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Let's raise a toast to Chardonnay, America's best-loved white wine, on Chardonnay Day. Cheers!

Let’s raise a toast to Chardonnay, America’s best-loved white wine, on Chardonnay Day. Cheers!

Welcome back, my friends – and Happy Chardonnay Day 2018!

Have you ever wondered why some Chardonnays are crisp, fruity, and “clean tasting,” while others are richer, “rounder,” and more mouth-filling, with complex flavors that go far beyond the fruit bowl?

Welcome to the world of wine “styles.”

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A gorgeous Reserve Chardonnay from Mer Soleil, in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

A rich, gorgeous Reserve Chardonnay from Mer Soleil, in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Very simply, different styles of any given type of wine come about because of decisions that lead to different results.

Some of the decisions are carried out by the grape grower. These include choosing a vineyard site (hilltop vs. flat benchland), planting certain clones of a varietal (e.g. for grapes with more fruit aromatics, or more spice), and cutting off grape clusters mid-season for a more concentrated finished wine.

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At the Roche tasting room in Sonoma, you can sample both styles of Chardonnay.

At the Roche tasting room in Sonoma, I’m sampling both Chardonnay styles.

Other decisions happen in the winery, where the winemaker can craft the wine at every stage, from harvest until it leaves the winery.

“Should I use free-run juice only, or press the skins (and if so, how much?) Rely on native yeast, or add a commercial ‘strain’ (variety of yeast) that I know well? Bottle the wine as a single varietal (or single vineyard!), or as a blend?”

Each of these many choices, of course, contributes to the wine that ultimately finds its way to our table.

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As we'll see, "Style B" (rich and mouth filling) has something in common with dairy products.

As we’ll see, the rich, round style of Chardonnay has something in common with dairy products (!)

And all of this brings us back to our original question about different styles of  Chardonnay.

Why are some of them all about the fruit, while others have so much more going on in the glass?

The answer lies mainly with the winemaker, and with two important techniques:

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Oak barrels, especially new ones, add lots of complex flavors to a "Style B" Chardonnay.

Aging in oak barrels, especially new ones, adds lots of complex flavor and texture to a “Style B” Chardonnay.

The first of these is aging the wine, and sometimes also fermenting it, in oak barrels. Unlike “neutral” containers such as stainless steel or concrete tanks, oak imparts many different flavor compounds to a wine.

The second technique involves a nifty little molecular makeover called malolactic fermentation (or conversion) – ML for short – from the winemaker’s bag of tricks.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to drag you into the chem lab for this (though the science behind it is pretty straightforward).

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Never a shortage of Chardonnay!

Never a shortage of Chardonnay!

Let’s just look at the wine itself. We’ll start with some just-harvested Chardonnay, straight from the press.

To make the fruit-dominated “Style A,” we’ll bypass the oak barrels and get the juice fermenting in, say, stainless steel tanks.

Our aim here is to keep those innate Chardonnay fruit flavors of apple, pear, lemon – maybe even peach and pineapple – tasting pure and fresh.

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Malic acid, which makes green apples so tart, is also found in wine, and helps highlight the wine's fruitiness.

Malic acid, which makes green apples so tart, is also found in wine, and helps highlight its fruit flavors.

At this point, I should mention that many wines contain a decent amount of something called malic acid. It’s quite tart – and it’s the same stuff that makes green apples taste tart.

Malic acid is very desirable in a “Style A” Chardonnay, because it helps make all those fresh fruit flavors “pop”!

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Douglas, a master cooper (barrel maker), has just finished toasting the inside of this barrel: another step that helps build a wine's flavor. He's realigning the metal hoop before sealing the barrel with its circular "head."

Douglas Rennie, a master cooper (barrel maker), has just toasted the inside of this barrel to help build flavor into the wine. He’s straightening out the wooden staves and the metal hoop; then he’ll cap the barrel with a round, wooden “head.”

But if we want to make a big, rich “Style B” instead,  and age our Chardonnay in oak barrels, we’ll want to tone down that puckery malic acid.

And here’s where that malolactic makeover comes in.

The ML process, often called a “secondary fermentation,” converts the tart, “apple-y” malic acid into lactic acid. (We already know that one well, too.)

Found in dairy products, lactic acid is naturally less tart than malic, with a smoother, creamier texture.

(Just think of Greek yogurt!)

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Pretty neat to be able to get your buttery and creamy goodies in your wineglass, with no fat or cholesterol whatsoever!

Pretty neat to be able to get your buttery and creamy goodies in your wineglass, with no fat or cholesterol!

But that’s not all. In “Style B” Chardonnays, have you ever noticed a buttery aroma and flavor ~ even movie-theater-popcorn buttery?

Well, while the malic acid is churning away into tartaric, there’s a little spinoff action going on that turns out a byproduct called diacetyl.

This happens to be the exact same stuff that makes butter smell and taste the way it does. In fact, the commercial, lab-produced version of diacetyl is used to make popcorn flavoring!

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Well, my friends, I hope this look at the two main styles of Chardonnay, and how they come about, has added to your enjoyment of Chardonnay Day.

Until next time,
Cheers and happy tastings,
Rosina

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