Understanding the relationship between sugar and flavor in any wine, is key to distinguishing between sweet wines, and flavors our mind associate with sweet things. To this point answering the question is Chardonnay sweet or dry, is pretty straightforward. It all depends on the winemaker and the decisions they make along the way to getting the bottle into your hands.
What is Chardonnay?
Chardonnay grapes originate from the famous wine region of Burgundy, France and are prized for their extreme adaptability. They will grow in almost any grape-growing soil or climate, often in abundance and will need little for extra care. This ease of cultivation is why Chardonnay is also known as “the winemaker’s grape”.
Due to this remarkable adaptability and durability, harvesting is key in deciding how Chardonnay grapes will taste. Generally speaking, the younger a grape is the more acidic it tastes, while older grapes taste sweeter. This is because over time the natural acids in wine grapes are consumed while sugar is created by photosynthesis from leaves on the grape vine.
Once the grapes have been harvested, the wine is fermented in more or less the same way as other wines. The grapes are juiced, fermented, stored, and aged to create the famous final product wine enthusiasts know and love. What the wine is fermented, stored, and aged in, however, does have an effect on how the wine tastes.
On it’s own Chardonnay has a medium body with a fruity flavors and a tinge of acidity. The grapes are generally harvested earlier to help maintain acidity and avoid over ripe fruit flavors. Chardonnays are commonly fruity with notes of pineapple or pear when aged properly.
While this is Chardonnay’s most common state, there are a number of ways that a vintner can affect the perception of sweet or dry Chardonnay.
How is Sweet Chardonnay Made?
Wine making is a highly involved and complex process, involving numerous factors and processes that create the unique flavor of each wine, and this is no different for Chardonnay. How it is harvested, aged, and mixed all impact the qualities of the final product, creating either sweet or dry Chardonnay. The key thing to remember is in winemaking sweet and dry are technical terms that refer to the amount of residual sugar left in the wine after fermentation. Most still wines, will have little to no sugar remaining. Occasionally a winemaker will choose to leave sugar in the wine. This could be for a variety of reasons. Botrytis (often called Noble Rot) can raisin the grapes driving sugar levels way up. In years where this happens the yeast might not be able to eat all the sugar. A wine might be lacking in fruit characteristic, so sugar will help to intensify the fruit notes. Or a winemaker may simply want to make a dessert wine. Chardonnay is not a famous grape for dessert wines but there are lots of versions out there.
The easiest, cheapest, and often least pleasing way of creating sweet Chardonnay is to simply add more sugar to the wine. Directly adding sugar, usually processed artificial sugar, does create a sweeter flavor, but this blunt method often creates a flavor more like medicine than proper wine. This process, called chapatilization, is also illegal in some places like California
A more common method of creating good, sweet Chardonnay is to halt fermentation. As the yeast is eating up the sugar, the winemaker will taste for a sweetness level they are looking for, and then using either cold or sulfur, stop the fermentation, leaving extra sugar in the wine.
Now the tricky part. Because Chardonnay often has fruit flavors like pineapple or guava, its easy to taste a wine and think this is sweet. In reality, and the preferred language, is to say the wine is fruity. Further complicating the matter, Chardonnay’s versatility means it can develop other flavors we associate with sweet, like coconut or creme brulee even caramel. What are some of the factors that make this happen you might ask? Key to the development of these flavors is aging the wine in oak barrels. Oak barrels have been a staple of winemaking for centuries, as the unique qualities of the wood create different flavors and textures in the finished wine. They expose the wine to natural compounds like tannin while they age, allow a small amount of air to aid in proper oxygenation, and can impart flavors like vanilla.
Wine aged in new oak barrels tend to develop sweeter flavors, with notes of vanilla and cocoa. By contrast wine aged in older (neutral) oak barrels will not pickup the vanilla flavor from the barrel but will help to soften the acidic flavor and preserve some of the fruity character. Most vintners will actually use both types of barrels to age wine, blending different lots to achieve a finished product they are happy with.
Another key to producing Chardonnay with the sweeter non fruit flavors is to let the wine undergo malolactic fermentation. Malic acid is one of the 3 primary acids found in grapes. The Lactobicyllus yeast can convert this acid into lactic acid, which is softer and smoother on the palate.
Malolactic fermentation often happens right at the end of primary fermentation, or just after completing. Many winemakers will inoculate there wines to ensure this process completes, as many see this as adding in stability. The smooth, almost creamy texture of the new wine, and the reduction of acidic flavor, can make the wine seem sweeter. Of course, this process does not add any sugar to the wine, so the resulting sweetness is a trick of the palate.
How to Tell if a Chardonnay is Sweet or Dry?
If you are looking for a particular flavor in Chardonnay it can be difficult to judge if a bottle is sweet or dry at first glance. Some bottles will label themselves clearly to show their natural flavors, while others can be frustratingly vague or lack flavor descriptions.
A key feature to look for when selecting Chardonnay is where the wine comes from. For example, French Chardonnay is often dryer and lighter than other varieties due to the strict adherence to traditional winemaking methods and the colder climate of French wine regions like Burgundy.
Generally speaking cold climates such as France, Germany, and Northern California create dryer Chardonnays, since they are more acidic. Meanwhile warmer climates like Italy and Southern California tend to create Chardonnay with a sweeter flavor as they are less acidic but fruitier in flavor.
European wineries also tend to use more neutral oak barrels, due to oak’s effects on the flavor and body of wine. In contrast wineries in North and South America are more likely to use new oak barrels to create a sweeter flavor and a smoother, fuller body.
When looking for dry Chardonnay, aim for colder regions, particularly in Europe, if you are looking for an elegant bottle of light, dry wine. If you are looking for fruitier or oakier Chardonnay, however, look for wines from warmer climates outside of Europe, where vintners are more likely to get experimental and appreciate a glass of full-bodied Chardonnay.
Chardonnay, while famous as a dry white wine, can run the full flavor gamut from sweet and full bodied to dry and light.
This is because Chardonnay changes flavor and body depending on where it is grown, when it is harvested, and how it is processed. Vintners can add sugar to the Chardonnay, age the wine in oak barrels to alter its qualities, ferment it again for a smoother flavor, harvest the grapes earlier for a more natural sugar, or perform all of these processes simultaneously.
Generally speaking European vintners enjoy a more natural Chardonnay, which is dry in flavor and light in body, while winemakers outside of Europe are more willing to experiment with their wine to create sweeter Chardonnay with a fuller, smoother body.