Winemakers are expressing Chardonnay in an entirely new way.
By Kathleen Willcox
Malo + Chardonnay = J. Lo + Ben Affleck.
You either love them together or gag at the very notion. But perhaps there’s a more measured course?
“Our preference now is limited MLF,” says James Sparks, winemaker at Liquid Farm and his own label, Kings Carey, in Santa Barbara, Calif. “It creates more depth in wines, and we find when our Chardonnays don’t go through it, the flavors are more green apple than Golden Delicious.”
The exciting news is, these new Chards are finding an audience — slowly but surely.
“Ten years ago, people wouldn’t even want to try our Chardonnays,” says Anne Sery, director of winemaking at NW Wine Company in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which produces 300,000 cases of wine annually. “They’d ask if we aged in new oak and went through malo. When I said ‘yes,’ they said they weren’t interested.
“But then the Oregon Chardonnay Celebration launched, and we started to change people’s minds. They discovered that our high-acid grapes, picked early and aged in French new oak for 10 to 16 months, can go through malo and emerge with a more Burgundian style, instead of the old idea they had of buttery California Chardonnay.”
Brief History of MLF in the USA
Malolactic conversion, a.k.a. malolactic fermentation, MLF and malo, has a checkered history. Boiled down, the chemical process entails the conversion of malic acid—naturally present in new red and white wines—to lactic acid, which is lower in acidity and carbon dioxide. The process happens with the help of lactic acid bacteria, also naturally present in most wine cellars, but often introduced via a lab culture, especially in newer facilities.
MLF happens in virtually all red wines, but in whites, the introduction of malo is considered more of a stylistic choice, hence the strong opinions and controversy. With Chardonnay, the most widely planted white grape variety in the world, the feelings are especially intense. This most flexible of grapes — depending on when it’s harvested and the producer’s choices in the cellar — can be either lean and muscular, or opulent and, wait for it, buttery.
“Unlike Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc, which are definitely more terroir-driven, Chardonnay is a grape that can be influenced a lot by choices you make in the vineyard and the cellar,” says Nova Cadamatre, MW, a consulting winemaker and founder of Trestle Thirty One. “The end result is much more about the style the winemaker is going for, whereas Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc are about where it’s grown.”
Chardonnay wines rose to prominence in the United States beginning in the 1950s, when winemakers such as Brad Webb at Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma, Calif., and Fred McCrea at Stony Hill Vineyard in St. Helena, Calif., began making Bourgogne-style Chardonnays, in which MLF is encouraged, typically in-barrel. The malo-centric Chardonnay movement was mainstreamed in 1976 when Mike Grgich out-Bourgogned the Bourgognes at the Judgement of Paris with his 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay.
Sales skyrocketed and, in the 1980s and 1990s, the wine became practically ubiquitous — which soon became part of the problem, as it led to an influx of badly made, insipid Chards quite rightly derided as “butter bombs.” By the mid-’90s the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement was pushing for fresher, livelier and more character-driven wines; the popularity of flinty stainless-steel fermented Chardonnays eclipsed the popularity of barrel-fermented Chardonnays that had undergone MLF.“We’re going through a rebalancing with Chardonnay,” says Steven Gerbac, winemaker and general manager at Rusack Vineyards near Solvang, Calif. “There was a pendulum swing back from big, buttery Chardonnays, and the steely ones caught on. For a long time, the middle ground was lost. But increasingly, people want that added weight and complexity to counteract the acidity. Now, it’s more about balance.”
Read on for more about how winemakers across the states are walking the line between butter and steel.
An essential step in shaping the style of the Chardonnay is choosing the right harvesting time.
“In California, I think a lot of people harvest too late,” says Cadamatre, who has helped make wine at iconic properties including Robert Mondavi Winery and Beringer Vineyards. “They are waiting for flavors in the grapes, but in the case of Chardonnay, it’s really important to consider how the acid is tracking. If you harvest earlier at lower °Brix levels, it’s better over the long term and you’ll create more ageable wines. In the Finger Lakes where it’s cooler, we push the grapes until the last minute, right before the rain hits.”
Carlo DeVito, author, most recently, of The Spirit of Rye, and traveling winemaker on the East Coast, concurs.
“On the East Coast, the wine starts leaner, with more orchard fruit flavors — even when you push it as far as it can go,” DeVito says. “In California, [the fruit] can be huge, big, yellow and tropical if you let it hang too long, and that’s where a little malo can go a long way.”
“Depending on how cool the site and vintage is, we pick between 21 and 23 °Brix,” says Parr. “For a cooler site and vintage, we’ll pick on the higher end. But in all cases, we’re looking to find a balance at the end between freshness and creaminess.”
Fermentation & Aging Choices
When the pendulum of critical and popular taste swung from full- to no-malo, the common practice of fermenting and aging Chardonnay in new and aged barrels pivoted to stainless steel. These days, many winemakers seek a sweet spot in between.
“We harvested our Chardonnay fruit in four stages, with a September 16 pick to establish a bright fruit core, finishing on October 7 to layer in tropical notes,” says Mike Sinor, winemaker at San Luis Obispo’s Ancient Peaks Winery. “After harvesting and light pressing, 66% of the juice was cold-fermented in stainless steel to preserve the delicate aromas and bright fruit flavors. The remainder was barrel-fermented and aged in 40% new oak to add roundness, texture and complexity. The oak lot underwent a secondary malolactic fermentation which lent a touch of creaminess to the wine.”
Limited MLF is also the way Iterum Wines in Salem, Ore., finds balance.
“My goal is to limit malolactic development to approximately 15% of the total volume, and only allow ML to go to about 50% completion,” says Joe Dobbes, Iterum’s proprietor and winemaker. “I do this to create Chablis-like acidity, but with more depth and palate weight. I achieve the mouthfeel and palate weight with extended aging on the primary fermentation lees for 16 months, and other means like using native yeasts so that the wines exhibit authenticity. I also don’t stir the barrels other than when I’m adjusting the free SO2 level. This minimizes oxygen pickup and keeps the Chardonnay fresh and youthful.”
Gerbac, meanwhile, aims for 100% MLF in Rusack’s Chardonnays, which has an annual production of about 8,000 cases, 20% of which is Chardonnay.
“Our goal is 100%, but sometimes the vintage doesn’t allow that in hotter years,” he says. “We obviously pick early, and we also use 20% to 40% new French oak, and then blend it with a lot or two fermented in stainless steel. The goal is finding a balance and adding complexity. Our stainless lots bring a lot of fruit. We do quite a bit of batonnage during barrel fermentation, which rounds out the wine and brings in mid-palate weight. The increased lees contact actually suppresses diacetyl, which is what creates that overly buttery flavor.”
Sparks typically ages for between 11 and 18 months in 60-gallon barrels and 130-gallon barrels for Kings Carey and Liquid Farms, and his approach to batonnage varies.
“For Liquid Farm’s White Hill and Golden Slope, my approach depends on the vintage,” Sparks says. “If it’s a lean year, the barrels get stirred more. For three months, the barrels get stirred every other week. White Hill gets dropped sooner from the stirring program. If it’s a ripe year, we don’t do much stirring because we don’t need that extra weight and texture. Some years MLF happens, other years it doesn’t. With Kings Carey, I want them to go through MLF, but I don’t want a flabby wine, so we pay close attention to picking times and watch the wines carefully as they develop to find that balance of high acid and flavor.”
Parr also likes pushing malo all the way, when the vintage works with him. But he doesn’t stir at all — ever.
“The batonnage would make it too creamy,” he says. “Our creamy texture comes from the California sun. We put our Chardonnay in barriques and 500-liter barrels and that let the creaminess come through, while also retaining its freshness and linear spirit.”
Finding the sweet spot of fully developed flavors and aromas led Cadamatre to roll, instead of stir her barrels.
“It looks like a barrel rack on skateboard wheels,” she says. “We tap the bung in really well and then roll the barrel. When you open and stir, you’re exposing that wine to oxygen. Chardonnay is so delicate, and there are so many aromas and flavors that can be damaged by oxygen, but at the same time, lees stirring is essential. This lets you stir the lees without damaging the wine.”
More, Pricier Chardonnay Grown & Crushed
Chardonnay is clearly on the rise, both in terms of plantings and popularity, in both Oregon and California.
In California, 619,360 tons of Chardonnay were crushed in 2021, up from 568,295 in 2001, and 558,794 in 2011. Chardonnay now accounts for the largest percentage of the tonnage crushed, at 16%; Cabernet Sauvignon comes in at 15.3%, according to statistics from the USDA. The average price per ton in California was $967.52, up 16.6% year-over-year.
In Oregon, there were 2,724 acres of Chardonnay under vine in 2021, compared with 2,610 acres the year before, a rise of 4.3%, according to the Oregon Wine Board. The median price per ton in 2021 was $2,700, compared with the median price of $2,371 in 2020, an increase of 13.9%, an indication that the value is rising faster than the volume of grapes being produced.
Chardonnay became the second-most shipped wine from Oregon in 2021, with increases of 28.7% in volume and 36.4% in value year-over-year.
After decades of all or nothing approaches to MLF, vintners are finding a new market of curious sippers willing to learn the ABCs of Chardonnay in all of its forms: steely, buttery and with mellow malo.
“People want a touch of malo these days,” Cadamatre says. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”
Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine Searcher, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox