I am always interested in how new trends develop in the world of wine and how technology and science help drive those changes. Much of the time we simply rediscover the past. The search for “new” varietals to enjoy from historic grape growing regions sretching from Andalusia to Anatolia continues, much like the current interest in ancient grains in the culinary realm. My current favorite in this regard, the Lagrein grape varietal from South Tyrol in northern Italy. I will write more on this in future posts. Likewise I will weigh in on trends in fermentation, be it stainless steel,oak or cement in another future post. Again the new often a rediscovery and really a better appreciation of the old.
Today I want to describe the changes in Chardonnay style and the science behind those trends. Thirty plus years ago one of the “hottest” trends in the world of white wine (at least here in California ) was the emerging interest in small, French oak barrel fermentation of Chardonnay. In tandem with this trend was the use of malolactic fermentation to enhance mouth feel and richness, add character and give Chardonnay a buttery note that became it’s signature.
That “buttery” note was a result of the diacetyl produced by the bacterium Oenococcus oeni consuming tart apple-like malic acid and transforming it into the softer less acidic lactic acid. What the industry was emulating were fine white Burgundies like Montrachet. And what UC Davis and much of the industry had treated as a spoilage factor, secondary malolactic fermentation in white wine, suddenly had a buzz surrounding it.
During this time, I worked in the cellar at Pine Ridge Winery and worked also with a wine broker selling Saintsbury and Kistler wines. These were all then up and coming producers making exciting wines (they still do) including rich, very nuanced and buttery style Chardonnay. It was a lot of fun to sell and explain these wines to retailers, restaurateurs and the public at large.
Inevitably, especially among lower priced offerings, this style of Chardonnay became a victim of its own success. The buttery note became confused with the butterscotch flavor of increasingly heavy handed oak barrel influence. The use of heavily toasted and cheaper American oak barrels led to a cloying carmel character that often had a bitter tinge. The solution here was to leave behind a little (often very noticeable) residual sugar. These wines were like drinking an apple and vanilla milkshake or liquid creme brule, enjoyable maybe but not particularly worthy of more serious consideration. Wine wags with a humorous bent would refer to these wines as (insert a city) “crack”. I won’t go there.
I will note that as I drive groups of young, trendy and cosmopolitan clients they universally eschew this style of Chardonnay, no pun intended. Unoaked Chardonnay fruit forward in style and avoiding the use of ML or malolactic is now once again very popular. So strong is the feeling, that it is an “anything but Chardonnay ” choice that increasingly favors whites like Sauvignon Blanc.
And so it goes. Things change or do they? I would love to hear your thoughts on this or other weighty matters. Call or write me to set up a wine tour. I promise to make it interesting while having a down to earth good time.