I’ll show my hand upfront – I love a good Chardonnay but I know it is quite a divisive grape with many who don’t like it. Remember the “Anything but Chardonnay” or “ABC” era in the late 1990s? This was almost certainly in part a backlash against “Nothing But Chardonnay” being served. It was just everywhere and then sank almost into oblivion as Sauvignon Blanc became the white wine or grape “du jour”, superseded more recently by Pinot Grigio. Although it has always had a loyal band of followers Chardonnay wine is gaining new fans as people realise that there are different styles of Chardonnay. This guide to Chardonnay therefore looks at what wines are made from Chardonnay grapes, why Chardonnay can produce different wines, how Chardonnay wines taste and what to eat with different styles of Chardonnay.
Chardonnay is the most grown white wine grape in the world (a common pub quiz trick question, this used to be Spanish grape, Airén, but Chardonnay has now pushed that little known, mainly sherry-destined grape into second place). It is not surprising that it is so ubiquitous as it is very adaptable; it performs well in hot, sunny climes as well as in cool climate areas. And it can express very well the terroir of different vineyards, which partly explains why the taste of Chardonnay can vary so much. Read more in my blogpost about terroir.
It is widely considered that the better-rated Chardonnay wines come from cool climate areas where the grapes will maintain their acidity. In hotter regions as the sugar rises in ripening grapes, the acidity falls away so Chardonnay wines produced in some of the hotter, often New World, regions risked being overly fruity and a little heavy. As the grape grows so easily there is also a temptation to produce high yields but high yields tends to mean lower quality, more dilute wine.
And then there’s the oak issue: in the 1980s and 90s many less reputable winemakers tried to copy Burgundian methods but in a more commercial style (White Burgundy being the epitome of Chardonnay and highly acclaimed for its elegance, intensity and relative longevity) and often produced wines which were over-oaked with very buttery flavours and little or no evidence of the grapes’ subtle fruit flavours or of the terroir.
This is not to say that anything but white Burgundy is poor quality, especially these days when terroir is becoming more of a focus for better wine producers even in warmer climate regions and over-oaking remains only at the lower end of the market.
Chardonnay’s versatility means that there are many different styles so it’s a case of finding your preferred style.
For simplicity, I’ve narrowed it down to three styles.
Produced in cool climate Burgundy Chablis is perhaps the best known and best quality unoaked Chardonnay (though beware, a few Chablis wines are oaked).
Chardonnay with no oak influence tends to be leaner, crisper and dry, lighter in colour and in body, with flavours tending towards green apple, lemon, white flowers and flint or steel (think wet stones). Having no oak influence these wines can be good examples of terroir-focused wines. Fermentation takes place in stainless steel to keep the wine cool and to preserve the acidity and the fruit flavours.
New World unoaked Chardonnays from cool climate areas in places like Australia, New Zealand and Oregon tend to display a little more fruit – melon, quince, apple, pear and grapefruit – but remain lighter and crisp in style.
Unoaked Chardonnay will match well fish dishes and seafood including oysters.
Chardonnay has an affinity with oak; the wines that have been fermented and aged in oak or just aged in oak are more full-bodied, creamy and will age further in bottle, the better wines for up to 10 years. Aside from Burgundy wines, you can find prime oaked Chardonnay in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Aromas and flavours are usually more intense and more complex ranging from baked apples, coconut, brioche and bread, nutty flavours like hazelnut, spice like cloves and cinnamon, vanilla, caramel and cream. These wines are still dry but the oak also makes them richer, sometimes with an oily or buttery texture.
The current trend is to tone down the oak and produce more elegant wines with more subtle flavours. This is done by using used rather than new barrels and the smaller grained French rather than American oak.
Oaked Chardonnay can pair really well with richer foods like foie gras, lobster and scallops, smoked fish, creamy dishes like risottos and steak béarnaise, chicken, mushrooms, truffles, butternut squash and pumpkin Serve the wines a little warmer than you would serve crisper styles to release more aromas and flavours.
This tended to be the style of early New World Chardonnays and there are still many fans of this bigger, more tropical fruit style of wine. They tend to originate in warm climate regions in California, South Australia, South Africa plus Southern Italy and Spain and as a very general rule, they will not be expensive.
The added sunshine, fermentation in stainless steel and maceration of the grapes on their skins help create those lush exotic fruit flavours such as pineapple, mango, ripe yellow apples and ripe peach. There may also be butterscotch and vanilla flavours if the wine is oaked.
This style will cope with richer, creamy dishes even mild curries but be careful of the fruity flavours overpowering the food .
There is a fourth style that we should not ignore and that is sparkling rather than still Chardonnay: “Blanc de Blancs” champagne or sparkling wine (white wine from white grapes). Whilst being fairly light and elegant in style, Blanc de Blancs also show complexity and concentration of flavours – citrus, apple, hazelnut, vanilla with mineral and floral notes. The best will have their acidity preserved through early grape picking so the wines are crisp. And with age they develop in creaminess and nut flavours.
Excellent on its own as an aperitif but will match a range of foods especially fish including caviar and sushi.
So if you think you don’t like Chardonnay give it another chance – quality is improving generally and today’s more elegant, fresher Chardonnays, whether oaked or not, are worth investigating. Find your style and give Chardonnay another chance!
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