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The Enduring Appeal of Buttery Chardonnay

Rich, decadent styles of Chardonnay are still as popular as ever with drinkers

Janice Williams By August 11, 2021
illustration of butter and Chardonnay wine
Illustration by Irina Perju.

Remember back in the ’90s when everyone hated Chardonnay

It wasn’t the grape itself that people had a problem with, but rather the style of Chardonnay filling store shelves and restaurant lists at the time. The butter-flavored Chardonnay, that’s what they despised. Those wines, most often associated with California Chardonnays, feature decadent flavors of vanilla and oak and a rich mouthfeel.

The disdain sparked an entire movement, dubbed ABC, as in: Anything but Chardonnay. It was an effort to fight back against the style and — according to some — the lazy choices of Chardonnay makers. The ABC movement challenged people to try different types and styles of white wine that were less common on American dining tables.

Despite all this, everyday drinkers continued to guzzle the stuff, and they’re still enjoying their buttery Chardonnay today. 

This white grape is the second-highest selling wine variety in the U.S. Cabernet Sauvignon was the number one wine in volume and value in 2020, with $3.2 billion in sales compared to Chardonnay’s $2.8 billion, according to Nielsen data. Chardonnay was even at the epicenter of legal drama last year. JaM Cellars, which makes a Chardonnay named Butter, sued Wine Group for labeling its Franzia boxed Chardonnay “Rich & Buttery” and using a similar color wave on its packaging. 

“I love buttery Chards these days,” says Jason Ostrander, a fitness trainer living in New York City. “It’s nostalgic to the taste that got me into wine in the first place. I had it at a country club in Michigan where I worked and could actually taste fruits and vanilla.”

The ABC movement did spark some lasting changes, however. Though there are still plenty of buttery Chardonnay to be found, newer unoaked styles of the wine, which are more fruit-driven, have become widely popular as well.

How Chardonnay gets its diversity of flavors 

The beauty of Chardonnay is that it is an incredibly versatile grape. There are dozens of Chardonnay clones, each yielding different flavor profiles. That’s one reason it’s possible to find lush tropical examples alongside crisp, minerally Chardonnays. 

“Chardonnay clones are like apples. There are tart green apples. There’s Fuji. There’s Red Delicious. They’re all apples, but they don’t necessarily taste the same. Chardonnay is the same in that there are clones of Chardonnay grapes that when you taste them, if the fruit tastes floral, the wine tends to be floral. Same with notes like lemon, citrus, stone fruit,” says Sarah Quider, head winemaker for Foley Family Wines, which produces labels like Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery, Chalk Hill Estates, and Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery

She adds: “Depending on what style of Chardonnay you want to make, you can choose what clone to grow in the vineyard, and that will dictate the starting point of your wine. From there, all the different things that you can do with blending or malolactic fermentation or oak barreling come into play.”

Climate and soil also influence Chardonnay’s flavor profile. Grapes grown in cooler regions tend to have more acidity, while grapes in warmer areas ripen faster and showcase more of the fruit’s natural sweetness. Volcanic, chalky, limestone soils? Higher chance that the grapes will exude mineral characteristics. 

Then there’s malolactic fermentation, a process where tart malic acid converts to softer lactic acid, which winemakers can incorporate during the winemaking process to give the wine a richer, creamier texture. However, the conversion of malic acid isn’t the only contributor of buttery notes. The malolactic conversion of citric acid in the wine can also release diacetyl, an organic compound that has an intense buttered popcorn flavor. 

Of course, barreling plays a role too. Nuances from the barrel impact the wine’s flavor, especially when new barrels are used. That’s how some Chardonnays develop spice, coconut, and vanilla flavors. In contrast, fermenting and aging in stainless steel tanks tends to give purer expressions of the fruit. 

“It’s the vineyard. It’s the clone. It’s the winemaking process. It’s the barrels. There are so many little nuances that make the wine. It’s vintage too. Different years taste different, even though you have the same grapes, same winemaking, same protocols,” says Quider. “It’s like a big puzzle, and all the little pieces come together to make the wine.”

Something for everyone 

“I am not a buttery Chardonnay type of person. I love the crisp, citrus, concentration without viscosity, subtle floral and tropical fruit Chardonnays that the grape itself can provide without the addition of oak or over-oaking,” says Odila Galer-Noel, founder of PRonCall. “The butteriness makes it too heavy and opulent for me to enjoy more than one glass.”

“It’s the vineyard. It’s the clone. It’s the winemaking process. It’s the barrels. There are so many little nuances that make the wine.”

It’s that opulence that makes richer styles of Chardonnay so enjoyable to others, like Ostrander, who appreciates the fact that buttery Chardonnay can be both “refreshing on a hot day, and hearty enough to keep you interested.”

While Quider likes to drink unoaked Chardonnays in warmer weather, she can’t deny the appeal of creamy, buttery, richer styles of the wine, especially with food. She prefers oaked Chardonnays when eating dishes like roasted chicken, lobster, or grilled fish. 

Nonetheless, it pleases Quider to know consumers have more adventurous palates nowadays. 

“I truly believe that Chardonnay is the queen of all wines,” she says. “And no matter your preference, I feel like there are more options to satisfy all types of customers. There’s truly something for everyone.”

4 buttery Chardonnays to try:

bottle of La Crema Winery Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

La Crema Winery Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($17)

If you like your Chardonnay layered with fragrances of florals and butterscotch but packed with citrus flavors and a light touch of oak, then La Crema’s Chardonnay is the one for you. Produced from grapes grown in one of Sonoma County’s largest appellations, the Sonoma Coast AVA, the wine spends seven months barreled in French, American, and new oak before it’s bottled and ready to go.

bottle of Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($21)

Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards has specialized in producing a variety of styles of the Chardonnay in California for 40 years. This one, in particular, was primarily barreled in oak, although 15% of the juice spent some of its eight-month fermentation in stainless steel. The result is a wine that expresses juicy notes of melon, pear, and peach as well as rich flavors of spiced oak and toasted nuts. 

bottle of Ferrari-Carano Tré Terre Sonoma-County Chardonnay 2018

Ferrari-Carano Tré Terre Sonoma-County Chardonnay 2018 ($35)

For the Tré Terre series, the winemakers at Ferrari-Carano hand harvest, whole-cluster press, then barrel ferment the wine with native and cultured yeasts. The wine undergoes malolactic fermentation followed by aging on the lees — meaning, the wine has contact with yeast cells for purposes of flavor and textural enrichment — during which the wine is stirred weekly for five weeks before its barreled again in neutral oak until bottling. The final result? A lush and full-bodied wine dripping with rich, buttery complexity.

bottle of Chalk Hill Estate, Chalk Hill AVA Chardonnay 2018

Chalk Hill Estate, Chalk Hill AVA Chardonnay 2018 ($45)

This wine, made in Sonoma’s Chalk Hill appellation, has both fruity aromas of crisp apple and orange blossoms as well as fragrances of vanilla and toasted marshmallow. It’s creamy and rich on the palate, a product of the malolactic fermentation and the 11 months spent in French and new oak barrels.