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About Chardonnay

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 grape.

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.

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