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Tannic Panic! Issue #26: Trust Me, You Like Chardonnay.
Thought you didn’t like Chardonnay? Think again. There's a style out there for everyone.
If you’re like most people, you probably think you don’t like Chardonnay. NEWS FLASH – LIKE MOST PEOPLE, YOU’RE WRONG!
Chardonnay is actually an incredibly versatile grape variety that can be made in a wide range of styles (LIKE ME!). This is because it is suited for growing in a range of climates, and due to its relatively neutral varietal character, it is something of a blank canvas for winemakers to play around with. In other words, it’s not always a smack in the face with a splintery wooden plank slathered in butter (but it can be, if you’re into that sort of “play”).
Today we’re going to walk you through some of the factors that influence the style of Chardonnay in the bottle (and often the price), and by the time we’re done with you, REST ASSURED you will have no trouble finding the perfect Chard for your fickle little palate.
And as always, in case you’re still over there trembling in your microscopic boots with anxiety about where to start, we’ve pulled together a handful of great bargain recs that cover a range of styles so you can taste the truth for yourself.
THAT DARN CLIMATE…
Ah, the great Chardonnay climate debate: is it hot or is it not? This is not just about whether or not you should bundle up your knobby little knees while you’re sipping your wine. Climate plays a huge role in the characteristics of the wine in your glass. Here’s a little crash course on the differences between warm-climate Chardonnay and cool-climate Chardonnay that won't make your brain feel like it's fermenting.
Warm Climate Chardonnay: The Angry Tropical Baby
Think of warm climate Chardonnay as that friend who always has a tan, even in December. These grapes are the life of the party, grown in regions that are kissed by the sun more often than an angry baby at a family reunion.
Places like California's Napa Valley, parts of Australia, South America, and South Africa (AMONG OTHERS) have generally warmer climates with lots of sun, which allow the grapes to ripen to their fullest, bringing out rich, ripe, fruit-forward flavors.
Fruitier: You'll get riper and more tropical fruit notes — like peaches, pineapples, mangos, and maybe even some banana action. It's like a discount fruit salad in a glass, if that fruit salad decided to become wine.
Richer: These Chardonnays are often fuller in body than their cool climate cousins. They can feel a bit heavier, and coat your mouth like… liquid velvet (THE GOOD KIND).
Higher Alcohol: The extra sunshine helps the grapes develop more sugar, which IPSO FACTO ferments into higher alcohol content.
Cool Climate Chardonnay: The Elegant Intellectual (BUT ALSO ANGRY) Baby
On the other side of the thermometer, we have cool climate Chardonnay, the poised and sophisticated one. These grapes hail from cooler regions, like Burgundy in France, Oregon, and parts of New Zealand. These wines frequent boutique coffee shops wearing tweed jackets so they can pretend read classic literature.
Crisper: Cool climate Chardonnay tends to have higher acidity (as a general rule, cooler climates preserve acidity in grapes and warmer climates cause acid levels to drop more quickly as the grapes ripen), which gives it a refreshing, crisp taste. Like biting into a freshly plucked Granny Smith apple on a brisk autumn afternoon. Yum.
Minerality: Ever licked a wet stone? ME TOO! That's kind of the vibe cool climate Chardonnay goes for. It’s all about those mineral notes, man.
Subtler Flavors: Instead of the tropical fruit bonanza, cool climate Chardonnay offers more restrained flavors like apple, lemon, and pear. It’s the understated elegance to warm climate’s Mardi Gras parade.
It’s worth noting that while we’ve listed a handful of regions for reference with generally warmer or cooler climates, you’ll often find microclimates within these broader regions that yield noticeably different styles. The trends for warm vs cool climate profiles still applies, but it may be more nuanced. We’ve illustrated this very phenomenon with some of our recommendations today.
Of course, climate ain’t the whole story, meow. Let’s not forget about the winemaker's dilemma – to oak or not to oak? To Malolactic fermentationify the stuffs, or keep it malic? These choices can take the basic personality of the Chardonnay and give it a whole new wardrobe.
We could grumble on for months, IF NOT WEEKS, discussing this, but for these purposes we’ll keep it brief-ish.
The use of oak does several things. Firstly, they allow some controlled oxidation to occur, which will soften the acidity a bit and round out the flavors. Secondly, oak imparts some of its own flavors and tannins into the wine if the barrels are new (or have seen relatively little use). A few common new oak flavors include vanilla, coconut and toast. Oak barrels may also literally be toasted over a flame before use, and the degree of toasting will effect the character of the flavors imparted into the wine. As you may have guessed, more toast means more toast.
New oak barrels can be expensive, so sometimes to cut costs when producing cheaper oaked Chardonnays, the winemaker will simply add oak chips into the tank or barrel, which can mimic to some extent the effects of aging in new oak, but is often less balanced. For this reason, it is worth noting that you can generally find better quality unoaked Chardonnay at a low price point than oaked.
To achieve a fruitier, fresher style that more purely showcases the characteristics of the fruit, the winemaker may choose to use neutral (or USED) barrels, or to simply avoid to use of oak entirely.
Bing bang boom.
Malolactic Fermentation, or “MLF” (ahem) — sometimes called Malolactic Conversion, or “MLC” — is a process that will naturally occur in wine if not prevented by the winemaker. When allowed to occur, lactic acid bacteria will convert the naturally occurring malic acid in the wine to lactic acid. Malic acid is sharper and often gives more of a green apple character to the wines, while lactic acid is softer, and can give a rounder, creamier texture to the wine, along with notes of butter, cream and cheese.
An oaked cool climate Chardonnay that underwent MLF might still have some of that green apple character with a more creamy, toasty vibe, while an unoaked warm climate one can be surprisingly zippy and fresh. It’s a game of mix and match baby!
Let’s dive into the juice.
… AND NOW FOR THE REVIEWS (IN ORDER OF PRICE):
2022 Cloud Break Unoaked California Chardonnay / 88 Points / $9 [VALUE PICK!]
Profile: Mango, apricot, cantaloupe, crushed rocks, bubblegum, citrus peel, rubber
This one was way better than expected for under $10. Completely unoaked, with no evidence of MLF, dry, and medium bodied with a decent length finish, but a slight bitterness on the aftertaste. Showed some ripe fruits, chalky minerality and a hint of bubblegum.
A bit more acidity would really kick this into gear, but overall this is a fantastic find at this price point and delivers much better quality dollar for dollar than you’d get from an oaked chard from the same area.
2021 Ocean and Vines Chablis, Burgundy / 87 Points / $17
Profile: Granny smith apple, underripe pear, lemon, lime, wet stone.
Ah Chablis — if you’ve never heard of, or tried one, this is often the style of Chardonnay that breaks down the walls of long time naysayers. Hailing from the coolest, most northerly subregion of Burgundy (actually geographically closer to Champagne than any other part of Burgundy), these wines seldom see oak (though there are exceptions among the highest quality examples), and they are typically very high in acidity, mineral, and express the freshest, greenest fruit flavors in the spectrum.
This puppy is no exception — dry, incredibly high acid, medium- body and a decent length finish. Shows the characteristic green apple, pear, citrus fruit, and of course, wet stone.
Keep in mind that Chablis is an intrinsically expensive region for production, so when shooting for a lower price point, the quality may suffer more dollar for dollar than some of your other options. We’ve recommended a bottle under $20 for you here today, but if you have a bigger budget — Try this instead!
2021 River Road Chardonnay, Sonoma County, CA / 89 points / $18
Profile: Golden apple, lemon curd, orange peel, pineapple, mango, subtle smoke, vanilla and hints of toasty oak
Wildly different from its unoaked Cloud Break counterpart. This puppy shows flavors that straddle the line between the tropical character of a warmer climate and some of that restrained citrus and apple character of a cooler climate Chard. With clear evidence of toasted oak, this one embodies the California Chardonnay style, without being one of those buttery oak bombs that ruined the variety for so many nascent drinkers.
Pretty nice balance and a medium length finish.
2021 Domaine Luquet “Les Mulots” Mâcon-Villages Chardonnay / 91+ Points / $25
Profile: Blue cheese, fennel, golden apples, jasmine, ripe pears, ripe white peach, honeydew melon, strawberries and cream (believe it!), wet stone
We showed you a Chablis from the far north of Burgundy — well now we’re swooping down to the far south end of the region to a little area called Mâcon-Villages. Down here, the climate is a bit warmer, and the style is vastly different from its northern counterpart. For one thing, winemaking techniques are commonly used to enhance the flavors and add complexity to the wines, and of course, as we discussed AT LENGTH, the varietal character begins to teeter slightly into the warmer climate zone (though Burgundy is overall a relatively cool climate).
I concede, we’ve broken into the $25 bottle range, but man have we found something that breaks from the mold of the other examples today. Very interesting and complex with developing aromas that transform in the glass, initially showing some hints of blue cheese (likely a sign of MLF), in concert with ripe fruits — white peach, golden apples, and even strawberries which are rarely a white wine note! — a hint of fennel, jasmine, and wet stone. Great concentration of flavor, and beautifully balanced with a long finish.
All in all this is a really interesting wine that doesn’t overdo it on secondary characteristics (flavors introduced by those wine making decisions we discussed), and if oak was used, it’s seamlessly integrated into the tapestry of flavors.
Pair with strawberries and cream.
Looking for an alternative from the same region that comes in at the $20 price point? Try this instead!
TLDR: You like Chardonnay. It’s not a one trick pony, and if you have repeatedly used the blanket statement, “I don’t like Chardonnay,” we hope THOSE DAYS ARE BEHIND YOU.
There’s something out there for each and every one of you maniacs.
Until next time, HAPPY DRINKING PEOPLE.
Isaac & Zach
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