My love affair with this American wine began in, of all places, a French restaurant. Served perfectly chilled, it was the perfect accompaniment to the restaurant’s buttery rich moules à la marinière, mussels in white wine and cream sauce.
Wines made from chardonnay are among my favorites, and Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve is still close to the top of my list of all-time favorite wines.
Chardonnay is grown in virtually all wine-growing regions of the world. It thrives in warm or cool regions, whose climatic conditions often dictate its style. In years past, chardonnay styles have seemed to be polar opposites, with big, buttery, New World wines like Kendall Jackson at one pole, and drier, more austere, Old World chardonnays like those from France at the opposite pole.
In recent years, the distance between these poles seems to be shortening. Perhaps global warming has enabled French wine growers to harvest riper fruit, thus rendering less austere wines. Perhaps New World winemakers have backed away from exposing their chardonnays to massive amounts of oak, thus rendering less big-oak-flavored wines.
When considering a chardonnay, there are several winemaking terms that offer clues to style:
Stainless steel aged: This style sees no time in oak barrels. A relatively new trend in chardonnay that emphasizes purity of fruit. Sometimes referred to as “unoaked chardonnay.”
Barrel-fermented in new French oak barrels: Usually indicates a big oaky, smoky, yeasty wine.
Barrel-fermented in a combination of new and neutral oak barrels. Usually indicates a lighter-style wine with subtle vanillin and wood flavors that do not override fruit flavors.
Malolactic fermentation: As soon as wine grapes are pressed, an initial fermentation — converting sugar into alcohol — occurs, either naturally or by introducing yeasts. Sometimes, a second fermentation is desirable, in which malic acid — like that found in a green apple — is converted to lactic acid — like that found in milk. This secondary fermentation can occur naturally or be induced by the winemaker. Such a fermentation is desirable in wines that are too acidic. Malolactic fermentation renders acidic wines creamy and palatable.
Aged on lees, lees stirring or sur lie: Indicates wine is aged on sediment from dead yeasts that fall to the bottom of the vat. Some chardonnay producers leave their wine on the lees, stirring the mixture occasionally, to impart a richer flavor.
Consider these locally available chardonnays, which incorporate all or some of the practices described above:
14 Hands 2008 Washington State Chardonnay. $9.75 at Tyson Art and Frame in Golden Springs. The winery takes its name from wild horses, standing 14 hands tall, which used to roam the land. Crisp, balanced, melon-pear-flavored wine. Only 14 percent of this wine was oak-barrel fermented, and that 14 percent also saw malolactic fermentation.
Le Drunk Rooster Chardonnay 2007. $12.75 at Tyson Art and Frame. This critter wine from the Languedoc in France sees no time in oak. Aged in stainless steel for eight months, three of which is spent on lees. Crisp green apple and lemon citrus flavors. Tart finish.
Kendall Jackson Private Reserve 2008 Chardonnay. Currently on sale for $13.99 at Target. This chardonnay has all the bells and whistles. Rich, buttery, bold and delicious. Predominately fermented in oak, with 10 percent in stainless steel. Also 100 percent malolactic fermented and sourced from estate fruit. Nobody does it better.
2008 Sonoma Cutrer Russian River Chardonnay. $21.50 at the Wine Cellar on Quintard Avenue in Anniston. Great middle-of-the road-chardonnay, smack dab in the middle in terms of style. Not too big and buttery, nor too austere. Just right, with nice citrus and tropical fruit flavors and a light toastiness on the palate. Ninety-two percent aged in a combination of new and older French oak barrels. Eight percent is stainless steel-aged, and 75 percent goes through malolactic fermentation.