Traditional Warm Climate California chardonnay styles lean toward oak influences adding baking spice undertones. Winemakers leveraged malolactic fermentation (MLF) to garner creamy (often referred to as buttery) flavors in the wine. The climate of CA is typically warm which drives sugar content higher in grapes at harvest. As we have learned, the more sugar in the grape, the higher the alcohol content in the wine. These influences lead to CA chardonnays with heavier mouth-feels and lingering aftertastes. This traditional style was extremely popular 15-20 years ago, but as U.S. wine drinkers’ palates have changed, oak barrels and MLF are used much more sparingly today. Modern California chardonnays have a fresher profile with more focus on the grape than the post-fermentation influences of oak and MLF.
Cooler Climate U.S. wine regions such as Santa Barbara and Oregon can produce refined chardonnays with bright, citrus notes and limited use of oak or malolactic fermentation. While leaner and more aligned with traditional French styles, these US wine regions lack the chalky, limestone soils of France, in particular, the Burgundy region, where Chardonnay wines have a mineral flavor unique to the region.
French Chardonnay, nearly all of which comes from Burgundy, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from creamy, oaky California Chardonnay. Almost no oak is used in the fermentation or storage of French chardonnay and wine makers prefer to avoid malolactic fermentation to maintain crisp, citrus and apple/pear tart fruit aromas and flavors paired with the varietal’s natural high acidity. Lower alcohol levels result from the area’s cooler climate and just-ripe harvest of the grapes. Dry, crisp, refreshing are often descriptions for the French Burgundy style of Chardonnay indicative of the region.
Chardonnay Top Growing Regions:
U.S. Chardonnay Regions:
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