Chardonnay is a grape that is very sensitive to the terroir
is which it is grown - soil, sunshine, temperature, and moisture all help
determine the flavors and acidity levels of the wine. In hotter conditions,
tropical fruit flavors like pineapple and fig will be more prominent. In cooler
spots, apple and pear flavors will be more common.
The winemaker then has an enormous role, probably more than with any other
New oak, old oak, small barrels, giant casks, cement tanks, stainless steel -
each of these methods impart different flavors. The winemaker has to choose
which to use, and how much of each. A winemaker who uses 100% small
American Oak barrels will give her Chardonnay a distinct, rather strong, oak
flavor. Wine make in 100% stainless steel will have none of the vanilla and
spice that only come from oak.
Malo-lactic fermentation (just malo, for short) is a term you may hear in
regard to Chardonnay. It's the process by which malic acid is converted to
lactic acid. Malic acid is stonger than lactic acid, and thus more tart. The
softer lactic acid is found in milk (you don't think of milk as acidic) and
contributes some of the buttery taste associated with some Chardonnay.
The larger contributor to the buttery flavor comes from one of the by-products
of malo. It is up to the winemaker whether or not to allow malo in all, some or
none of the wine.
As an example, the 2006 Grgich Hills Napa Valley Chardonnay never undergoes
malo but is fermented and aged 10 months in oak. Of that, 30% is in new, small,
French oak barrels, 60% in older, neutral oak barrels, and 10% is aged in 900
gallon casks. Grown in the coolest areas of Napa,
the wine is full of peach, pear and citrus flavors more reminiscent of Burgundy than of California.
The acidity is high, meaning the wine tastes drier (more about the definitions
of sweet and dry here) than most California Chards. There is a definite oak
infuence, but it isn't as oaky as previous Grgich Chardonnays. As usual, Grgich
Chardonnay is one of the best to come from California.