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.
Chardonnay and Terroir
The popularity of Chardonnay can be attributed to its “blank slate” nature, its ability to adapt easily to the terroir in which it is grown. Although the varietal itself is relatively neutral in terms of flavor, it imparts most of the fruity characteristics to the overall profile. This fruit flavor is expressed differently depending on characteristics of the terroir from whence it hails, especially climate. Typically, this varietal from warmer regions, like California, Australia 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.
Reflections of Oak
Often referred to as “the winemaker’s wine,” Chardonnay also 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 oaked Chardonnay. When it comes to this varietal, however, a little bit of oak goes a long way. Upon discovering the fabulous effects of oak, Californian winemakers in the 1980’s and 1990’s went a bit overboard, over-oaking to produce wines with a heavy, almost greasy texture. Some of these wines were described as tasting like a stick of butter melted into a glass! International mass-producers of Chardonnay started to use oak to mask the flavors of low-quality grapes. This practice eventually led to the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement, with many winemakers swearing off Chardonnay for good.
But this should not be so! 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 Lighter, Fruitier Chardonnay
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 vegetable terrines.
“Blancs de Blancs”
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.
Oaky, unoaked, warm or cool climate, sparkling or still – whatever your preference for Chardonnay may be, its a great way to stay cool these summer months so let’s raise our glasses and toast to this delightful and internationally beloved varietal!