Chardonnay, everyone knows it, everyone has an opinion of it. In fact, it’s the most divisive of all wines. It is so ubiquitous that hordes of people have decided they don’t like white wine after only being exposed to Chardonnay. Yet, it is without question, the world’s greatest white wine, or at least, it can be.
To understand Chardonnay, you first need to consider its roots (no pun intended). Chardonnay is White Burgundy, and White Burgundy is Chardonnay. With a few exceptions, this was the only place in the world Chardonnay was found until the last half of the 20th century. Burgundy, as it turns out is ideal for Chardonnay and its sister red grape, Pinot Noir. These 2 varieties like it very cold with a very long growing season. Burgundy is at 47°, the same as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The winters in Europe aren’t as harsh as they are here, but this should give you some idea of how long and cool the days are during growing season. As a result, chardonnay in Burgundy ripens with tons of acidity. As is commonplace, the acids in the wines are usually tamed by the introduction of oak and a secondary fermentation process called Malo-lactic Fermentation (or ml). M.L. turns malic acid (tastes like green apples) into lactic acid (main flavor in movie theater popcorn butter), this helps to develop the flavors and add complexity to these wines. The oak helps to round out the often harsh texture and further develop the wines. The result is a white wine with incredible balance, mouth cleansing acidity, a sensation of weightiness and a rich, luxurious texture. You say that doesn’t sound like the Chardonnay you’ve come to loathe (or love, depending on your tastes)? Well, that’s probably true, because the California version rarely resembles this.
The reason anyone knows the grape Chardonnay is because of 2 very different California Producers. Chardonnay wasn’t grown with any prominence outside of Burgundy (up until that point, only farmers referred to the grape name) until the famous Paris tasting of 1976, when Chateau Montelena of Napa Valley, bested all of the white burgundy producers one afternoon in Paris. The winemaker at the time, Mike Grgich, made a very small amount of Chardonnay with an extremely long and slow fermentation (developed the acids) and used only French oak. With this method he was able to emulate the Burgundian model, and fooled the judges into picking his wine as superior. In hindsight, many experts believe that this wouldn’t happen if repeated, but nonetheless, California Chardonnay was now on the map. The second contributor to today’s chardonnay was a little winery called Kendall Jackson. What winemaker Jed Steele did in “KJ’s” first vintage in 1982 revolutionized the world of wine. The first wine was to have been a blend of cool climate chardonnay from 6 different vineyards aged in small American oak barrels (American oak delivers flavors like vanilla and butterscotch, but can be overwhelming). Only one problem, during fermentation one of the batches stuck, which is to say that not all of the sugars were converted into alcohol. This is a winemaking mistake, and is now correctable, but for some reason, they decided to blend the unnaturally sweet batch in with the other batches to create what has now become the house style, and barely perceptibly sweet chardonnay with little resemblance to its French counterpart. The entire production sold out in 2 weeks. As it turns out, American consumers love chardonnay with a little sugar. This was a little known secret until 1991 when Steele wrote a tell-all book about his years at KJ, and his happy mistake. KJ sued him, but now, California wineries had the recipe to KJ’s early success and many followed suit, and follow suit today. In addition to the highly unorthodox winemaking style, wineries in California planted the grape everywhere. The predominant California style has turned into a wine that is oaky and buttery, with sweet fruit flavors. Now, it can handle most climates, and this is one of the attractions for producing Chardonnay. Some wineries are making chardonnay the way they do in burgundy, and are using Burgundy as the guide. And others are using no oak and no ML to result in a completely different style altogether.
Today you can find Chardonnay in every wine growing country in the world, in every climate. If you don’t think you like Chardonnay (or white wine for that matter), you may be leaving opportunity on the table, and there are many different styles out there that hardly resemble one another. Keep trying new styles, one day you will find one you like. And if you’re lucky, like me, the greatest wine you will ever taste will be a Chardonnay, for me it was a 1991 Louis Latour Corton-Charlemagne.