by Martha Gioumousis
Chardonnay is just Chardonnay, right? There was a time when it was the most popular white wine, but after a major backlash, the new favorite became ABC—Anything but Chardonnay. No more buttery, oaky, heavy, sweet California-style whites for the knowledgeable white wine drinker! But there is more to the Chardonnay story. Right alongside other new exciting white varietals in the Finger Lakes, Chardonnays now come in a wide variety of styles, including a new batch of Unoaked Chardonnays, fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel. These wines retain the fresh fruit aromas and flavors of the grape variety without the influence of barrel aging, oak flavors, and in most cases, the secondary malolactic fermentation or lees stirring. All of this adds up to a much more straightforward expression of the Chardonnay grape. The quality of the grapes continues to be important, as does the temperature of fermentation and the variety of yeast chosen. Here, the taster looks for a balance of fruit, acidity, mouthfeel, and length of finish.
Many wineries choose to divide their Chardonnay juice and ferment a portion in stainless steel and a portion in oak barrels. Age of the barrels strongly influences the wine, as new barrels impart much more oak flavor. After several years of use, barrels are deemed “neutral,” still contributing to the aging of the wine, but not giving oak flavors. Winemakers can choose from Ameri- can, French or Hungarian oak barrels from a multitude of barrel makers, both in the United States and overseas.
Many Chardonnays are the result of blending some tank-fermented wine with some barrel-fermented wine. Winemakers and owners may taste many variations and percentages before deciding on the final blend. Other blends may become designated as Reserve or Barrel Reserve, usually an oakier style with a longer barrel-aging time. There are many Chardonnay choices are out there, but here are some of the current best to try this spring and summer in the Finger Lakes.
Martha Gioumousis is a winemaker, wine writer, and editor of Finger Lakes Wine Gazette and coordinator for the Tompkins County Community Beautification Program.
This article was first published in the Spring 2015 magazine issue.