Variations in regional climate, differences in vineyard soils, and countless individual choices made by the winemaker create a producer’s style. Each factor influences lightness or richness, sweetness or dryness, uniqueness or conformity in the wine—and the overall impression it leaves with you.
There are over 7,500 wineries throughout the U.S. Over one-
third of them make chardonnay. Close to half of them—3,437—
produce cabernet sauvignon. Makes you wonder, does the country
really need that many chardonnays or cabernets? How much can
these wines, made from the same grape, differ from one another?
Actually, every one of them is unique.
Why? The foremost reason is climate. Grapes grown in a cool
climate retain a higher level of acidity than the same grape variety
grown in a warm climate. The high acid component produces a
crisp freshness on the palate, whereas the warm climate grapes
lose most of their acidity but develop more sugar. Higher sugar
means higher alcohol potential. Higher alcohol adds weight
to the wine, lending an impression of sweetness. Chardonnay,
for example, grown in these two disparate environments may
produce two very different wine styles. This difference in crispness
verses weightiness is a difference in mouthfeel, a combination of
viscosity with astringency or acidity.
Vineyard soils also influence a wine’s flavor profile. Soil
types vary greatly throughout California and around the world.
Chalk, limestone, clay, sand, gravel, loam, mineral components,
or volcanic deposits in soils each make unique contributions to
wine. Two examples:
• Grapes grown in the gravel, sand, loam, and volcanic-
deposit soils of the Rutherford area of California’s Napa
Valley are said to produce wines with an identifiable
“Rutherford dust” character, described as a unique
• The limestone-rich soil of the Chablis region in France
is a big reason why chardonnay grapes harvested there
produce wines of a steely, flinty quality.
Another factor is how the winemaker applies oak. The use of
oak in fermentation or the aging process brings more presence
to a wine’s mouthfeel, along with sweet flavor and aroma. The
greatest impact comes from new oak barrels filled with wine for
the first time. So, choose an “un-oaked” chardonnay, for example,
if you prefer a crisp, lighter mouthfeel. Conversely, if you like
a soft, buttery style with a hint of vanilla, look for chardonnay
aged with at least 40% new oak, or made using one or all of these
• Barrel-fermented: Chardonnay fermented inside an oak
barrel absorbs toasted oak compounds from the barrel
as fermentation progresses, mostly adding weight to the
wine but also a touch of sweet aroma.
• Aged-on-the-Lees: Lees are tiny dead yeast cells that
settle at the bottom of a wine barrel, or tank, after
fermentation is complete. About every other week during
aging, they are manually stirred to mix more with the
wine and create a rich, creamy mouthfeel.
• Malolactic Fermentation: ML is a secondary
fermentation, caused by injecting the wine with a natural
lactic acid bacteria that converts tart, apple-like acid into
softer, milk-like acid, creating chardonnay with a rounder
Many choices made by winemakers contribute unique style to
a wine, differentiating it from others made with the same grape
variety. One decision is whether or not to combine it with wine
made from other grapes…