Remember those sweet, oaky, and buttery Californian chardonnays from the yesteryears? And how about that bottle of Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve chardonnay that always seemed to show up at every party we went to? Alas, how we were scarred! Drinking those wines, many of us swore off chardonnays for the rest of our lives. One of them even coined the notorious term “ABC” (“anything but chardonnay”).
Chardonnay happens to be the most versatile and widely-planted white wine variety in the world. According to “Wine Grapes,” the bible by Jancis Robinson, parental analysis by DNA showed that chardonnay is a cross between gouais blanc and pinot. The prodigious parents also produced two-dozen other wine varieties, such as aligoté and gamay, all through natural cross-breeding in the wild.
The grape is planted in just about every major wine-producing region in the world. However, its early budbreak (when the buds burst into green shoots) makes it susceptible to spring frost damage in cooler climates. Its thin skin causes a vulnerability to fungal attacks. But it ripens easily and is adaptable to different terroirs and climates, allowing it to be grown over a wide range of locations. It is pliable to winemaking techniques such as malolactic fermentation, lees contact, and barrel fermentation. Chardonnay earns its highest acclaim in Burgundy, with outstanding white Burgs from hallowed places such as Montrachet and Chablis.
About those reviled old-time Californian chardonnays. They were made by formulaic rote: first, harvest late to achieve super ripeness but then lower acidity; second, achieve 100-percent malolactic fermentation, a bacterial process that converted the grapes’ green apple-like malic acid to the mellower milky lactic acid, thereby adding buttery flavors; third, use highly-charred barrels to ferment and age the wine, imparting a heavy dose of coconut and vanilla to the flavors; and finally, a little residual sugar completes the sickly recipe.
When Californian chardonnays became in vogue in the early ‘80s, Finger Lakes vineyards began planting the variety. Early efforts were not encouraging. Dave Pohl, one of the wine gurus at Northside Wines in Ithaca, recalled, “I remembered when Robert Parker first started reviewing Finger Lakes chardonnays decades ago, he described many of them as being nasty and mean.”
After the turn of this century, the consumer’s interest in the heavy-handed style of chardonnay waned quickly. Winemakers around the country shifted from the oaky, buttery style to a cleaner and more vibrant one. Earlier harvest dates retained higher acidity. Better vineyard management such as leaf thinning and curbing yield helped to improve the overall quality. Super-charred barrels were replaced by light to medium-toast ones. The result is a renaissance of excellent chardonnay from coast to coast.
While Californian chardonnays tend to be more tropical in flavor, ones from the Finger Lakes lean more toward citrus, a trait found in cooler climate chardonnays. They may not be as showy as their West Coast sisters, but they more than make up for it with their balance, lively acidity, a touch of minerality, and, at its best, a trill of citrus such as Mandarin orange at mid-palate that lifts them to a wonderful height. And in the last decade or so, with an influx of new knowledge and talent, their overall quality has soared. Despite that, FLX Chardonnays are still mostly overlooked outside of the region. An article published last year in Wine Enthusiast Magazine presented 20 American chardonnays to look for, with nary a one from the Finger Lakes. But their anonymity does have an upside. A bottle typically costs just $13-20.
Chardonnays are typically divided into two styles: clean/unoaked and creamy/oaked. The Finger Lakes produce both styles well. Unoaked chardonnays are fermented in stainless steel tanks without ever seeing an oak barrel. Malolactic fermentation is usually cut off to retain the wine’s freshness. They represent a purer form of the grape. Oaked chardonnays are fermented and aged in toasty oak barrels, often new. They are usually rounder, with notes of coconut and vanilla, rich and full-bodied, while retaining a vibrant acidity.
Besides these FLX chardonnays, there are many others for you to explore on your own. And by the way, next time you go to a party, bring along a bottle. You might just open a few eyes.
Here are a few wonderful Finger Lakes Chardonnays representative of each style.
Clean and Unoaked
- 2017 Fox Run “Doyle Family” Chardonnay ($13) – Fresh and limpid; citrus and stone fruits; good acidity but by no means angular; an inexpensive and food-friendly Chardonnay. 88.
- 2017 Osmote “Cayuga Lake” Chardonnay ($17) – Surprising creamy entry; the bright acidity quickly restores order and along with the citrus fruit offer a refreshing and unfettered wine. 89.
Creamy and Oaky
- 2017 Bright Leaf Reserve Chardonnay ($18) – Made from 80% new French oak barrels and 100% malolactic fermentation, this wine has every right to be buttery and saccharine; yet it is vivacious and perky; a top-notch effort from this new winery. 91.
- 2016 Silver Thread STV Estate Vineyard Chardonnay ($18) – A full-bodied wine fermented and aged sur lees in old French and American barrels; the understated creaminess frames the green apples and citrus fruit nicely; good balance; sort of a synthesis of both styles. 90.