Differences of Preferences
Chardonnay is like ice cream: it comes in many different flavors and not
everyone likes them all. Chardonnay is a relatively neutral grape that takes much of its unaltered flavor profile from the terroir where it is grown and the vinification process employed on making the wine. Chardonnay is the most flexible and malleable varietal in the cellar. The winemaker has many tools available to change what ends up in the bottle. There are three primary styles that result from these choices: un-oaked, classic, and reserve. The primary difference between these styles is the role of wood in the vinification process. Continuing the rejection of overly processed
wines there has been an increase in the production and interest of un-oaked Chardonnay
wines that show the bright acidity and excellent orchard fruit flavor profile of
the grape. If in doubt, probably the best way to tell the difference is to rely on WinesNY.com reviews.
This wine style is indicated with the terms steel fermented or un-oaked somewhere on the label. The un-oaked style is similar to the white wines of the Chablis region of Burgundy. The wine receives no processing in wood during vinification. Fermentation is usually in stainless steel with little or no malolactic fermentation. Un-oaked Chardonnays are fruit focused; bright and crisp. New York, as a cooler wine growing region, produces Chardonnay with higher natural acidity than warmer regions such as California or South Africa. The un-oaked styles retain this higher natural acid content resulting in wines that are clean and often racy. Typical flavor profile exhibits tart orchard fruit of apples and pears. These Chardonnays frequently show citrus notes, especially from the Finger Lakes region, and can display a marked white pepper character throughout the palate. Un-oaked style Chardonnay more fully enunciates its terroir than other winemaking methods. Long Island Chardonnays take on the characteristic East End loam mineral backbone with round fruit and honeyed flavors due to the warmer growing conditions. The Finger Lakes typically picks up its indicative slate and shale structure over acid driven citrus flavors from their cooler, more continental climate in the middle of the state.
Un-oaked style New York State Chardonnays are excellent for picnic or summer wines as the racy flavors and clean textures are bright and refreshing. They pair especially well with mollusks and crustaceans. The crisp acids complement and balance the richness of shellfish fare. Beautiful with simply prepared fresh water fish as the lighter body of the wine will not overwhelm these delicate flavors.
Classic New York Chardonnay Style
The classic Chardonnay style is usually indicated by just the varietal name on the label without qualifiers. Fermentation is in stainless steel to maintain more fruit flavors. The wine is given some light to medium malolactic fermentation to temper the acids and provide textural smoothness. Aging is in oak barrels, with a lower percentage of new oak, imparting mellowing and flavors from the wood. The wine flavor
profiles are moderately tart with flavors that range from golden apples, ripe pears, honey, melon, and white peaches. Finger Lakes wines often show citrus notes while honey flavors are more prevalent on Long Island bottlings. Wines often develops white pepper contrasting notes especially on the finish. Textures are smooth and
slightly creamy but generally show good balance with the style's cleaner acid driven character. The wines have a rounder fuller body and flavors than the un-oaked Chardonnays and the acids are more restrained. The Classic New York Chardonnay style is generally more complex and balanced than either of the other styles.
Classic New York Chardonnay style serves as an excellent aperitif especially in cooler months as the rounder flavors and softer textures are more appropriate to drinking without foods. The wine is not so big as to become filling in and of itself so it helps to pique the appetite instead of sating it. Pairs well with marine fish especially prepared with citrus or fruit based sauces.
Reserve Chardonnay Style
Reserve style Chardonnays can be frequently be identified by the words "reserve" or "barrel fermented" somewhere on the label. A reserve Chardonnay is characterized by significant flavor modification in the cellar as a part of the vinification process. This style of winemaking is similar to that of the Meursault region of Burgundy. Fermentation is in usually in wood barrels but sometimes in steel vats. Reserve style Chardonnays are subjected to significant or complete malolactic fermentation. The wine is aged for extended periods in oak barrels of a higher percentage, or in some cases complete, new oak. The wood mellows and rounds the flavors imparting vanilla and caramel notes to the wine. Aging is often on the lees, that is the spent yeast cells created during fermentation are allowed to accumulate. Periodic batonnage (i.e. stirring) imparts yeast and fresh bread flavors while adding a smooth rich mouth-feel to the wine's texture. Typically riper fruit is used for this style wine than the other two. The body of these wines are full, round, deep, and rich. Flavor profiles are baked apples, ripe peaches and pears, smoke, toast, fresh bread, holiday spices, caramel, butterscotch, hazelnuts, and almonds with butter, and even sometimes,
hard cheeses notes. When well crafted, these wines can be complex and fascinating. When poorly made they are overstated, one-dimensional, and excessive without balance. Examples predominate in both the bottom and top of wines reviewed for this article.
The geographic region where the oak used for the barrels is from has a distinct
impact on the flavors of the wine. Most reserve Chardonnays are aged in either French, American, or with a very few exceptions in Eastern European oak. All oak imparts a vanilla flavor characteristic to the Chardonnay wine. American oak is characterized by coconut and dill notes and is bigger in flavoring and tannins than European wood. French wood exhibits spice, particularly holiday spice flavors and aromas but with lighter tannins than American oak. Eastern European oak is softer than French wood but with similar flavors and additionally banana and tapioca flavors. Toasting of the barrel will impart caramel, and butterscotch flavors and aromas proportional to the amount flame the wood is subjected to. Due to wood aging, reserve style Chardonnays are one of the few white wines where tannins can be a consideration in tasting and review.
Being a full bodied wine, reserve style Chardonnays are generally not good as aperitifs
as they can be filling. These wines pair beautifully with heartier marine fish dishes prepared with savory or cream based sauces. Reserve Chardonnays are also excellent paired with grilled steak fish.