Understanding Chardonnay

Published by Tamara Harrison - 3rd Oct 2019

It’s important to find wines best matched to your individual tastes. Winemaker Adam Barton from Rabbit & Spaghetti recently talked us through the Shiraz variety, and now he wants to spend some time sharing his thoughts on Chardonnay. If you don’t think you’re a fan of Chardonnay, please read on – Adam honestly believes most people, especially those who haven’t tasted Australian Chardonnay for a few years, could discover something new and delicious!

Chardonnay can be used to produce a wide range of styles, and drinkers’ perception of the variety varies dramatically with those styles. Through the 1990s, many producers in Australia (and the US, New Zealand, South America, and South Africa) began using grapes that were picked very ripe, fermented with large quantities of oak contact, sometimes also undergoing full malolactic fermentation and with high residual sugar. Initially, these wines were commercially successful, considered as “sunshine in a bottle”. But over time, these characteristics were pushed too far and Chardonnay fell out of favour, usurped as the most popular white wine in Australia and elsewhere by Sauvignon Blanc.

In recent years, there’s been a return to characteristics more like what see in the classic Chardonnays from Burgundy, where the variety gained its reputation in the first place. These modern wines are refined and elegant, with greater acidity and complexity. Unsurprisingly, wine drinkers – and I hope, Angels – are rediscovering the variety.

If you have never tried Chardonnay, or haven’t for a long time, I really would urge you to give it a go. Pop a bottle of the Rabbit & Spaghetti Chardonnay in your next order and see what you think.

Winery intervention

Now that we’ve established that there are a wide range of vineyard factors that can influence the style of a bottle of Chardonnay, let’s about what happens when we get the fruit into the winery! Here’s a list of terms to look out for in descriptions of Chardonnay so you can understand what they might mean for the wine you’ll be drinking…

Harvesting, pressing
Machine-harvested fruit that’s put through a de-stemmer will have more solids and phenolics, which can result in fuller-bodied and sometimes astringent wines. By contrast, hand-harvested fruit that is whole-bunch pressed will have lower solids and phenolics, resulting in more elegant wines. The other implication here is that having more solids in the ferment can lead to the formation of more complex characters while removing these solids prior to ferment will produce a wine that gives clearer expression to the flavours of the fruit it was made form.

Yeast, wild fermentation
Chardonnay is often allowed to ferment wild – that is, using only the indigenous yeast present on the grapes. These ferments start slowly and can help to produce wines with more complex characters on the nose, but they can sometimes struggle to complete fermentation and therefore require careful management. Using a cultured yeast strain is more reliable and can highlight the fresh fruit characters in the wine.

Malolactic fermentation
Commonly referred to with the acronym MLF, the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid by bacteria is often used to soften the acidity of Chardonnay. It can add buttery and creamy characters to the wine.

Oak is critical in determining the style of Chardonnay wines. Historically, a lot of oak was used, which many drinkers found overpowering, especially when combined with MLF. These days, oak is used more sparingly, as a support act rather than the main event. The type of oak (French or American), cooperage, barrel size, toast, percentage of new oak and the length of time spent in oak will all influence the style of the finished wine.

Blending, single-vineyard
Winemakers will sometimes blend fruit from different regions to achieve a style of Chardonnay that remains similar in its flavour profile across vintages. Others may work with fruit from one specific site, and the wine they produce will tend to vary more from year to year, reflecting the uniqueness of that particular site and the conditions of any given vintage.

As I’ve said previously, if you take note of the different techniques used to produce any given Chardonnay, whether they be in the vineyard or winery, and match its characteristics with the ones that you enjoy, you’ll quickly be able to find more wines that make you happy. And that can only be a good thing.

Hopefully, Rabbit & Spaghetti Chardonnay is one of them!