In Defense of California Chardonnays

Hint: they’re not all butter bombs.

By Céline Bossart

Updated on October 27, 2021

There’s nothing technically wrong with a rich, buttery chardonnay, but it’s no secret that this classically Californian style has fallen out of fashion since its heyday back in the 1990s and early 2000s (cue: Bridget Jones and her tall bedside pour). It’s safe to say that each new wine-drinking generation is generally determined to do things differently than the ones that came before, and people’s palates today skew much drier than they used to (take the history of champagne drinking, for example). And while the chardonnay grape actually spans a wide spectrum of flavors, the image of a California chardonnay served over ice on a sun-soaked porch is a hard one to erase.

For many, chardonnay evokes images of sun-soaked porches in California.

"California is a diverse state,” says Susan Fredson-Cole, creator of @admirevine, an Instagram account dedicated to making wine content more accessible to all. She explains that, to understand its breadth of chardonnay offerings, one must consider that many environmental factors can affect the grape. Because of the variation in topography, altitude, and temperature across California, they will taste different depending on where they’re grown.

“Vineyards in warmer climates can produce chardonnays with tropical characteristics, while cooler-climate vineyards can produce wines with more stone-fruit characteristics,” she says. “Producers are always trying to make their wines stand out. Even if you [compare] chardonnays from Paso Robles and Mendocino, you'll taste the difference.”

Many factors throughout the winemaking process contribute to a chardonnay’s ultimate flavor.

In winemaking, the grape itself primarily determines the final product’s core flavors, natural color, acidity, and tannin. The vintner’s stylistic choices throughout the winemaking process further influence each of these characteristics and infuse added complexity. Fredson-Cole refers to the winemaker’s impact as the “special sauce”—which encompasses all choices made post-harvest, from maceration and fermentation to extraction and aging, as well as any additives the winemaker might choose to introduce.

Aging, in particular, is a major contributing factor to a wine’s degree of butteriness in both flavor and texture; vessels made of oak, especially new oak, are key in rendering the proverbial butter-bomb chardonnay, imparting flavors like vanilla and sweet spices. 

On the other hand, vessels made of stainless steel or concrete help preserve the fresh, lean, and crisp flavors in some chardonnay grapes—a clear contrast to the rounder, richer styles many associate with the varietal. These produce wines that are often referred to as “unoaked.” The latter is what you’ll find most often in French Chardonnays (think Chablis, a variety of wine from northern Burgundy that uses chardonnay grapes exclusively).

Chardonnay is a diverse category of wine that can’t be relegated into one singularly-defined box.

According to Miami wine writer and judge Jacqueline Coleman, another factor that greatly impacts a chardonnay’s ultimate flavor and mouthfeel is malolactic fermentation. “Malo refers to the process of converting malic acid into lactic acid, which results in a softening effect and in many cases adds a creaminess or butter-biscuit texture or flavor to a wine,” she explains. This process of fermentation is often perceived to be what produces ultra-buttery styles, but it’s actually only one part of the equation. “It doesn’t always necessarily lead to the wine as a whole being buttery,” Coleman clarifies. When it comes to that particular style of chardonnay, the buttery qualities can be accentuated by the winemaker through malolactic fermentation, along with other factors such as oak and aging on lees.”

While there’s no denying that many consumers and industry professionals steer clear of chardonnays akin to those of California’s oak-and-butter era, there’s still a time and a place for them––and champions of the old-school style do exist, especially when it comes to food pairings. For example, if you’re cooking a dish such as a white fish with a savory cream sauce, a crisp, new-age California chardonnay wouldn’t shine quite as much as its bigger, more buttery counterparts. And while you might not opt to sip the latter on its own, the goal of pairing wine with food is to create an experience that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.

The bottom line is that, like with any other wine varietal, chardonnay is too diverse a category to relegate all bottles into one singularly-defined box; many factors throughout the winemaking process can impact how a particular chardonnay ends up tasting. “Some producers are heavy on the oak, especially if you look at the chardonnays you'll find at bigger retail stores,” adds Fredson-Cole. But it’s important to recognize that crisper, fresher styles do exist, and if you are someone who tends to disregard chardonnays, you might want to reconsider––and try more of what’s out there.

Whether you’re completely new to chardonnay or you’re revisiting the varietal, Fredson-Cole has a few pointers for your next trip to the wine store if you’re hoping to explore the fresher end of the chardonnay spectrum.

“Look for descriptors such as ‘crisp’ and ‘lean’—if ‘stainless steel’ is mentioned on the label, you’re good,” she explains, adding that you can also ask a store employee for something unoaked. Shopping online, or doing independent research before venturing out to a store, is also the perfect opportunity to brush up on your knowledge and to search for specific producers you’re interested in trying. When in doubt, try perusing a review site or app like Vivino to learn how fellow consumers feel about the bottles on your list. Simply use Vivino to scan the label, and if the bottle is in the database, you’ll be able to see user-generated ratings, tasting notes, and reviews that will help you make your final decision. You’ll be glad you did.

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