Tag Archives: chardonnay

Big Bold Chardonnay

Big, bold Chardonnays represent California’s gift to the wine world. Not even France can compete in terms of big, exotic and intense Chardonnay. California’s long warm growing season makes that style the likeliest to occur. And why fight it? People enjoy wines of this sort.

The long warm growing season stands as one element in producing this type of Chardonnay. Chardonnays with alcohol topping 14% stand as the norm in Cakifornia. Malo-lactic fermentation contributes another element in the drama. What makes malo-lactic fermentation important? It converts malic acid to lactic acid.

The term malic means pertaining to apples. Malic acid gives an appley aroma to wines, just as it does to apples. Malic acid may be something a winemaker would like to feature. In Riesling, that apple freshness (undistracted by oak) produces the signal charm of the best Riesling. The unoaked Chardonnays we see now are well-served by retention of malic acid.

Lactic acid, on the other hand, produces a milky aroma, hence its name. From lactic acid we get those lush buttery tones in Chardonnay. Malo-lactic fermentation occurs naturally but winemakers can induce it with certain bacteria with long names. Along with imparting that buttery element, malo-lactic fermentation softens the acidity. The result, a rounder, fuller mouth feel.

Chardonnays take particularly well to malo-lactic fermentation. Chardonnay’s rather neutral character gains depth and texture, especially in conjunction with the oak element. Winemakers usually forgo malo in red wines, where its effect seems more of an intrusion.Winemakers can put all lots of a wine through malo, or only portions, or none at all, depending on what they wish to accomplish.

Other elements to the full scale chardonnay include yeast selection and oak aging. Winemakers impart subtle nuances depending on which yeast varieties they use. They might use different yeasts for different lots. They might let wild yeasts work their magic, though in a controlled way. Winemakers have many tools at their discretion, including discretion.

Use of oak can vary greatly. A winemaker might ferment and age in barrel,which imparts flavors of oak and oxidation, or in neutral stainless steel. They can choose between new oak barrels, which impart strong oak flavor, or old oak barrels that produce less effect. They can choose between American or French barrels, each having its own distinctive flavor element. Different lots can be treated differently, then blended.

Here are some big, dramatic, satisfying Chardonnay to try.

  • Patz and Hall
  • Rombauer
  • Dumol
  • Cakebread
  • Plumpjack
  • Far Niente

Great for holiday meals, holiday gifts, and any sort of celebration.



The chardonnay grape does not lack renown. It is the second most popular grape on the planet, in terms of acreage devoted to it. It not only grows virtually everywhere, it thrives, producing many of the world’s best wines. What’s its secret?

Before considering that question, it would be remiss not to note what wine grape tops chardonnay in acreage planted. That’s right, airén. Okay, maybe you were expecting something else. Airén grows in Spain and basically nowhere else. It is a workhorse (obviously) of no particular distinction.
The same could almost be said of chardonnay. In terms of flavor, chardonnay stands rather neutral. In the way that coffee derives much of its flavor from the roast, so chardonnay gains its distinction by how it was grown and vinified. Specific mineral qualities of the vineyard come through with chardonnay more than other wine grapes. Flavors derived from oak barrels greatly expand chardonnay’s flavor spectrum. And malo-lactic fermentation (not really a fermentation but a conversion) adds chardonnay’s familiar buttery quality.
Basically, then, the chardonnay grape allows vintners a spectrum of choices: from light and crisp to rich and buttery, What’s your pleasure?

At one time, the grape was called pinot chardonnay, under the belief that it was related to its august colleague in both Burgundy and Champagne, pinot noir. Here we enter the murky field of ampelography, which concerns the identification and classification of grape vines. Through DNA testing, we know now that chardonnay is a cross between gouais blanc and a member of the pinot family, possibly pinot noir. Grapes mutate readily,which keeps ampelographers busy but makes definitive statements difficult.
In medieval times, pinot noir and pinot gris held the highest esteem as wine grapes. The nobility drank the wines from these choice varieties. The thin, acidic wines of gouais blanc were what the peasantry drank. Phylloxera pretty much eradicated gouais blanc from vineyards, but its illustrious offspring survives and thrives.

Chardonnay grows in virtually every wine producing region. Wente Vineyards introduced the clone that began California’s interest in chardonnay The famous tasting in 1976, pitting American wines against French ones, stunningly established that world class chardonnay (and cabernet sauvignon) could be produced outside of France. Chateau Montelena’s chardonnay scored top honors against Burgundies from such producers as Leflaive, Drouhin, and Roulot. Chardonnay’s popularity soared.

The following wines illustrate chardonnay’s world-trotting success and its vast range of styles, from light and fruity to crisp and flinty to big and buttery.

Crane Lake, $4.49 (California)
Yellow Tail, 7.99 (Australia)
Excelsior, $9.99 (South Africa)
Sterling Vintner’s Collection, $10.99 (California)
Chateau Ste Michelle, $13.99 (Washington)
Catena, $17.99 (Argentina)
Wente Vineyards, $19.99 (California)
Drouhin Chablis Moulin de Vaudon, $24.99 (France)
Kistler, $59.99 (California)