The days of California Chardonnay lovers being able to find what they call an “Oaky, Buttery, Chardonnay” are coming to an end. Global warming in the state of California is putting very high levels of sugar in the grapes which is leading to very high alcohol contents as discussed in previous articles on high alcohol wines. This forces the winemaker to hide that flaw in their Chardonnay. One popular way is by keeping the wine in Oak Barrels for a longer period of time. I have read in recent issues of Wine Spectator Magazine that most appellations in the State of California may be forced to take Chardonnay out of their portfolio. Yes, the big names like Cakebread, Far Niente, Mer Soleil, Plumpjack etc will have to stop producing this grape. American palates are leaning towards Burgundian Style Chardonnays with less alcohol, minimal oak (if any) and lighter crisp styles of Chardonnay that you can actually taste the crisp fruit and be refreshed instead of swallowing an oak tree and snorting a blast of vanilla extract when sniffing the wine.
Rombauer produced in a cooler area like Carneros and producers in Russian River Valley (Being closer to water of some sort keeps the sugar levels and alcohol levels down) will probably still produce Chardonnay. Forget about Napa Valley and Alexander Valley. Those days are coming to an and and the thermometer keeps rising.
Don’t fret yet you Buttery Chardonnay lovers. I am here to tell you that OAK has nothing to do with that Buttery Taste you desire in your Chardonnay. Oak imparts flavors of butterscotch, vanilla, coconut etc but not BUTTER!. All wines go through a process called Malolactic Fermentation. Malic acid is the acid you taste in a green skinned Granny Smith Apple. I think we all know what lactic means. Chardonnay contains a lot of Malic Acid. The wine during fermentation is innoculated with a bacteria that converts that Malic Acid into Lactic Acid. The compound created from this process is called “Diacetyl”. Diacetyl just by coincidence also happens to be the ingredient you smell when the movie theater door is opened in the lobby or in many Artifically Flavored Buttered Popcorn products. By textbook, you should be able to take a bite out of a Granny Smith Apple, A Bartlett Pear and chase it with a handful of Artificially Flavored Butter Popcorn loaded with Diacetyl and you should be able to create California Chardonnay but with food products!
One of the most popular “Buttery” Chardonnays Mer Soleil is even now adapting to global warming issues in California and to Chardonnay Consumer demands of wanting less oak or no oak a la White Burgundies is producing a totally Un-Oaked Chardonnay.
So now that you’ve learned that the buttery flavors and texture has zero to due with Oak aging and everything to do with Malolactic conversion and it’s bi product “Diacetyl”, go out and try and Un Oaked Chardonnay. Better yet pick up one from cooler areas like Oregon or Washington State. Even better yet, go back to the roots of the orginal, elegant, chardonnays that have so much finesse and buy a bottle of White Burgundy from the village of Pouilly Fuisse. I promise you even though there is use of minimal oak….it will still taste like “BUTTA”!!