California chardonnay is America’s favorite wine, and it makes up 21 percent of that state’s sales compared to only 12 percent for cabernet sauvignon.
A big reason is its chameleon-like character. The chardonnay grape is sort of a blank slate, leaving ambitious winemakers lots of ways to apply their genius.
For a while, this got out of hand, producing chards that were too big, too sweet, too oaky, too soft, almost like alcoholic candy — overpowering any foods with which they were served. It even produced an ABC movement — “anything but chardonnay.”
Today those winemakers have toned things down, giving California chardonnays back some of their balance and subtlety. But it’s interesting to see some of the legitimate tricks the growers and winemakers use.
First, growers can let the grapes hang longer and pick them riper. This creates bigger flavors, but also produces more sugar in each grape. And since sugar and yeast combine to produce alcohol, many California chards even today are more than 14 percent alcohol, while many European chards are closer to 12 percent. Franciscan Estate’s Carneros Chardonnay, for example, is 14.5 percent alcohol.
Second, California chardonnay growers seek to preserve the natural grape acids that give wines their crispness by growing them in cool areas. Antica Estate Chardonnay, made in Napa Valley by the Italian wine giant Antinori, is grown in a cool, high-elevation valley at 1,450 feet. Gloria Ferrer’s chardonnay is grown in Carneros, the southern end of Sonoma County that is cooled by fogs from nearby San Pablo Bay. Sonoma’s Russian River Valley is another cool area.
Next, many, even most California winemakers ferment their chardonnays in French or American oak barrels, while the average New Zealand sauvignon blanc and Italian pinot grigio is fermented in neutral stainless steel tanks. The oak softens the wines and adds flavors of vanilla and spice. Some wineries use 100 percent new oak barrels for maximum effect; others use 25 percent to 30 percent for subtler changes.
Big differences also can be created by the choice of yeasts for fermentation. Franciscan Estate Chardonnay in Napa Valley uses only the wild, native yeasts occurring naturally in their vineyards. They call it “Cuvee Sauvage,” which is French for wild or natural blend.
After that first fermentation in oak barrels, many California chardonnay makers put their wines through a secondary “malolactic fermentation.” This changes the wine’s sharp malic acids to softer lactic acids like those in milk, softening the wine and adding a rich, buttery flavor.
Then most California chardonnays are aged in oak barrels to add even more richness, spice and toast.
When you put it all together it gets complicated. Gloria Ferrer Carneros Chardonnay, for example, is 100 percent barrel-fermented and aged nine months is medium-toast French oak barrels, 27 percent of which are new. And about 30 percent of the wine gets secondary malolactic fermentation.
Morgan Winery in California’s Monterey County, on the other hand, makes its 2011 “Metallico Un-Oaked Chardonnay” without a splinter of oak in fermenting or aging. It also gets no malolactic fermentation. It gets five months aging in stainless steel tanks. Winemakers there are seeking the crispest, fruitiest wine they can make.