Wine Profile: Chardonnay
While it is hard to imagine now, until the modern wine revolution of the 1950s and 1960s Chardonnay was virtually unheard of outside of France. Today, Chardonnay is one of the most well known and most consumed wines in the world. It is incredibly flexible and while the styles can vary, it produces great wine in both warm and cool climates. Though, most of the best wines are grown in temperate to cool climates. Chardonnay is the most popular white grape sold in the US. It is also one of the highest produced grapes in California.
Its true home is Burgundy, France where the term white Burgundy is synonymous with Chardonnay. It accounts for almost all of the white wine produced in the region; the exception is Aligote a minor grape with very little acreage planted. In fact, there is an entire subregion of Burgundy, Chablis, famous for the only grape it produces: Chardonnay.
OAK IS YOUR FRIEND
Chardonnay is grown and produced all over the world including Argentina, Australia, California, Chile, France, Italy, New Zealand, Oregon, and South Africa. In many of these regions, Chardonnay is both fermented and at least partially aged in oak barrels. Barrel fermentation and aging can transform Chardonnay, which left on its own can be a rather bland grape. In oak it takes on rich notes can develop a creamy texture, and potentially gain more complexity. However, if left too long in the barrel it can go overboard very easily, producing a flabby wine that more or less tastes like chewing on a piece of wood.
But when done right, this oak aging can produce a wide range of flavors in what could have been an otherwise dull wine. From flavors like vanilla, butterscotch, toast, and custard to crisp fruit like green apple, lemon, pineapple, and other tropical fruits. These flavors are matched by a creamy texture, a lush finish, and a big full body.
THE TOFU OF WINE GRAPES
I always like describing Chardonnay as the tofu of wine grapes. As it has gained in popularity more and more people seem to think Chardonnay is just one thing. That it makes one type of wine, and typically people assume that wine is a butter bomb.
Chardonnay, more than almost any other internationally known grape, is very malleable to winemaking choices. We just talked about how oak aging can effect the wine, but it goes further than that. For example, let's talk about where that buttery flavor comes from.
Some Chardonnay's go through a process called Malolactic fermentation. This is a process that many wines go through, including pretty much all red wines. Malolactic fermentation converts the natural malic acid in the wine, that tart green apple flavor, into lactic acid, aka creamy, buttery flavors. In fact, one of the byproducts of this type of fermentation is a compound called diacetyl and that is the same compound that they use to give margarin that "I can't believe it's not butter" flavor.
Winemakers can choose to have the wine go through full malolactic fermentation (aka convert all the malic acid into lactic acid) and age it in new oak and you'll get the very typically California style of oaky, buttery Chardonnay. Or winemakers can choose to only go through partial malolactic fermentation, maybe age the wine in neutral oak or even stainless steel and you'll get a Chardonnay with a little richness but more crisp acid, more like a Chablis style Chardonnay. OR winemakers can choose to not go through malolactic fermentation at all, they'll keep that crisp tart acid in the wine, age in stainless steel and you'll get a Chardonnay thats going to seem a lot like a Sauvignon Blanc.
Also, you didn't think that we would forget to mention that Chardonnay is one of the top grapes in Champagne and really most sparkling wine production. That's a story for a different post though.
BEND BUT WILL NOT BREAK
Chardonnay can be one of the least flexible wines when it comes to pairing with food. Especially California Chardonnays, which often have a lot of toasted oak and high alcohol content. When trying to match this wine with food you can utilize certain bridge ingredients to help marry the flavors. However, more successful pairings come when you match the texture of the wine and food. The full, round, and often silky character of the wine is best matched with foods like pasta, risotto, and other starches that can provide a textural backdrop to the wine. Various shellfish, including lobster, scallops, prawns, and shrimp are classic pairings, especially when accompanied with a rich sauce.
Oak-aged Chardonnays are great with lightly smoked or grilled dishes while less oaky wines show better with simple clean flavors like roasted chicken or sautéed fish with lemon. Bottom line, because there is such a wide range of styles in Chardonnay you really need to know the region and style of the wine you are drinking before you can decide what pairs best with it.