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Chardonnay: It Isn’t Always What You Think

Often times people will describe their taste in wine, and when they describe their ideal white wine, they will say “I like Chardonnay”. Of course, there are a growing number of wine drinkers that are saying “ABC” or “Anything But Chardonnay” a backlash to the prevalence of the wine, but that is another matter. This very commonly used grape is used broadly across California, France and Australia, but while it may be similar in being grown, what comes to consumers in the bottle is often different than they might expect.

California Chardonnay is what most Americans reckon of when they describe their taste in the wine. California Chardonnay is commonly (but not always) described as creamy, buttery, oaky, with vanilla and honey notes. The main reason for this is really in the fermentation process. The secondary fermentation process is called Malolactic Fermentation. Here, the sharper, more tart acid, Malic acid, through the presence of bacteria, is converted into a richer and more buttery feel.

This process of Malolactic Fermentation occurs after the primary fermentation wherein the grape juice becomes alcohol. When it happens in oak barrels, primarily new oak barrels, this does a few things to the taste and body of the wine. It makes the wine more of the vanilla, honey and oaky feel that some wines possess. When the malolactic fermentation occurs in tank, and not in oak, the wine often retains more of the acidity and crispness that had been present post the primary fermentation of the wine.

Also, pending on the amount of new oak that is used, and the types of oak, French or American Oak, can give a different taste to the wine. Generally, the more new oak barrels that are used, the greater the amount of new oak taste in the wine. If there is too much oakiness, the wine can taste “woody”, an attribute that is far from positive. Some winemakers use some barrels that are not new, to have less of the oaky consistency, or blend the wine that has been through malolactic fermentation in oak with some that has gone through the process in tank, to try and gain a small more balance.

California Chardonnay has oft been accused of being too sweet, or over-oaked, while many Americans find that French chardonnays are more crisp, dry or acidic than they like or are used to. Australian Chardonnays often lean to the side of oaky, but to know what style you prefer, it comes down to tasting. Not all the wines from each of these regions possess the attributes they are often accused of, so beware of judging before you know for sure. But by thinking about the attributes you prefer, you can skew your purchasing pattern to reflect what you like about the wine.

Robert E. Enslein, Jr., is Managing Member of Brix Wine Vault, LLC, a wine storage company based in New York City. Brix is a professional quality wine storage facility that serves individuals, retailers, restaurants as well as wholesale customers. Learn more at brixwinevault.com/ brixwinevault.com

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