Do You Really Want An “OAKY” Chardonnay Or A “BUTTERY” Chardonnay?

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.

They call it Mer Soleil Silver. They even produce it in a Ceramic Bottle now as well. Still buttery, still fruit foward, just without any splinters from the oak.

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”!!

63 thoughts on “Do You Really Want An “OAKY” Chardonnay Or A “BUTTERY” Chardonnay?

  1. Oh please, help me…I cannot abide the “new” chardonnays…they are not smooth, far too tart…. you can tell by the colour they look like water with a squirt of lemon in them…ghastly…. please help me find buttery, smooth chardonnay, that does not cost a fortune, and can be an everyday drinkidoos. Mellow yellow please, bring it back…

    1. Buttery and smooth don’t necessarily mean over oaked very yellow, california chardonnay. I like the balance between minimal Oak and Good Fruit with nice acidity and minerality which is why I would stick with the White Burgundies (Chardonnay from the Burgundy Region of France). You can pick up one for $15 that is way more than drinkable and well balanced.


      1. Thanks Ann. Drink Chardonnays from burgundy France and you will find a new passion for the grape. They use very minimal oak and lower alcohol levels. Stay away from California Chardonnay

      2. Forget France! California has some very nice balanced Chardonnays. If you want a balanced Chardonnay look for Suacci Carciere or Dunstan Chardonnay.

      3. They do have some Jesse however every white Burgundy is well balanced Chardonnay so why look all over California for those one or two producers when you can drink the worlds best Chardonnays from burgundy France ?

    3. Ditto! I am very specific in my wine choices. It is rare that I’m on the Chardonnay bandwagon. (Don’t they know any other wine to order??…apparently not! If I overhear someone ordering a Chardonnay, without a definite call, I automatically tag them as uninformed, and I’ve never been wrong!) Signed; wine bigot~!

      1. Hello Wine Bigot
        I have nothing but admiration for the grape Chardonnay but nothing good to say about most of the Chardonnays that people drink in America with too much oak and too much alcohol and way to much malo lactic fermentation. I still stand by my original opinion to drink white burgundy or don’t drink Chardonnay

    4. I just discovered a Chard you might like. It’s called ‘Bread and Butter’ 2015 Napa. Really great complex flavor. About $14.

  2. The acidic chardonnays make me vomit, literally. I don’t follow trends, I follow what tastes good and stays with me.

      1. Old Fashioned Chardonnay would never be from California. That would be a New Fashioned Chardonnay. ZD comes from a desert known as Napa Valley. High Alcohol Too much oak and a waste of $35. Buy yourself a True Old Fashioned Chardonnay from the Home of Chardonnay in Burgundy France. A solid $19 bottle of Pouilly Fuisse would be my advice

      2. Try Bread and Butter 2015 Napa…as close to and ‘old fashion’ Chard as I’ve found in a long time!
        I’m with you! i don’t like the new Chards.

      3. I have had it and it is good for an American Chard I just donโ€™t know why anyone bothers at all with American Chardonnay especially California when White Burgundy is to me a better expression of the original grape

  3. I thought I was the only one who was out of “fashion” with the new Chards. Ick. I want the buttery, rich tastes of those big Chards. But when I ask about them in the tasting rooms they look at me like I’ve committed a wine crime and send me packing! So glad I was desperate enough to google this! Thanks for the explanations and the recommendation of the the French White Burgundy!!

    1. Great comment Karen. Drink white burgundies and you will find a whole new found love for the grape. Glad to have you participating in my Wine Blog. Comments and Questions are always welcomed. We don’t send you Packing here!!

      1. Ok, so I went to Bev Mo and stood in front of the White Burgundies for a long time..the sales clerks are sort of worthless there in terms of knowing much about wine so I came away with no success. Do you have a particular suggestion for me?Guess I need to go to a real wine shop to get some help. Meanwhile, I did have a William Hill 2011 Chardonnay that was quite lovely!

      2. Karen I would try any white burgundy 2009 or 2010 and I’m sure you will be happy with that style of Chardonnay with minimal oak use and great fruit. Like a fishmonger you do need to go to not a REAL WINE MEGASTORE as they hire kids with no knowledge. Develop a relationship with a family run small boutique wine shop where the owner will get to know your palate

    2. Ramey is good. I like the Sonoma and Russian River better than the more expensive single vineyards, but I have only tried to more expensive Ramey once or twiice, so that is hardly a valid comment.

      Beringer Private Reserve is also good.

      Talbott is also sometimes good.

      There is a problem in Chassagne, Meursault, and Puligny. The wines used to age well. Even for 20+ years. Now they just maederize.

      1. You Are Mentioning A Bunch Of Names And Leaving Out The Vintages. No Producer Of Wine Can Make A Quality Wine Year After Year That Tastes The Same. California is Loaded With Oak And Alcohol and way Overpriced.. Prefer White Burgundies but Still Vintage Is Everything

  4. I LOVE oaky chardonnays. It would be ridiculous to get rid of them all together. There are plenty of people out there that feel the same way.

    1. Amy you missed the whole point of my blog entry. You can like whatever you like however the oak and the buttery taste have nothing to do with each other. You can have a Chardonnay with no oak that tastes buttery and an Oaked Chardonnay that doesn’t taste buttery. Read it again

    2. I’m with you Amy!! I LOVE wines that are BOTH oaky AND buttery (and yes Larry – we get the point. You can have one without the other). Can anyone recommend an oaky and buttery chardonnay at a lower pricepoint? I love Rombauer, but it’s too expensive for everyday.

      1. Wine is all about personal taste so you should drink oaky buttery Chardonnays of that is what you like. I did notice no your post that like most wine consumers you mentioned a BRAND Rombauer that you like. It is impossible for any brand or winery to produce a wine that even remotely tastes the same every year due to weather conditions. The fact that you didn’t mention the years of Rombauer that you like shows me that you are not really sure what taste you like because not every year is Rombauer oaky and buttery. It will be difficult to find that taste in the near future as all California wineries are leaning towards making Chardonnays on the lighter crisper French burgundy styles with minimal oak or totally unoaked as Mer Soleil Silver. In my opinion it is night and day American Chardonnay versus the White Burgundies that have so much finesse and minerality from the limestone and chalky soils and old vines that California doesn’t have. CHEERS!!

  5. Recommendation please, for oaky, buttery Chardonnay. White Burgundy doesn’t ‘do it’ for me. I’m more of the Riesling & Gewurztraminer persuasion, but they’re not as versatile as the satisfying (for me) oaky, buttery Chards. My budget (fyi) is in the cellar, as a senior…not as in wine cellar, however! LOL

    1. One minute you say you hate Chardonnays and now you ask for a recommendation. I can’t recommend something that I hate so I suggest any of the Kendall Jackson family of wines including la crema should be on budget and you should taste nothing but vanilla and oak and butter and sour fruit

      1. Burgundy for me’s gotta be in reds of color chart! Thanks for suggestion! Gimme my oak & butter or gimme gin & tonic w/lime!

      2. Larry…I know you are having trouble honoring this last response .. so I will… rabid needs to expand his world a bit, look at a map of France and realize where the word ‘burgundy’ came from.

      3. Karen you are by favorite poster on my Blog. I almost make you a co-administrator. You answered rabid’s last comment better than I could and I have a feeling he might be better off sticking with his latter choice for an adult beverage and drink Gin And Tonic. LOL….

      4. Yes, he’s all over the map (but probably only in the US) …I could go on but will refrain. LOL back atcha!

      5. Karen I sent You a Personal E-Mail as well to your Yahoo address.. I don’t usually mix business with pleasure but I think I have to Move To Alameda and Open Up A Wine Boutique or Wine Bar With you. On a personal note you are very attractive classy looking lady which even makes me happier that you are my favorite poster. As you said, I could go on but I will refrain on this public forum LOL…:-)

      6. I am not a game player like most people are…I am a straight to the point honest guy. So although I believe this kind of conversation is better off of this forum which is why I just sent you a private e-mail YES I AM FLIRTING WITH YOU. What Foodie, Wine Lover Wouldn’t. Not too often I meet a woman who is my counterpart with Food and Wine. Read Your E Mail Ms Tierney ๐Ÿ™‚

      7. Back to Rabid He is all over the map and probably only in the US but that is OK. I welcome novices to advanced level sommeliers. This is supposed to be a Wine Blog that is not only for the Wine Snobs and that makes Wine More Approachable. Some people like Rabid are “Stuck” in their wine tastes on One Grape Variety and One Part of the World. If Rabid wants to stay there that is his choice but I am also here to help him expand his palate and level of knowledge to all the fun he is missing from grape varietals white and red from all over the world. There is hope for everyone as 15 years ago when I was a Radio Personality and not in the Wine Industry the Only Sparkling Wine I could Drink was Andre Cold Duck. Now being an Advanced Level 3 Certified Sommelier I would puke at the thought of drinking that. It just takes the Desire to want to develop a palate for other wines…Or Drink a Gin And Tonic?

      8. Rabid, Sorry about these personal comments. we should have taken it off-line. I just tried a nice Chard. called J Lohr. $10 from Trader Joes…at least here in CA. It has a bit of a taste of butter and oak. I know what it’s like to be on a budget!

      9. I don’t think KJ is all that bad, and I have been drinking chardonnay for 40+ years. Aren’t you being kind of snobbish?

      10. Not Whatsoever. Jess Jackson Was A Real Estate Attorney And Just Happened To Have Land Growing Chardonnay Grapes. It is Well Known That He Experienced A STUCK Fermentation With Loads Of Residual Sugar And Was Going To Market It as A WINE COOLER With All That SUGAR …Instead Offered It As A Chardonnay That Didn’t Taste Like Chardonnay As A VINTNER”S BLEND…. IT IS THE KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN OF WINE…. ORIGINAL RECIPE AND SOLD IN EVERY GAS STATION IN SOUTH FLORIDA… WHAT A HORRIBLE EXAMPLE OF CHARDONNAY. THERE IS SO MUCH BETTER FOR $11.00 PER BOTTLE THAN THAT SUGAR PUNCH

    2. The oakiest wine I ever had was a riesling from NY State, by Dr Konstantin Frank. It was downright weird, to taste so much oak in a reisling, but it had some charm. I’d have to say ti was a fun wine, but I’m not sure I’d want it to have become a trend.

      1. Dr Konstantin Frank In My Opinion Is The Epitome Of Rieslings And The Oak Is Minimal And Hardly Detected. It is CRISP, LIGHT, FOOD FRIENDLY…. With Elegance. It Is Only Weird To You Probably Coming Off All The Poor Quality Rieslings Available On The Market From Germany That Tastes Like Acid And Petrol… I Personally LOVE Those Finger Lakes Rieslings. Dr FRANK Is DA MAN

  6. I like Ramey chardonnays. I liked old style Batard Montrachet, when I could afford it. I like Beringer Private Reserve. I have had a lot failures trying the new chardonnays.

    1. The Less Oak The Better No Matter It Comes From. To Me All California Chardonnays Taste The Same. High Alcohol, Too Much Oak, Too Much Cost No Minerality. White Burgundy Or Pacific Northwest UnOaked Chardonnay is Still A Better Bet At Any Price Point

      1. You are welcome to what you like, but that does not mean it is what I like.

        Too much cost? Meursault is never cheap. Nor is Puligny. When at their best, they are the best, but they often disappoint.

        Unoaked chardonnay is often very acidic.

      2. You are welcome to enjoy or drink what you like however the acid in unoaked Chardonnay is not coming from no oak it is coming from not enough malolactic conversion. Some of the silkiest buttery Chardonnays have no oak. The entire post was not to point out the difference between California highly Oaked Chardonnays versus white burgundy it was to point out that the oak has no influence on that buttery taste and consumers ask for an OAKEY BUTTERY Chardonnay. Just for laughs If it is a price issue I might mention I have worked in retail wine shops for years in the past and you can pick up a solid Mersault Puligny at their finest vintages like 2009 for $39 per bottle and cakebread and Ramey etc are over $50 and don’t forget general Bourgogne can be found for $19 which I personally would rather drink than all of those over Oaked high alcohol Chardonnays from napa valley

    1. Always a great reason to leave a wine discussion over differences in taste Samuel ?? Look up the word dialogue. That is what a blog is all about. I welcome my readers to disagree with me. Cheers

      1. The generic Ramey (Sonoma or Russian River) can be had for $30 a bottle or so, and is preferable to Hudson or Hyde, IMO. The Beringer PR Chardonnay is very good and also around $30. Peter Micheal is very good also but out of my price range.

        Puligny and Meursault used to last years and years, but now they are maederized after 7-10 years or so. I hesitate to buy anything made in the late 90s because of that. Trefethen, on the other hand, keeps.

  7. “Oak imparts flavors of butterscotch, vanilla, coconut etc “….hmmm, I don’t know…I’m thinking butterscotch definitely has a taste of butter. And those are three flavors I love to hear described in a wine. Give me oak any day!

    1. Paula oak especially they type of oak used in California Chardonnay gives you overwhelming amounts of vanilla and baking spices and sometimes pickle barrel but the true buttery not butterscotch tastes comes not from the Oak but from the malolactic fermentation. You can still get that in unoaked Chardonnays. I didn’t say I do not like oak in my wines I said I prefer the French Style in burgundy of using minimal amounts of oak where the fruit of the Chardonnay and the liberality and the acidity is still the shining star and not just a bunch of oak. Just like in life. Everything in moderation and in wine that is how I feel Oak should be used

  8. I was visiting New York and had dinner and asked for a Chardonnay. The waiter suggested one with a buttery taste. It was delicious. I don’t remember the name of the wine. I am a novice and would like recommendation as I am going to make a purchase for a dinner gathering soon.

  9. Thank you for this, Larry. I eschewed chardonnay forever preferring a dancer or viognier, until I happened upon an unknown chardonnay that was… deeper, more complex and interesting, decidedly not “refreshing”. I have no idea what it was, and haven’t found one like it since! (About 2-3 years sgo.)

    I’ll take a look at french white burgundy, any complexities in… which, specifically, Larry?

    *I decidedly do not enjoy “buttery” that I keep having recommended to me. Thank you, Larry. ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Just found your blog and I LOVE it! Wish I’d read your comments about Kendall Jackson Chardonnay before I’d drank it. Acid reflux up the wazoo!

  11. I am working on a wine list for a restaurant and need ideas for a oaky chardonnay that is affordable 8.50-12.00 bottle price. Everything I look at that I love is out of the price range that works for our guests. Can you help me.

    1. Rombauer. Charge $9.75 per glass and $40 per bottle. Higher end affordable to patrons and will turn u a nice profit

      1. Paul
        That is the most ridiculous advice I have ever heard. She is running a restaurant and Wine is your best profit margin. Rombauer will cost her over $25 per bottle wholesale and charging $9.75 per glass would be destructive and bad business

  12. the blog was informational Larry and i agree the sugar is too much
    i do like flowers and ferrari carano
    all years

    1. Hi Jennie
      No one can say they like a brand of wine. Every vintage or year of flowers or Ferrari Carano just like any other winery brand is a totally different wine based on weather conditions of the vintage. PLUS remember 75% Chardonnay is all that is required so odds are they are blending and there is residual sugar in both. If you want to drink 100% Chardonnay with lower alcohol levels and less Oak and a lot less sugar find an entry level White Burgundy for $20 and drink Chardonnay from it’s birthplace. Cheers

  13. Rombauer Chardonnay from 10 years ago was fantastic no more these later villages do not have the battery Okey flavor that they used to what happened to it

  14. I know I’m several years late to the party on this particular article, but I can’t help but feel like there are some subtleties that were glossed over in favor of personal preference in this opinion piece. Yes, the butteriness in chardonnay is attributed to the by-product of malo fermentation – diacetyl. However, that is not necessarily what many people enjoy about those chardonnays. In several blind tastings, people preferred the mouthfeel and taste of chardonnays that were barrel fermented while undergoing mlf as opposed to stainless steel, or other fermentation vessels. Even the preferential bouquet depended on the degree of toast on the wood rather than straight fruitiness that is present in wines that have not touched oak. Pouilly fuse, and chablis have their place as great pairings for light fish dishes, or even going so far as chicken dishes, or asparagus doused in hollandaise. However, they won’t hold up to something like a creamy mushroom pasta, rich fish, or even foie gras dishes like an oaked California chardonnay would. Through my years of culinary school, and working in fine dining, I have come to appreciate most wines in the right circumstance, but by this article it is seems you have taken a bit of an elitist attitude to Europe on the subject of vitis vinifera. Despite the wine-making, old world establishment connotation that is attached to Europe, there are countries who are making exemplary wines that failed in those European vineyards. Argentina is making world-class malbec that France couldn’t, South Africa is making amazing pinotage, and let’s not forget the “Judgement of Paris” where California cabernet *and* chardonnay was chosen over the French entries in blind tastins. Wine grapes, and production are not proprietary, and Europe isn’t necessarily the preeminent producer of every wine out there – chardonnay included. This whole article, and especially your comments following, could use a little perspective. Rather than pushing your particular taste on the readers, and insisting that, apparently, people don’t like their wine to touch oak, realize that not every wine drinker is a certified sommelier. Perhaps they aren’t trained in picking out what is buttery, oaky, or even butterscotchy. Maybe what they consider “butteriness” is actually the more nuanced flavors that come with oak, and barrel-fermentation, rather than the specific flavor of diacetyl. Or maybe they actually would like fruit forward pouilly fuse that has gone through malo. The point is – you’re offering a very heavy-handed approach to a very, very subjective and nuanced experience. You’re not hosting a wine tasting in person, so you can’t paint with such a broad brush without experiencing it with them.

    1. First as a blogger I can write an opinionated article. Secondly I deal with over 100 guests per day and the average consumer when asking for a white wine begs me to recommend anything but A Chardonnay but that is based on their experiences with the nauseating aromas and flavors of vanilla syrup , coconut , butterscotch and 15% alcohol Chardonnays they have tried in California Chardonnays. I donโ€™t blame them. I stopped drinking the grape myself for years because of that until I visited Burgundy and understood what real Chardonnay was like. Many of the Crus are aging in Oak but with burgundy you get an elegance and you can taste the fruit as opposed to all the blending of grapes, the high alcohol and the use of oak and using too much malo to hide the flaws in California Chardonnays. I also 100% diaageee with your food pairing comments. With creamy sauces or heavy dishes I would never pair with California Chardonnay as they are so heavy themselves I would still go burgundy to cut through the richness of the sauces. With all that said you as anyone is entitled to your opinion but I can tell you in my day to day dealings with customers their preference is 100% pure Chardonnay from burgundy and I will never recommend that grape from the state of California. Thanks for your feedback.

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