Grape of the Week: Chardonnay


With this grape of the week theme, I’ve decided to address the biggies first. And Chardonnay may well qualify as the most popular wine in the world. For many people, white wine is Chardonnay.

What to Expect
It’s popularity is interesting because from a winemaker’s point of view, Chardonnay is somewhat a blank canvas – a relatively neutral variety ideal for showcasing terroir (an expression of the place it comes from) and also his bag of tricks! When pinned down, winemakers often compare Chardonnay to apple, pear and citrus. But, you’ll find tropical aromas – banana, pineapple – from warm-climate situations like Napa Valley and the warm spots of Australia (most of SE Australia.)

It’s also quite the jet setter. While many varieties are limited to a warm climate or cool climate situation, Chardonnay is successfully grown just about everywhere. And, this makes it hard for you to know what to expect.

You’ll find fruit-driven, completely unoaked Chardonnays alongside rich, oaky “butter-bombs” in the wine shop and everything in between. Creaminess is a sign of extra effort and care in production. You may detect noticeable mineral-like characteristics and hazelnut in Chardonnay from Burgundy. Chard can be extremely tart (cool climate) or fairly flat and flabby (warm climate) depending upon the region and the degree of care taken throughout production. 

Chardonnay is normally medium to full bodied. Bargain brands may be light and thin, a common result of over cropping.

Chardonnay’s roots
Chardonnay is an ancient resident of Burgundy, France. In this part of the world you won’t often see the name Chardonnay on the label. Instead, the wine is known as white Burgundy. If you’ve ever enjoyed a glass of French Chablis – not the California jug wine called Chablis – you were drinking Chardonnay. Not so similar to those from Napa or Sonoma, right? Same deal for Montrachet, Meursault, Pouilly Fuissé (Pouilly Fumé is Sauvignon Blanc) or Maconnais (mack-oh-nay) on the label.

TRIVIA! Chardonnay is a child of Pinot Noir, which may account for those who persist in calling it Pinot Chardonnay. The other parent is a variety known as Gouais Blanc, which is rarely produced anymore, but is called “the Casanova of grapes” because it fathered so many better-known offspring.

The Winemaker’s Bag of Tricks
While Riesling and Moscato are white wines focused solely on the fruit, Chardonnay often displays multiple production aromas and flavors. So, as with Champagne, there’s the question of nature vs. nurture: Which is the driver?

Here are some techniques that have considerable influence on the style of the finished wine:

Malolactic fermentation: This “second fermentation” softens the wine’s acidity and adds buttery character – a little or a lot.

TRIVIA! The ingredient that makes your microwave popcorn buttery, diacetyl, is the same one that makes your Chardonnay buttery. Diacetyl is a bi-product of malolactic fermentation. 

New oak barrels: An expensive Chardonnay with a lot of oak flavor probably went into a good percentage of new barrels. Barrels are like tea bags: they give up their flavor with use. Barrel fermentation (as opposed to tank fermentation) helps to integrate the fruit and oak flavors. An inexpensive Chard with overtly oak character was most likely flavored with oak chips or some other oak product.

TRIVIA! Barrel aging wine is very expensive. The 60-gallon barrels you see in most wineries cost anywhere from about $400.00 (American oak) to over $1000.00 each (French oak.) And labor costs go way up with barrel aging because the wine is being managed just 60-gallons at a time. Every time he needs to do something, such as racking (to clarify the wine), the winemaker has to do it over and over. If the wine was in a 5000-gallon tank there’s a lot less work. Plus anywhere from 2 – 5% of the wine is lost to evaporation from barrels each year – the “angel’s share.”

Sur lie aging: Aging the wine on the spent yeast cells (the lees) adds a creamy dimension, especially if the lees were stirred regularly (batonnage.)

Good Eats
The variability in style also means variability in pairing, but seafood is a good bet, especially shell fish. Chardonnay has the weight to stand up to the assertive flavor of salmon and makes a wonderful match. 

Poultry dishes will work well with virtually any style of Chardonnay, although you may find that if you barbeque the chicken, you start leaning toward a red. The sweetness of pork can be very nice with Chardonnay. So much of this is dependent upon the actual preparation of the dish and personal preference. 

The lean styles from cool climates have almost the same versatility as Sauvignon Blanc at the table. They’re a refreshing counterpoint for rich, creamy or buttery dishes and aren’t likely to fight with anything. These crisp wines will pair well with such a wide variety of cheeses, just buy what you like.

The big oaky, buttery Chardonnays are less versatile, but most people find that oak and nutty flavors have quite an affinity. Smoky oak can be terrific with smoked foods – think smoked salmon. Some will love the rich + rich of pairing a high malolactic Chardonnay with a very creamy dish. Others will find it cloying – there’s only one way to find out!

Anything with butter. So, if you’re contemplating a certain food and want to serve it with Chardonnay, try to work in some butter or cream by using it to sauté the item or via a sauce. Cheers!

Send me your wine question   I’ll get back to you in a jiffy!

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