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Learn about Chardonnay — taste profile, popular regions and more ...
What Is Chardonnay?
Chardonnay is a green-skinned grape variety used to make both still white wine and sparkling wine. As one of the most popular and versatile white wine grapes, Chardonnay offers a wide range of flavors and styles depending on where it is grown and how it is made. While practically every country in the wine producing world grows it, and is a very popular choice among consumers, Chardonnay from its Burgundian homeland produces some of the most remarkable and longest-lived examples of Chardonnay wine. As far as cellar potential, white Burgundy rivals the world’s other age-worthy whites like Riesling or botrytized Semillon. California is Chardonnay’s second most important home, where both oaky, buttery Chardonnay styles and leaner, European-inspired wines enjoy great popularity. Oregon, Australia and South America are also significant producers of Chardonnay.
How Is Chardonnay Made?
As with most white wines, Chardonnay juice is pressed off the grape skins as soon as possible after harvest, thereby minimizing extraction of color and tannins. Fermentation follows immediately, and this may occur in stainless steel tanks or in oak barrels. Chardonnay is typically fermented to dryness. Once fermentation is complete, the wine may be aged in barrels for added complexity. Other winemaking techniques often employed are malolactic fermentation, which imparts a creamy, buttery sensation, and sur lie aging, which tends to soften the mouthfeel and add a subtle biscuit or nutty element.
Chardonnay was born as a natural cross between the white grape Gouais Blanc and the red grape Pinot Noir. This happy event is thought to have occurred early in the Middle Ages in the French region of Burgundy, where the grape is widely considered to reach its highest, and most age-worthy, expression. But for centuries it was only there and in Champagne where the grape stood out. Not until the late 1970s did California Chardonnay start to inspire interest, and that trend exploded in the 1980s and ‘90s. Soon other winemakers around the world got the memo–Chardonnay is easy to grow, flexible in both cool and warm climates, and boasts a range of easy-to-appreciate flavors. Production increased in places as varied as Oregon and Washington, South America, Australia and South Africa. Old World interest picked up as well, in Italy, Spain and elsewhere.
Tasting Notes for Chardonnay
Chardonnay grown in cooler regions exhibits racy, crisp flavors like lemon, lime, and green apple, along with flinty or chalky mineral notes. Warmer locations coax out richer flavors like melon, peach and pineapple. Oak can add notes of vanilla, coconut, and spice, while malolactic fermentation leads to a creamy, buttery texture. Chardonnay is typically a dry wine, although some winemakers allow a touch of residual sugar.
Oaked vs. Unoaked Chardonnay
While the ‘80s and ‘90s surge in popularity was fueled by well-oaked versions, today a number of fine un-oaked examples are made. Typically fermented and aged in stainless steel before bottling, these are bright, crisp, and fresh, showcasing Chardonnay’s pure fruit character and coming across lighter in body.
Perfect Food Pairings for Chardonnay
Chardonnay is as versatile at the table as it is in the vineyard. Keep stylistic differences in mind when pairing with food.
- Seafood: Enjoying lobster, crab or shrimp scampi? Choose a rich, buttery Chardonnay. With a briny or delicate dish, like oysters or cod, go with Chablis or a similar version.
- Poultry: Chardonnay is great with chicken and turkey, and you’ll want a richer style if your dish includes a creamy sauce.
- Cheese: Oaky, buttery Chardonnay is your best bet with bolder cheeses like cheddars and blues. Brighter, tangier cheeses call for a lighter, crisper style.
- Things to avoid: Chardonnay is not a great match with foods that are too spicy, bitter or acidic.
How to Serve Chardonnay
Temperature is key. A wine served too warm will seem out of balance, with the alcohol too “hot.” If too cold, the aromas and flavors are muted. Fuller bodied styles are best at 55°F, while leaner versions can be enjoyed at 50°F. A half hour to an hour in the refrigerator will do the trick. As for glassware, a classic white wine glass with a thin rim is perfect. The bowl should be moderately large and should taper towards the top.
- Chardonnay is the most widely planted white variety in the world.
- Chardonnays from Burgundy’s Cote de Beaune are the most coveted in the world.
- It is one of the three most important grapes in the production of Champagne.
- The source of almost 80% of American Chardonnay is the so-called Wente Clone, obtained by California’s Wente Family from Burgundy in 1912.
Chardonnay is usually a dry wine, which means there is little to no residual sugar. Thus, there are minimal carbohydrates, and there is no protein or fat. The caloric content comes from alcohol; a standard 5 ounce pour of Chardonnay has about 120 calories.
Sommelier Secrets for Chardonnay
Since the 1980s, big, oaky, buttery Chardonnays from California have enjoyed explosive popularity. More recently, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, towards a clean, crisp style that rarely utilizes new oak. The Burgundian subregion of Chablis, while typically using older oak barrels, produces a similar bright and acid-driven style. Anyone who doesn't like oaky Chardonnay wine would likely enjoy this lighter style.
Why Is Chardonnay So Popular?
Chardonnay is popular with winemakers because it is easy both to grow and manipulate in the winery, with techniques like barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation and sur lie aging. It remains popular with consumers because it offers friendly, appealing flavors and textures that make it versatile both with food and on its own.