Chardonnay: Old World vs New World, Which One Do You Like?
By Pedro Vargas, Winemaker, Vino Vargas
When I first started making Chardonnay it was modeled after the wines that I had enjoyed, which turned out to be the old-world Chablis style. This meant wines that were very crisp and high in acidity with lots of minerality. I loved it but about half of the people that tasted it hated it. So, the next vintage I decided to make a California style - very oaky, very buttery. The other half hated it! Wow I thought, now what? So, the following vintage I went right down the middle, not too Chablis and not too California, and finally everyone seemed to enjoy it. So, what gives with Chardonnay? And why is it so polarizing?
The first item to consider is the geographical differences between Chablis, France and California. The latitude of Chablis is around 47 degrees North which lines it up with Seattle Washington. Whereas Paso Robles is at 35.6 degrees North and Napa is at 38.3 degrees North. This means that the amount of solar radiation and the days required to accumulate sugar (Growing Degree Days) are going to be greater in the warmer areas like Paso Robles and Napa. More GDD means more accumulation of sugar and less retention of malic and tartaric acid. The bottom line is that Chardonnay from Chablis is less sweet, lower in alcohol and higher in acid. And this is just what happens in the vineyard, not in the production phase.
The second item is the effect of oak barrels. Before there were stainless steel tanks, everyone in both the old and the new world made and stored their wines in some type of barrel or large wooden puncheon. Wood had been in use since Roman times and had replaced earthen amphoras because barrels could be rolled and allowed the wine to “breath.” But around 1913 the first stainless steel technology was invented in Europe and very quickly stainless-steel tanks were made for most industries including wine. France was an early adopter of these tanks, and the more troublesome barrels were soon a lesser option for making and storing wine. As you know, wood has a taste all its own and oak barrels will impart an oak flavor into anything stored in them. With time, French Chardonnay wines became naturally less oaky while new world Chardonnays continued the use of oak and the American style of oaky Chardonnay evolved into what many people drink now.
The third item is called Malo-Lactic fermentation. This is a production process used to convert the highly tart malic acid into smooth tongue coating lactic acid. The ML conversion also develops diacetyl which is a component with an intense buttery flavor often found in buttered popcorn. This process can happen naturally in wine and can also be induced by treating the wine with a bacteria that is built to do just that. If the temperature is warm the process happens fast. But France had long cold winters and chilly springs and many times the wine did not go through this process and remained naturally acidic. By comparison, in California springs were almost always warm and pleasant and if the wine was treated with ML bacteria, then the process accelerated. In my experience, of all the wines that undergo this process, Chardonnay is the one most prone to getting a lot of “butter”.
Over time, people in the new world became used to the oaky buttery characteristics of the Chardonnays made in warm climate. Although Chablis remains faithful to their style of crisp wines, you can now find some buttery oaky Chablis. So, something for everyone.
I want to end with a trivia point about the origin of the name Chardonnay. It is believed that Chardonnay is place name for the village of Chardonnay in the Maconnais region of France. It comes from the latin Cardonanacum which comes from the latin Cardus (wild thistle, artichoke) which in Roman times was used to describe this area.
I hope that you have found this little comparison helpful and encourage you to experience a variety of Chardonnays from different parts of the globe. You don’t need to remember all the details. Just enjoy!