I count myself fortunate to have the chore of tasting a lot of wine. In the thirty-five years or so that I’ve been tasting wine – the last fifteen quite seriously – I’ve seen quality improve at an absolutely amazing rate, and I’ve seen trends come and go. From the Sideways effect to Moscato’s meteoric rise and almost equally dramatic flame-out, forces that affect the wine marketplace keep interesting products coming across my desk. Additionally, continued innovation in practice keeps widening possibilities for winemakers all over the world, perhaps nowhere more so than here in the wild west where a pioneering spirit remains intact. One particular grape seems to remain constant in the quantity that I see, though it has traveled quite a stylistic arc over the years. So, that said, I’m warning you ABC (Anything but Chardonnay) club members right up front: I’m about to talk about domestic Chardonnay and why I think it’s one of the most exciting frontiers in the wine world.
First, a (very) brief history. Chardonnay of course is the noble white grape of France, performing exceedingly well in the center of the country from Champagne in the north, moving through Chablis and south through the Côte d’Or and Mâcon. This area alone makes an irrefutable argument for the ability of the variety to shine in different climates and different winemaking styles. If you’ve branched out from California wine at all, you’ve likely experienced some of the greatness of the variety from its homeland.
In California, the grape got a foothold in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, thanks to work by Wente Vineyards, who developed what is now known as the “Old Wente Clone,” and it gained a measure of fame in the ‘70’s after Chateau Montelena won Stephen Spurrier’s famed “Judgement of Paris” blind tasting against famed competition with its 1973 Chardonnay. In the 1980’s, malolactic fermentation of Chardonnay came into wide use in California with brands like Kendall Jackson and Rombauer driving the market toward oaky, buttery wines. Which more or less brings us to today. Of course, the variety succeeds in other lands as well, like Australia, South Africa, and Argentina, to name just a few.
So, what’s so exciting about the variety today that I’m spending time to talk about it here? Over the past few years, I’m noticing some trends in what’s being put in front of me to taste, and the result is a lot more Chardonnay that for me is downright pleasurable across the stylistic spectrum. The main trends are, in general: lower alcohol, brighter acidity, and less use of malolactic fermentation.
Let’s start with lower alcohol. Remember, alcohol level is a winemaking choice that’s based mainly on the ripeness (read, sugar content) of the grapes at harvest. The more sugar present when fermentation begins, the more alcohol ends up in the wine, so picking the grapes a little earlier in their development makes a big difference in the final wine. Through the 90’s and into the ‘10’s, Chardonnay alcohols were typically in the mid 14% range, and have been trending steadily down over the last five years or so.
Brighter acidity is generally related to ripeness in a similar way – as the sugar level rises in the grape, the natural acidity falls. A good way to check on where your tastes lie is to check out a winery tech sheet on a favorite bottle and see where a few numbers are sitting - specifically the alcohol, the pH, and the TA. You likely recall the pH scale from school, where 7 is a neutral liquid, over 7 is toward alkaline, and under 7 is toward acidic. Most wine lands somewhere around 3.5 pH, which means all wine is certainly acidic, though some are more acidic than others. TA, or total (or titratable) acidity usually rides somewhere between .5% and .8% in wine, with the higher end of the scale referring to more total acidity. To be sure, there are other factors involved in what makes for a favorite bottle, but these two numbers in particular are solid indicators.
Malolactic fermentation, in short, is the conversion of sharper malic acid into softer lactic acid and is a natural occurrence in the full fermentation process of wine. While almost all red wines are allowed to complete this conversion, many white wines are prevented from going through “malo” by temperature control or enzymes that effectively stop the fermentation. Careful filtering and cold stabilization processes are used to prevent malo from starting in the bottle of finished wine, and a “no malo” wine is typically fresh and bright as opposed to rich and soft. I’m seeing more and more examples of partial malolactic fermentation Chardonnay, where winemakers put some of the fruit through full malo, stop some of the fruit short, and situate some in the middle, giving them a huge palette to draw from when making the final blend and so capturing the best of all worlds.
Here’s where the fun on the Chardonnay frontier begins. Winemakers today have such a combination of collective experience, scientific knowledge and technological advancement that they can safely experiment with these “big three” items and embrace vintage variations while still producing a range of styles. While you can still find what we used to call “butterball and oak bomb” Chardonnay if that’s your preference, the whole category seems to have pulled the throttle back on what some would call opulent and other would call overwrought styles. Even Rombauer seems to have reigned in their bold style – I think to positive effect.
All this thought that’s been bouncing around my mind sort of came to a head for me in two bottles tasted blind in last year's recent Critics Challenge International Wine Competition. Of the hundred or so bottles of Chardonnay evaluated, two rose well above the competition—from quite opposite sides of the varietal flavor spectrum. Interestingly, both wines ring the alcohol bell at 13.5%, fitting the downward trend I’ve been seeing (...and both remain on offer from the winery that made them).
Note the details listed under the reviews in the context of what was discussed above:
2018 Kenwood Vineyards “The Barn” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California ($65): Seriously alluring aromatically, this Chardonnay shows depth, complexity and structure. Concentrated apple, pear, quince and spice notes are layered and distinct, and the flavors burst bright mid-palate and finish with force and purity. Stellar Chardonnay! 98 points.
13.5% alcohol, pH 3.37, TA 7.1, 30% malolactic fermentation, 40% new oak, mostly French with a fraction of Hungarian.
2018 Palazzo Wine “Master Blend Series” Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California ($45): A master blend indeed! Subtly seductive oak spice folds together rounded melon and bright pear fruit on the nose and through the midpalate, finishing with a zesty pop of acidity that keeps the flavor pulsing, and a specific chamomile aroma note gets the glass back under your nose for another round. A mind bender worthy of extended cellaring. 98 points.
13.5% alcohol, pH 3.44, TA 7.2, barrel fermented, no (that’s right, NO) malolactic fermentation, 18% new oak, all French.
Big scores? Absolutely – but to my palate, these are not only worthy wines, but also exemplary ones showing the grand possibilities of domestic Chardonnay. There are other producers that are moving the needle in this direction – Smith-Madrone, Patz and Hall, MacRostie, Oceano and Tongue Dancer are just a few – each carefully crafting the future of this noble variety here in the USA. So, go ahead, tear up that ABC club card and join the revolution!