Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Pure Chardonnay

Regarding my posts on oak, if you’d like to taste unadulterated fruit, I highly recommend the 2005 Napa Valley Unoaked Chardonnay by Hendry. Not only was it fermented in stainless steel vats and not barrel-aged, thus ensuring no wood influences, it also did not undergoing malo-lactic fermentation.

What is that, you may ask, and what difference does it make?

Newly fermented wine contains several kinds of acidity, one of which is owing to malic acid. “Malic” is derived from the Latin word for apple. Malic acid imparts to wine the same kind of tart crispness you find in a green apples. During malo-lactic fermentation, also called secondary fermentation, bacteria convert the malic acid into lactic acid, a milder acidity similar to that found in milk products such as yogurt. In the process carbon dioxide is produced, but no alcohol. The main component this secondary fermentation adds is diacetyl, the smell of which resembles that of heated butter.

Whether or not to induce or encourage malo-lactic fermentation is for a winemaker a major decision. Malo-lactic fermentation lowers overall acidity and makes a wine smoother, rounder, and “buttery,” as well as adding complexity. Most winemakers want their red wines to undergo malo-lactic fermentation, but not all their white ones. If they are aiming for a rich, buttery, Burundian style Chardonnay, then they want to see secondary fermentation take place. If, however, they are out to produce the crisp, apple-clean taste of a German Riesling, they don’t.

On the negative side, malo-lactic fermentation diminishes fruitiness and can add off-odors, and these are clearly potential drawbacks winemakers must keep in mind. He or she must decide if it’s worth trading a crisp fruitiness, a brightness of taste, for a round, buttery-textured complexity while at the same time running the risk of extraneous smells. At the extremes, for example a classic white Burgundy versus a German Riesling, the decision is pretty easy to make (yes in the first case, no in the second), but there are lots of gray areas in between.

Now, back to the 2005 Hendry Chardonnay. By foregoing malo-lactic fermentation the winemaker has further ensured a maximum of fresh fruit taste. Combined with stainless steel vats and no barrel aging, what Hendry offers is the crisp, green apple taste and smell of unadulterated Chardonnay. This is a “benchmark” wine. If you get its characteristics fixed in your mind you will not only know what the Chardonnay grape tastes like, but you will be able to better appreciate the deviations that
winemakers make, some of which produce outstanding results, some of which do not.

This should help you decide for yourself what style of wine you prefer, or give you a way to make choices when purchasing wine or matching it with food. As I keep stressing, there are few if any right or wrong answers. It’s a matter of what you like, what you are having the wine with, and how much you want to spend. But it pays to know what to expect based on grape variety, alcohol content, place of origin, and other information winemakers often provide on the back label, like whether or not secondary, malo-lactic fermentation took place.

The 2005 Hendry Chardonnay runs around $18 a bottle. For those of us on a budget, think of it as an investment in learning.