids into the buttery lactic acids, which result in the rounder, fuller flavors. Inoculation happens when the winemaker places a specific strain of bacteria in the wine after primary fermentation.

Chardonnay grapes grown in cooler regions also tend to be higher in naturally occurring acids, including malic, tartaric, citric. (Winemakers call this “ph”). Wines made from these grapes can be the perfect candidate for malolactic fermentation.

In the end, malolactic fermentation produces a balance between the malic acids (flavors of apples and pears), citric acids (lemon and limes) and the buttery, full-mouth feel of the lactic acids.

We mentioned earlier about keeping Chardonnay “sur lie”. So what does this mean? This means the wines are left in barrels on the lees. And what are lees? They’re the dead yeast cells that fall to the bottom of the barrel after the yeast eats the sugar, which produces the alcohol during the primary fermentation process.

Leaving a wine sur lie gives it more depth and complexity. This also adds a toasty, nutty flavor to the wine. Keeping wines sur lie is a tricky process, and as a result there aren’t a lot of white grapes that go through this stage of fermentation.

Once done with the initial fermentation, Chardonnays go through another step: Barrel fermentation. This stage gives Chards that next level of complexity that other white wines may lack.

Fermenting the wine in barrels rather than stainless steel tanks produces a thicker, richer wine. The porous makeup of the wood allows wine to evaporate and become more concentrated, while also picking up flavors unique to the wood like cinnamon and vanilla.

Interestingly enough, barrel fermentation and oak aging — both processes used in Chardonnay production — are two different stages. (Brynn thought they were one in the same; Mary did too a couple of decades ago).

Barrel fermentation happens during primary fermentation over a roughly two week period when the yeast eats the sugar. Once primary fermentation is done, Chardonnay can be placed in oak barrels to age. The wine can remain in oak barrels for a long time, but most wineries cannot afford to keep their wines in the barrels for longer than a year.

The longer in the oak, the more the wine will develop those richer, nuttier flavors.

It’s this process that makes Chardonnay the queen of white wines — and what makes it just as complex as any red wine out there.

This complexity, and probably some good marketing, gave Chardonnay significant popularity in the 1980s. Incidentally people began to turn their backs on this complex white wine because of its popularity, often using the phrase “ABC”: Anything But Chardonnay.

Regardless of the backlash, Chardonnay has remained one of the most widely planted grape varieties in the world. There are 34 different clones, the most popular being the Dijon clone from Dijon, France. Chard produced in Dijon is aromatic and thanks to the migration of French winemakers to America, many of the Chards coming out of California and Oregon are made in a similar style.

Chardonnay has also seen local popularity. For the first time in state history Washington wine growers harvested more Chardonnay grapes than Riesling during in the 2009 harvest, bringing in 33,400 tons.

Do you have a favorite Chardonnay? Send us the name and why you love it. We want to know.

Cheers to you!

Brynn and Mary