Chardonnay is the most versatile and widely-grown white wine grape, producing full-bodied wines in varying styles. Most notably grown in Burgundy and California, many examples from South America to New Zealand. Pinning down one single style of Chardonnay can be difficult since most of its character comes from the winemaking techniques. Lees aging imparts biscuity flavors, while barrel maturing yields vanilla and spice. French Chardonnay have subtle flavors of citrus and minerality with undertones of truffle and hazelnut. Cool climates such as Chablis and Germany produce lean examples of Chardonnay with bright minerality and green apple aromas. In contrast to warmer regions such as California and Chile, Chardonnay leans to more tropical fruits such as peach and pineapple.
As the world’s most planted and versatile varietal, Chardonnay needs no introduction. Nor does one need a particular reason to indulge in a glass or two! Some may say they do not enjoy Chardonnay, but they have not found the right type – there is a style for every palate! Wines can be light, crisp and minerally, or oaked with flavors of toasted coconut, vanilla and butter. It can even dazzle with bubbles in a sparkling wine and Champagne.
Hailing from Burgundy Chardonnay expanded rapidly across the world; nearly all vineyards have this variety planted because of its relatively high yields and its ability to grow in a broad spectrum of climates. Chardonnay has a “blank slate” nature, which results in its range and popularity among winemakers as well as consumers.
Although the varietal itself is relatively neutral in terms of flavor, it impars most of the fruity characteristics to the overall profile. This fruit flavor is expressed differently depending on characteristics of the terroir from where it hails, especially climate. Typically, this varietal from warmer regions, like California and Chile, reveal tropical fruit notes (think pineapple, mango and guava). Those of cooler climates, like the vineyards of Champagne, Chablis and Germany, exhibit green apple and lemon flavors, as well as earthy, mushroom aromas. Somewhere in the middle, Chardonnays from temperate climates, such as Burgundy and New Zealand, tend to show stone fruit (think peaches and nectarines) on the nose.
Along with being known as an easily adaptable grape, Chardonnay is also often referred to as “the winemaker’s wine.” Because of its blank slate nature, it possesses the uncanny ability to clearly reflect through its bouquet, body and mouthfeel the winemaking process behind it. Ageing in oak introduces more oxygen, resulting in toasty pie crust and baked apple flavors, while contact with the new oak brings spice – vanilla, coconut, cinnamon and clove, among others. Malolactic fermentation in barrel also results in the luscious, buttery texture often associated with an oaked Chardonnay. When it comes to this varietal, however, a little bit of oak goes a long way. A Chardonnay with the right amount of oak displays a great depth of flavor and a full-bodied, round texture. It pairs perfectly with the bold flavors of grilled or roast shellfish (think lobsters and scallop), roast chicken and creamy wild mushroom risotto.
A lack of oak in the winemaking process results in a lighter, fresher style with more floral and fruit-forward notes. This style was made famous by the French region of Chablis. Unoaked Chardonnays reflect the varietal itself, expressed through fruity (yellow apple, fresh mango and pineapple) or floral (green apple, citrus, pear, white flowers) aromas, depending on terroir. These wines go beautifully with more delicate dishes, like steamed flaky fish, oysters and a vegetable medley.
Chardonnay is also the most popular white varietal used in the production of sparkling wines, including Champagne. There is even a special French phrase used to refer to a sparkling wine made with Chardonnay. “Blanc de Blancs” are created by blending a “cuvee” of early-harvest Chardonnay and allowing it to undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle. One of the most famous examples of this style is Ruinart Blanc de Blanc, known for its bright intensity and minerality. The flavor profile depends on whether the wines were produced in oak or stainless steel, and on how long they are aged in bottle.