As different as each varietal is from one another, they typically tend to taste consistent regardless of where the grapes are grown or how long the wine is aged. Most sommeliers can pick up subtle nuances of difference between the same varietal and vintage from two different vineyards, but for the most part, there is a consistency. The average wine drinker can order a glass of Merlot at any restaurant and has a solid expectation of what they will get.
The one wine with a bit of a split personality is Chardonnay. This has nothing to do with what region the grapes are from, who is making the wine or what vintage it may be. Rather, it all comes down to the barrels that the wine was aged in. Traditionally, Chardonnay has been aged in oak barrels, but many wine makers over the last few decades have turned to stainless steel vats instead. These vats are substantially less expensive than the oak, but they are not interchangeable.
Let anything soak in an oak barrel long enough and there will be a significant change in the flavor. Many liquor companies stress the type of barrels that they use, and one of the newest trends in bartending is barrel aged cocktails. It is no different when it comes to wine, especially Chardonnay. The oak barrels are what are responsible for giving Chardonnay that rich, buttery flavor and texture, what many people would consider the signature element of Chardonnay. These reactions occur because the wood is porous and allows the wine to freely mingle with the oak staves of the barrel.
Stainless steel allows for none of this reaction. This results in a wine that is much drier and cleaner. Many vineyards and winemakers are okay with this, and market their Chardonnay as such. Some, however, are trying to find ways to have the best of both worlds. They want the economy of stainless steel and the flavor of oak. To do this, they will drop large quantities of oak chips, or even staves from old oak barrels into the wine. The biggest drawback to this is the inconsistency with which the wood and the wine mingle, creating a wine that is caught somewhere between the two.
Many of the small batch wineries in California have decided to spend the extra money and invest in the traditional oak barrels. They recognize that there are plenty of other white varietals that are naturally drier, and the growth in popularity of wine drinking in general means many consumers are more adventurous. Instead of feeling the need to stick with the one wine they know, they will move towards a Pinot Grigio or Fume Blanc if they are not in the mood for a buttery Chardonnay. This allows the winemakers to create perfect examples of the California Chardonnay that started the domestic wine industry in the first place.
Jack Terry is a freelance writer who has been covering the food and beverage industry for more than 20 years.