Grape of the Night: Exploring French Chardonnays

The origin of Chardonnay is from the Burgundy region of France.  Like French Bordeaux and Burgundy wines the French Chardonnays are named according to the region that they come from.  French Chardonnays are commonly called White Burgundies since they are believed to have originated in the Burgundy region of France.

Rusty @ ACU headshotFrench and American Chardonnays are very different in flavor as discovered by the Grape of the Night (GOTN) group.  French Chardonnays are rich with an abundance of fruit flavors.  They generally have no oak on the nose or palate and have a fair amount of acidity to give it a bright and crisp taste on the palate.  The other key feature is the minerality that can be found in these wines.  French Chardonnays, like most French wines, offer a unique complexity with layers of unique flavors and aromatics.

The American/New World version of this wine is extremely different.  Americans, in general, love their Chardonnays oaky, buttery and full-bodied.  This difference stems mostly from the wine making or vinification  process.  The primary reason for the buttery, creamy, soft,  full-bodied flavor is due to Malolactic Fermentation (MLF).
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  This is the style that is most sought after in America.  France uses very little MLF compared to the United States.

MLF is a chemical process that converts strong malic acid to a softer lactic acid by using a lactic acid bacteria.  This process softens the wine and creates a more fuller mouth feel.

Another difference is that the French ferment/age their Chardonnays in neutral oak, cement or stainless steel where Americans use oak barrels (new oak).  The stainless, with little MLF, produces a very crisp and bright Chardonnay with fantastic fruits on the nose and palate.  American Chardonnays with their MLF process and oak barrels produce buttery, oaky, full-bodied wines with hints of vanilla.  Another difference is the result of the cooler temperatures of France compared to California.  Therefore, French Chardonnays have a lighter body, lower alcohol and higher acidity compared to California Chardonnays.

The GOTN attendees that came to this tasting brought some fine examples.  The list and tasting notes are as follows.

2009 Cru Domaine Testut Montee de Tonnerre, Chablis Premier Cru

  • Aroma – Crisp
  • Palate – Tropical fruit, minerality, spices with nice body

2009 Domaine des Deux Roches Mâcon-Villages

  • Aroma – Acacia (Thorn Tree), vanilla, minerality and pears
  • Palate – Lemon, acidic on the finish
  • Pairs well with fish such as salmon

2010 Evening Land Mersault

  • Aroma – Hazelnuts and wild flowers
  • Palate – Butter, minerality, acidity and spices on the finish

2011 Vin de Bourgogne Blanc Vielles Vignes

  • Aroma – Light Earthiness, barnyard and petroleum
  • Palate – Creamy and light citrus

It was quite evident from this tasting that the American and French vintners are targeting a completely different clientele with their wines.  One of the comments that was brought up was the French Chardonnays were meant to go with food.  One of the members purchased a cheese plate to test this hypothesis and it was found to be quite true.  Wines in the Old World are a common daily beverage consumed for lunch, dinner, etc.  Americans want that big full-bodied buttery Chardonnay that can be savored on its own.
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  Both are very successful in their own realm.  The question to you is, what kind of wine do you like?  Why not have and use both,  one with a meal and one by the fireplace for instance.  It is your decision.

I would like to thank Valencia Wine Company for their endless support of GOTN not to mention the wine lovers of Santa Clarita.  Thank you to all that made this an educational and informative evening.


Rusty Sly