The story of Chardonnay is in part a story of how new technology supports inventive approaches to winemaking. It’s also a story of how technology can send you down a rabbit hole of corrections correcting the corrections correcting the corrections.
Elaine Chukan Brown’s Story of Chardonnay contains many such vignettes that casts light on how and why wine styles change.
It’s doubtful that Chardonnay would have achieved it’s prominence without the invention of temperature controlled fermentation tanks, usually attributed to Mike Webb at Hanzell Winery in the early 1950’s. Temperature-controlled tanks allowed winemakers to ferment at lower temperatures thus retaining the bright fruit notes that California Chardonnay would become known for, and drawing a contrast with the earthy, more herbal expressions from France. Robert Mondavi picked up this innovation and applied it to his larger, more commercial operation in the mid 1960’s giving the technology a higher profile, and soon almost everyone was using stainless steel to make their white wines.
But that eliminated oak barrels from the fermentation process which had contributed body and flavor to the wine. Thus winemakers began leaving wine on the skins longer to increase extraction of more flavor before fermentation. However, that increased the extraction of harsh phenolic compounds as well and created more sediment in the wine which necessitated the use of centrifuges and other filtering techniques to remove these unwanted compounds. But this filtering along with the cooler temperatures created problems with fermentations which were corrected by using cultivated yeasts engineered to flourish in that environment. New oak aging increasingly became a popular technique for increasing flavor and body as well.
The result was a highly manipulated wine but one that had plenty of bold flavors and was ready to drink when bottled. It was this style that led wine writer Frank Prial in 1981 to call California Chardonnay “clumsy and overpowering” when compared to more subtle French wines.
As one might expect, this led many California producers to back off the winery tricks, helped out by a renewed interest in French winemaking, leading to lighter, fresher wines in the 1980’s, although a heavier style would return with a vengeance in the 1990’s.
Sometimes styles change not because of consumer demand but because tinkerers gotta tinker.