Chardonnay still brings this to most minds:
Butter. Cloying, yellow richness in a glass. But is it the grape’s fault?
Once alcoholic fermentation is finished, winemakers can add lactic acid bacteria (e.g. Oenococcus oeni, and Lactobacillus and Pediococcus species) to wine. Tart malic acid (think apples) converts into softer lactic acid (think milk). Winemakers employ this malolactic fermentation to soften reds and whites. Yet byproducts ensue.
Diacetyl is one leftover of malolactic fermentation (headache-inducing hystamines are another: see my article). You may not realize it, but diacetyl is already a familiar friend. Margarine, popcorn and the worst-jelly-beans-known-to-humanity would taste bland without the chemical. Even most reds we buy see malolactic fermentation.
Chardonnay also tastes fairly neutral alone. It tends toward green fruits and citrus in cool climates, white melon in moderate climates, and pineapple in the warmer. Because it can grow in most wine regions, it has a prestigious French past, Americans can pronounce it, and it is malleable to blending and oak aging, chardonnay became the world’s second most planted grape (behind Spain’s airén).
Branded as buttery, chardonnay rose in popularity with the 1980s, replaced other vines throughout Australia, California and South America, and fell with Bridget Jones wallowing her misery in a big glass of yellow.
Born into this trend, I also grew tired of drinking butter. But we only had ourselves (and wine-critics) to blame. We bought the butter; and wine makers made more. Now, producers heed our turn to pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc, cutting oak and malolactic to varying degrees. This has spawned a panoply of relabeled chards: “unoaked“, “oak free“, “sans oak”, “virgin chardonnay”, “naked chardonnay”, “acero”, “inox”, “un-barrel fermented” et cetera. Brands are desperate to win us back and save acres of vine investments.
But we need not go cold turkey for the sake of avoiding public approbation. Some oak can do wonders to chardonnay. Like renewing vows, we need rediscover how Chardonnay and oak first married.
It starts in Burgundy. Probably. In north-eastern France, oak provided a cheap, local, renewable resource for fermenting, storing, and moving wine. Malolactic bacteria hid on reused wood and made wine into butter.
Smart monks could have fixed this. But Burgundy is a cold, wet, miserable place. Its grapes ripen but retain loads of acid and green fruit flavors (try Chablis). Malolactic fermentation softened the edge and added complexity. Like melting butter and then squeezing lemon on a filet of fish, not overdoing each can lead to perfection.
Most soft, willfully dulled, butter-stick chards suck because the grapes come from warm climates, picked at full ripeness. Citric balance was not possible (unless added as powder). Nor wanted. New wine drinkers downed them because acidic wines take food or practice to get used to: neither of which newbies want. We, like Bridget, wanted a cocktail that took us from sober to drunk as gently and thoughtlessly as possible.
So do not blame chardonnay for butter. But also do not buy into the “un-oaked” mania producers want to shove down our throats. Instead, go back to the source. Try chards from cooler climates like Burgundy, Oregon, or New York, or high elevation or coastal sites where acid and oak find friendship.
If you do not like them, find food and keep trying. Butter bombs can comfort a bad workday. Sharp Chablis can make magic with seafood. Balanced Bourgogne can liven a wide range of dishes and cheeses. You will find that each chardonnay can have a place.