Chardonnay - The Worlds Favorite White!
The reigning Queen of the grape world is clearly Chardonnay. No other white wine grape can match it for world wide success. It has become fashionable to bash Chardonnay, but it still outsells all other white wines. It adapts to a wide variety of climates and soil types it ripens reliably, and early, producing juice with good sugar and acid levels. Chardonnay’s varietal aroma is fairly subdued, less aromatic than many grapes. By itself it does not have a distinctive flavor, but is a “blank canvas” on other flavors can be added. This quality makes Chardonnay highly “moldable”, displaying the influence of where it is grown, grapegrowing practices, and most especially the effect of winemaking techniques. A winemaker has the ability to mold the raw material in a variety of ways to produce the winemaker’s personal expression of the grape. The result is that there are a wide range of Chardonnay styles, dependent on soil, climate, farming, and winemaking.
In the vineyard, Chardonnay grows well in a wide variety of soil types, and ripens early enough to be a reliable crop. It does require a certain amount of vigilance through the growing season. It buds very early, so spring frosts can destroy a year’s crop. Cool rainy weather during flowering can lead to millerandage, or shot berry disease, which produces small, seedless grapes that never develop. Through the summer months, downy and powdery mildew, as well as fanleaf and leafroll viruses threaten Chardonnay. All of these dangers are easily manageable, and a competent grower can expect to yield a healthy crop of grapes which bring top dollar.
Additionally, you may combine these techniques, for example blending 35% stainless steel fermented wine with 65% barrel fermented. There are also choices within each technique, for example, whether French, American, Yugoslavian or some other oak is used for the barrels, or whether you use new or previously used oak.
The far from straightforward journey from grape to glass in the case of Chardonnay provides another reason for its popularity, the wide range of styles of the finished product gives a greater chance that a wine drinker will find some Chardonnay that has a personal appeal.
In the Glass — The Flavors of Chardonnay
Chardonnay is a wine with a medium to full body, with no “sharp edges”, and possesses enough alcohol to give it a pleasant roundness and softness. Its intrinsic flavors are of yellow fleshed fruit. Exactly which type of fruit varies with the climate. In cooler regions, the flavors center around green apple and citrus fruit, moving to ripe apple, apricot and pear flavors in moderate temperature zones, and on to banana, guava, mango and other tropical fruits in the warmest sites. Soil conditions can also influence the flavors. Chardonnay grown in limestone or chalky soil will have a higher acidity, and what is called a “flinty” or “mineral” character, most classically seen in the wines of Chablis, which are grown on chalk and seashell soil. Chardonnay in richer soils will tend to have more weight and roundness, with less acidity.
The influence of winemaking techniques also shows through in the taste. A Chardonnay which is stainless steel fermented and aged, will be lighter, fresh apple tinged in flavor. Chardonnay which has been fermented or aged in oak barrel will acquire a different range of flavors, both from the wood itself, and the slight oxidation which occurs in barrel. Depending on the newness, origin, and treatment of the barrel, these flavors will range from a light vanilla and sweet wood quality, on to heavier oaky, toasty, and smoky characters. Many Chardonnays undergo a second fermentation, called malolactic. In this process, the malic acid is converted to lactic acid. This process lowers the perceived acidity of the final wine, but also affects the flavor. Malic acid is the acid found in apples, and lactic acid the acid in milk and butter. So, if a wine doesn’t go through malolactic, the flavors tend to be more reminiscent of crisp apples, and if it does go through this secondary fermentation, buttery, creamy, and hazelnut flavors come to the fore.
Chardonnay can age well, but it is not always predictable which wines will develop with time, and which will not. In general, it is generally advisable that no matter how much you like a given Chardonnay, don’t have on hand more than you will drink in a year. When it’s gone, there’s bound to be another you’ll love, and you will avoid the disappointment of having old, tired wine.
"A glass of white wine" has become almost synonymous with a glass of Chardonnay, and given the mild manner and softness of Chardonnay, it becomes the best choice in a universal white with food. That same universality has led to the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) backlash, led by people who argue that other varieties are better pairings with specific foods. That may be true, but none can pair with the range of foods that work well with Chardonnay.
As you can imagine, with all of the different styles of Chardonnay, there is a range of foods that pair well with it. Very crisp, unoaked Chardonnays are a great appetizer wine, pairing well with pates, sushi, oysters, mussels, and clams. This style can also be used with richer dishes that have high fat content, because the acidity cuts through the fattiness, and refreshes the palate. Fruit driven, lower acid Chardonnays become the classic accompaniment to a wide variety of fish dishes, especially lighter, white fleshed fish. This style also moves you into the world of chicken, veal, and pork dishes, provided that the saucing is on the lighter side. Many seafood pastas also pair well with these middle weight Chardonnays, but avoid tomato sauces, as the acidity of the sauce will make the wine seem heavy and flabby. The most complex, rich Chardonnays can take on more meaty, hearty fish, including salmon, swordfish, and tuna, as well as more richly sauced lighter fish. They also provide the classic accompaniments to full flavored preparations of veal, pork, and chicken, especially when a cream or butter based sauce is used. Lobster is also a pair with richer Chardonnay, although many people prefer a lighter crisper style as a counterpoint to the richness of lobster. As a partner with cheese, Chardonnay is a secondary player. The high acidity of crisper styles doesn’t complement most cheeses, and the heavier, oakier flavors of many Chardonnays don’t refresh the palate as a foil for cheese. Some of the “middle of the road” Chardonnays are fine with cheese, but they rarely elevate the cheese like another wine might.
Any discussion of where Chardonnay grows well couldn’t start anywhere but Burgundy. Burgundy has made Chardonnay’s reputation, and it is undoubtedly the model for Chardonnay grown elsewhere in the world. There are four distinct regions in Burgundy where Chardonnay is grown. The most northerly is Chablis, where a natural south facing amphitheater of chalk soil provides a unique combination of soil and climate, producing crisp, flint and mineral scented Chardonnay. The southernmost is the Macon region, including the famous Pouilly Fuissé appellation. Here, the Chardonnay is slightly heavier than Chablis, but oak is used only sparingly, keeping the wines fruit driven and soft. To the north of Macon, are found the wines of the Cote Chalonnaise, particularly in the towns of Rully and Montagny. Chalonnaise Chardonnay is slightly richer than Macon, and often with some oak aging to provide richness. The highest expression of Burgundian Chardonnay comes from the next vineyards north, the Cote d’Or vineyards. Here, Chardonnay is regularly oak aged, very complex, with subtle gradations of flavor from the slightly differing soils and exposures of the vineyards. There are small quantities of Chardonnay from the villages of Saint Aubin, Pernand Vergelesses, Aloxe Corton, and Beaune, but the fame of this region rests on the side by side villages of Chassagne Montrachet, Puligny Montrachet, and Meursault. Chassagne Montrachet is the heaviest, roundest of the three, while Puligny Montrachet is more delicate, and filled with finesse, and Meursault the middle weight, with and intriguing mixture of minerality and hazelnuts in its finest wines.
The largest plantings in all of France, even bigger than in Burgundy, are in the Champagne district of northeastern France. Here, the Chardonnay is mostly blended with Pinot Noir for the production of Champagne, although some Champagne is made from all Chardonnay, and is labeled as “Blanc de Blanc”. In the remainder of France, Chardonnay is grown in only a few locations, mostly in the south, where it is grown in large vineyards which supply inexpensive, and not very interesting, Chardonnay, mostly for the American market.
Chardonnay is the undisputed leader of California white wine. Over 50% of the white wine grapes in California are Chardonnay, and if you eliminate strictly “jug wine” grapes like French Colombard, that figure jumps to close to 70%. In contrast to Cabernet, Chardonnay is a relative newcomer to California. There were a few small vineyards in California’s early history, but it is only with the wine boom beginning in the late 60s that Chardonnay became a widely planted variety. By U.S. law, for a Chardonnay to be labeled as such, 75% of the wine must be Chardonnay. In fact, the vast majority of Chardonnay is 100%, as its mild flavor profile makes it susceptible to being overwhelmed by blending with other, more aromatic varieties. Some producers blend small amounts of Muscat or Riesling with Chardonnay, to add a floral note, and a touch of sweetness.
California’s warmer climate tends to produce richer, fruit driven style Chardonnay, often with a distinct dosing of the flavors of oak aging. The best sites for Chardonnay are, in general, the cooler regions of California, as the warmer regions of the state are just too warm to produce top quality juice. In the north, Mendocino and Lake County produce classic California Chardonnay, particularly from the Anderson Valley. Local wineries such as Jepson, Husch, Greenwood Ridge, Navarro, and Guenoc have all produced top quality Chardonnays. Wineries in other regions of the state, like Patz & Hall, Steele, and Radio Coteau have sourced fruit from Mendocino vineyards to produce wines as well. Sonoma County is a large, very diverse region, and Chardonnay is planted throughout the county. The cooler districts of the county, Carneros, Chalk Hill, Sonoma Coast, and especially the Russian River Valley are famed for their great Chardonnays, with intense fruit, balanced with acidity. Among the wineries which have produced Chardonnay from these areas include Hansel, Souverain, Marcassin, Chateau St. Jean, Landmark, Patz & Hall, De Loach, Dehlinger, Paul Hobbs, Flowers, Kistler, Rochioli, Sonoma Cutrer, and more. Napa County is by far the most famous wine region in California, but much of it is a bit warm for producing top level Chardonnay. In general, Napa Chardonnay is heavier, more oak dominated than many other regions. In certain hillside sites, in Carneros at the cooler southern end of the valley, and some other scattered sites, great Chardonnay is made. Wineries like Beringer, Grgich Hills, Mondavi, Joseph Phelps, Flora Springs, Chateau Montelena, Pahlmeyer, Newton, Forman, Silverado, Far Niente, Hess, and more have all proven that Napa Chardonnay can compete with any in the world. As you go south of San Francisco, down to San Luis Obispo, the Chalone, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey, and Arroyo Seco regions are the centers for top Chardonnay production. Chalone Vineyards, Robert Talbott, Morgan, Mer Soleil, Estancia, and Ridge are all wineries which source fruit from vineyards in these regions. From San Luis Obispo south to Santa Barbara, the Edna Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, and Santa Barbara County are all cool regions where Chardonnay does beautifully. This rising area is home to such top level Chardonnay producers as Sanford, Au Bon Climat, Byron, Edna Valley Vineyards, Domaine Alfred, Cambria, Testarossa, and Talley.
Oregon is another source of top quality American Chardonnay. Most of the fruit is grown in the cool Willamette Valley, more famous for Pinot Noir, but also an excellent region for Chardonnay. King Estate, Domaine Drouhin, Argyle, Adelsheim, and A to Z are all sources of first class Chard, a bit lighter than most Californian, but with great definition of fruit.
Washington’s Columbia River Valley is the source for a number of high quality Chardonnays. Although quite northerly, this region is fairly warm, producing round, rich, and soft Chardonnay. The dominant producer in quantity, who still maintains very high quality, is Chateau Ste. Michelle, along with its sister winery Columbia Crest. Hogue, Canoe Ridge, l’Ecole 41, and Woodward Canyon are some of the smaller, world class Chardonnay producers in Washington.
New York, particularly the north fork of Long Island is the home to some promising Chardonnay from wineries such as Gallucio, Standing Stone, and Pindar, but as of yet has not produced world class wine.
One can see Chardonnay from Virginia, Texas, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Idaho, New Mexico, and in fact virtually any state where wine is made, but so far, none has risen above the level of ordinary wine.
Chardonnay can be found growing in many regions of Italy, most of it fairly newly planted. The oldest vineyards are found in the northeast, in the Alto Adige, Trentino, and Friuli. Here, producers such as Lageder, Jermann, Tiefenbrunner, and Vie de Romans produce light, delicate, unoaked Chardonnay. In the Piedmont region, some of the more internationally minded producers like Angelo Gaja and Pio Cesare have planted Chardonnay, and produce wine in the heavier, oakier style of Chardonnay. In Tuscany, too, some producers have planted Chardonnay, and in the hands of Villa Banfi, Felsina, or Isole e Olena, Italian Chardonnay begins looking a lot like California. Throughout the rest of Italy, there are isolated Chardonnay vineyards, and some scattered good wines made from them, but there is no consistency of style, as each reflects the winemaker more than the source of grapes.
While Chardonnay in Australia dates back to the 19th century, it was only with the wine boom of the 70s that it reached its status as the country’s leading variety by acreage. The first Aussie wine boom came in the 80s, before anyone knew about Shiraz, and it was led by a wave of big, ripe, oaky Chardonnay. In fact, the Australian penchant for oak made for dramatic wines, but not wines that held the imagination of the wine drinking public for long. Big, juicy and impressive, but ultimately not the wines you want to drink on a regular basis. Today, Australian Chardonnay is much more restrained and elegant, but still retains an oaky streak. From the cooler climate regions such as Tasmania, Adelaide Hills, Padthaway, Clare Valley, Yarra Valley, Geelong, and the Mornington Peninsula, the wines have elegant fruit, restraint, and flavors of pear, pineapple, pear, and citrus. In the warmer climates, like the Hunter Valley, Riverland, Mudgee, McLaren Vale, the wines are broader, often oakier, with a creamy texture and flavors of melon, peach, from the fruit, and butter and vanilla from the oak aging.
Chile produces a fairly large amount of inexpensive, fairly bland Chardonnay. In some of the cooler climate regions, most notably the Casablanca Valley of the Aconcagua district, some more distinctive, flavorful Chardonnay is made. The Casa Lapostolle, Concha y Toro, and Montes bottlings lead the way in Chilean Chardonnay. In Argentina, there is again a fair amount of everyday Chardonnay produced. Virtually all of the wine from Argentina is from the Mendoza region, so regional variation is not significant. The best Argentine Chardonnay comes from higher altitude vineyards, which are naturally cooler. The Chardonnays from Bodegas Catena Zapata have been the category leaders.
New Zealand has yet to find its niche in the Chardonnay spectrum. New Zealand’s cool climate would seem to be ideal for Chardonnay, but thus far the results have been less than inspiring. Usually made in a low or no oak style, the best New Zealand Chardonnay has a freshness and an appealing straightforward apple citrus quality. Some attempts to make richer, oakier wines have been hampered by the inherent lightness of the fruit.
Chardonnay is planted in most of Europe’s winegrowing countries. It provides basic everyday wine from the Eastern European countries. In Spain, it is not widely planted, but from Catalunya there are occasional interesting wines. It is not common in Germany, grown legally only since 1991. In South Africa, in the Paarl and Stellenbosch districts, Chardonnay can be found, usually in a lighter, refreshing, no oak style, although a few producers like Meerlust and Glen Carlou have made more complex, oak aged styles. Chardonnay has become an important grape in Israel, both for kosher and non kosher wines. In the cooler regions like Galil, Golan Heights, and Judean Hills, Chardonnay with classic flavors is being produced by wineries such as Castel, Yarden, Dalton, and Segal’s.