• Last week I talked about pairing food with wine. I’ll come back to that in a future blog, but I was asked a question today that I’d like to touch on. How come some Chardonnays I absolutely love and others I can’t stand? They’re all the same grape so why are they so different even in the same price range?

    I’ve talked about how different regions have different growing and vinifying styles, but not about what a wine maker can do to make the wines taste so different. Aside from where the grapes are grown having an effect on wine—the choices made once one has a set growing area can affect the wine enormously. With Chardonnay in particular, what the vintner does to a wine can have a drastic effect on what the wine tastes like.

    Some imbue richness, more complexity, higher acidity or specific fruit components in the nose and palate of the wine.

    Often, especially in California, wine makers will age the wine in oak barrels to impart specific flavors in the wine (caramel, vanilla, butterscotch, spice and cinnamon among others.) Malolactic fermentation (also known as MLF or malo for short) is another process that is used to change the taste, body and flavor of Chardonnay.  Malo is a process that the wine undergoes as a result of a particular bacteria that converts malic acid (an acid found in grapes that can give wine a puckering tartness) into lactic acid (an acid commonly found in milk.) This changes the wine from a crisp, tart acidic wine to one that is rich and creamy.  In a warmer climate the grapes can be left on the vine a little while longer ripening fuller and giving an even richer, fuller body.

    At this point the vintner has taken a fruity, crisp, light bodied white wine and produced a big, creamy, heavy on the tongue, wine that tastes more like butterscotch or apple pie than lemons, green apples and citrus fruits. That’s not all folks!! Act now and we’ll throw in select clones, lees aging, cold fermentation, barrel fermentation, concrete fermenting tanks, blending grapes and multiple harvests just to confuse you.

    When growing Chardonnay (or any grape varietal for that matter) one might notice that a particular vine is expressing characteristics that differ from vines around it. It may have bigger grapes, quicker ripening, or a slightly different taste. Take cuttings from this vine and replant them. You now have a clone. The most common clones in California are Wente, 108 and a number of Dijon clones. Some imbue richness, more complexity, higher acidity or specific fruit components in the nose and palate of the wine.

    Lees aging (often called sur lie, French for “on the lees”) is becoming a more common way to manipulate the end product. Lees is the name given to the leftover matter that falls to the bottom of the tank or barrel after fermentation. This matter is typically dead yeast (yeast is a micro-organism that changes the sugars present in grapes into alcohol.) When the lees are left in contact with the wine they add aromas and structure often toasty or nutty in flavor.

    When fermenting directly in an oak barrel as opposed to a stainless steel tank the dominant oak imparted flavors tend to be more integrated and subtle albeit at the cost of a more intensive laborious process. Fermenting wine in a large tank with temperature controls and a remote control monitoring system is far easier (and more consistent) than watching over many small barrels.

    Sometimes Chardonnay is blended with other grape varietals like Semillon that softens the wine making it smoother and at times helps balance the flavor profile. The rules and regulations for blending wine change from place to place, but in California a winery can add up to 15% or more (depending on designation) without even telling you.

    In warmer wine growing regions grapes tend to ripen fast giving bolder fruit, color and body with one big drawback… the acidity is really low and the wine can lack complexity coming off “flabby.” To circumvent this problem some wine makers will do a partial harvest early giving the grapes a higher acidity, and blend it with the later harvest to combine big fruit with bright acidity.

    Fermenting Chardonnay at a forced cooler temperature often brings out more dominate tropical flavors like banana, pineapple and mango.

    I’ve now taken a rich, creamy, butterscotched Chard and brought back some crisp acidity, nuttiness, tropical fruit and balance. Its amazing how much can be done to a wine through wine making styles. I’ve just given a quick overview of a lot of these methods in an effort to explain how Chardonnay can taste so different from bottle to bottle even though it is the same grape.

    -Jonathan Hood