California is known for its big, oaky, B-52 Butter-Bomber Chardonnays, but lately there’s been an emerging shift towards the drier, more traditional (read: French) stainless steel approach. As this trend gains more and more momentum, the number of customers who come up to me and say “I hate big oaky Chards” has dramatically increased. However, lately I’ve begun to wonder:
Do they even know what “oaky” means…?
Like many things in the world of wine, a great deal is misunderstood by the average consumer. From the natural presence of sulfites in all wines to whether or not a wine that tastes like berries actually has berries in it, there’s a lot of common wine knowledge out there that is more common than knowledgeable.
And in my experience, when a customer makes a comment about oak in relation to Chardonnay, more often than not they tend to be referring to “butteriness.” Case in point: I was serving the Smoking Loon Unoaked Chardonnay at a tasting, and the first thing one of the customers said after taking a sip of the wine was “Ooh, oaky.”
Oak can do a lot of things, but adding that buttery flavor that people love to love or hate is not one of them. The use of new oak barrels imparts flavors of vanilla, baking spices, nuttiness, and may also give the wine a toasty flavor depending on how much charring the cooper applied to the barrel. Oak treatment also mellows out the wine and can add a bit of wood tannin too.
But it don’t make things buttery, pal. Your beef’s with malolactic fermentation.
Malolactic fermentation (of MLF, since I don’t want to keep typing “malolactic” over and over) is a fairly typical process in winemaking, but which California Chardonnays are particularly known for. Essentially, when the wine is being made, a special fermentation process is initiated whereby bacteria convert malic acid, which is naturally present in the wine and has the tart flavor of green apples, to the much more mellow and creamier lactic acid.
Classically, MLF would be used in cooler regions like Burgundy to take the edge off wines that were, simply put, too mouth puckering even for the French to enjoy. However, in California, the climate is so pleasant that vineyards tend to be glutted with sun, and end up producing particularly well-ripened harvests of grapes that don’t need any extra help to be turned into tasty, enjoyable wines. Malolactic fermentation isn’t really necessary here, at least not in heavy doses.
Except we do it anyway.
And boy, can you taste it. In addition to softening the overall acidity of the wine, the malolactic process has the added effect of imparting that buttery flavor California Chards are so infamous for. That’s because a major byproduct of MLF is diacetyl, which is one of the two main chemicals that gives butter its eponymous flavor. So when a Chard is described as being buttery…
…it is literally buttery. Well, as buttery as movie popcorn, anyway.
But that really has nothing to do with the oak treatment the wine undergoes, and that’s where an incipient misconception has begun to brew. Oak shouldn’t take the wrap for butteriness: it was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most wines that go through a heavy regimen of MLF tend to also be heavily oaked, so it’s not unsurprising that the association between “oak” and “butter” has become so prevalent. However: I maintain that it is merely guilt by association, and it strikes me as a little bit unjust for the drinking public to view oak in Chardonnay with such suspicion and disdain when we conversely treat it as simply another piece of the oenological puzzle in our Cabernet or Merlot.
The fact is, both oak and MLF are tools wine makers use to imbue their wines with specific traits, and like any tool, they can be overused. I’ve had French Chardonnays that were completely unoaked but had a subtle creaminess behind the crisp, clean minerality that were quite lovely. Likewise, I’ve had dry, close to zero-percent MLF Chards with a pleasant note of allspice and vanilla on the finish, and that was nice too. There’s a balance to be struck with all wines, and that’s what oak and MLF are (ideally) all about: adding something to the wine making process that takes the natural character of the fruit and elevates it to something even better.
Now, I don’t want to transfer anyone’s hatred of oak onto MLF, but the next time you wander into the Chardonnay aisle and you want to avoid setting off a butter bomb with dinner that night, I suggest you forget about oak and look for a wine that underwent very little malolactic fermentation. Unfortunately, the word “malolactic” isn’t as marketable as “unoaked,” so figuring out which bottles are light on MLF will be tricky without doing a little research. May I suggest the Zaca Mesa Chardonnay to start with?
And of course, if you’re hiding in the corner afraid a group of wine snobs are going to lynch you for liking both butter and oak in your Chardonnay, stand tall my friend. I’m probably going to wind up ending all of my articles like this, but seriously, drink what you want, and how you want it, and if anyone tries to make you feel bad about what you like, save the last sip of the bottle to spit it in their eye.
Just make sure you know what you mean when you use the term “oaky,” OK?