Serious Grape: Chardonnay 101

On Fridays, Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20 drops by with Serious Grape. This week, she explores Chardonnays.

20081024-seriouschardonnay.jpgChardonnay is one of the world's most popular grapes. If you love Chardonnay, you love it a lot. But many people are tired of drinking white wine that tastes like a) buttered popcorn b) toothpicks c) licking a piece of firewood. They're the ones who have joined the "ABC" Club (Anything But Chardonnay), and refuse to touch the stuff.

I think that's a bit extreme. But I understand why the variety of winemaking styles, the overproduction, and the bewildering range of options might make you wary.

Because of its popularity there is a lot--and I mean a lot--of Chardonnay in the market. Some of it is buttery, some citrusy, and some oaky. As a consumer, how can you tell what's inside the bottle based on what's outside the bottle? More importantly, how can you find a bottle of Chardonnay that suits your taste buds given how much is sitting on the shelves?

Today I've got some tips on how to figure out which Chardonnay you might like to drink before you've taken the plunge and taken a bottle home. I've also got some specific recommendations for Chardonnays that are in the market now that represent different styles and countries of origins--yet can all be had for under about $20

Reading a Chardonnay Label

Alcohol: The first thing you want to look at is the alcohol level of the wine. With Chardonnay, these go anywhere from 12% alcohol by volume to a whopping 15% alcohol by volume. That doesn't sound like much of a difference, but it is.

The more alcohol is in a wine, the bigger and richer the taste. So if you like your Chardonnays light and fruity, lower alcohol Chardonnays (13.5% and lower) are probably going to be more pleasing to you. One that I've liked recently is the 2007 Vignerons des Terres Secrètes Mâcon-Villages Chateau du Charnay from Burgundy. This wine had aromas and flavors of pear, apple, sour cream and a touch of bitterness like grapefruit pith in the aftertaste. This was fresh and subtle, and a great deal for just under $19. (Imported by Vins Gagliardi-Allard).

Malolactic Fermentation: When you see this on a wine label it means the wine will have an almost creamy sensation in your mouth. Malolactic fermentation is a process where the sharp acidity of a wine is converted to a softer acid, which results in a buttery taste in Chardonnay. If you like your Chardonnays creamy and buttery, look or ask for a wine that's undergone this type of fermentation. An excellent choice would be the 2006 Dry Creek Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay. With flavors of apples, citrus, peach, and cream, half of the juice in this wine underwent malolectic fermentation, but all of the juice was aged for nine months in French oak, which accounts for the wine's nuttiness. (sample; widely available for $9-$22)

Oak: This is where the labels can get confusing. Some Chardonnay is fermented in stainless steel and sees no oak. These are the crispest, most citrusy types of Chardonnay. It's far more typical, however, for Chardonnays to spend some of their time in oak barrels during the fermentation and aging process. What kind of oak is important, however.

Neutral oak gives a Chardonnay some body and richness, but no oaky flavor. French oak tends to make Chardonnay even more buttery. American oak makes Chardonnay taste more of vanilla. And if an oak barrel is charred, then the wine will take on a smoky, toasted taste. The size of the barrels and the length of time the wine spent in them influences how pronounced the oak influence is on the wine. The 2006 Frei Brothers Reserve Chardonnay spends three months in a mixture of French and American oak after malolactic fermentation is complete. The result is a wine that is nicely balanced between creaminess and freshness, with aromas and flavors of pear, apple, cream, and vanilla. (sample; widely available for $11-$21) The 2006 Matchbook Chardonnay from California's Dunnigan Hills region, in contrast, was aged for seven months in French oak. Its mouth-coating flavors of rich apple and sour cream are bold and pair nicely with an oaky edge in the wine, making this perfect for their Chardonnays rich with a hint of oak flavor. (sample; widely available for $11-$19) The 2007 Finca Las Moras Chardonnay Reserva from Argentina, was aged for 12 months in a combination of French and American oak. This produced a wine with aromas and flavors of apples, vanilla cream, and oak in a round, integrated package that will appeal to lovers of full-bodied Chardonnay. (sample of a new release; expect to see it soon for around $12)

As you can see, there is a Chardonnay for every taste and pocketbook. So don't join the ABC Club. Instead, with a few pieces of basic information, you will be able to find a Chardonnay that's perfect for you.