If there is one characteristic about Chardonnay that defines it as a grape, it is versatility. In this blog, we're going to explore what makes Chardonnay one of the most widely drunk wines around the world - and why you should revisit it if you haven't for a while.
Chardonnay's spiritual home is Burgundy, where it can be light, sharp and refreshing in the north, especially Chablis, or big, bold, ostentatious and oaky in the Côtes de Beaune. It’s one of the grapes in Champagne and can make rich, succulent dessert wines. Unlike Burgundy’s more demanding red grape, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay grows without being needy or too demanding in the cooler climates of Northern France, but can also perform well in hotter locales such as Australia, Chile and Italy. On top of this, Chardonnay is relatively neutral, and takes on the characteristics of the area that it grows, providing mineral, sharp flavours in the chalky soils of Burgundy, or big bold, tropical fruit notes in California or Stellenbosch. It can also really display how the winemakers have treated it, whether they’ve used oak, how it’s been fermented, and what other techniques have been applied. These qualities in conjunction mean that when the new world started making wines, and when aspiring wine producers grew in number, it was an ideal grape to grow.
Eventually, during and after the grape’s peak in the 80’s and 90’s, the market became slightly saturated with generic, commercial and nasty Chardonnays that led a lot of people to cry off the grape, declaring “ABC” (Anything but Chardonnay!). You may even be averse to going out and drinking a glass of Chardonnay yourself because of bad or bland experiences in the past, but winemakers are increasingly using its’ versatility to their advantage, so we’d urge you to give it another shot!
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The versatility that makes Chardonnay so interesting also means that there are not many rules of thumb when it comes to choosing a Chardonnay, but here are a few guidelines to follow if you can’t use the advice of our team:
- Sharp or buttery
- Oaked or unoaked
- Aged on the lees or not
Sharp or buttery
Some wines are clean and crisp in your mouth, yet others feel almost oily, creamy, buttery or waxy. You often get this with bigger, brasher Californian Chardonnays. Many people think that the buttery texture comes from the oak, but it doesn’t. The reason they feel this way is due to a specific type of fermentation called Malolactic Fermentation (MLF).
Without boring you with chemical processes and science, MLF changes tart malic acid (like that found in apples) in the grapes to smoother lactic acid (like the acid found in milk and dairy). The result is a smooth, round, creamy feeling.
Unfortunately, not many wine labels will state that they’ve been malolactically fermented. So if you want to specifically choose a buttery wine (or avoid it), look for words like butter, smooth or creamy on the labels.
Oaked or unoaked
Many people say that they don’t like Chardonnay due to the oakiness of the wines, but not all Chardonnays are oaked. Oak is added to the wines either during the fermentation process or afterwards in the form of oak barrel aging. Generally, it is used to smooth flavours out, blend them, or add new ranges of flavours that are often described on the label as caramel, smoke, spice, coconut, cinnamon, clove or vanilla. Remember that this flavour comes from the oak, not from the grape itself.
Unoaked Chardonnay will taste more like Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc wines, with a zestier or crisper taste (think of the difference between fruit eaten fresh and slightly dried or cooked, with those sharp edges softened), only with fewer ‘green flavours’ found in the Sauvignon Blancs. Chardonnays range in flavour depending on how long the grapes were left to ripen, from lemon and green apple (less ripe) to pineapple and figs (very ripe).
If you’re after unoaked Chardonnays, they typically come from cooler wine regions like Loire and Chablis in France, Colchagua and Casablanca Valley in Chile, Oregon in the USA, Western Australia and the Sonoma Coast in California.
You’ll find oaked Chardonnays typically come from warmer climates and regions like south and eastern Australia, Napa Valley in California, Mendoza in Argentina, Burgundy in France (although not all regions of Burgundy) and Puglia in Italy.
Aging on the lees
The lees are the dead yeast cells that result after fermentation. Normally after fermentation, the wine is filtered into a new container leaving this sediment behind. But some Chardonnays are left sitting with this sediment for longer. This adds a more yeasty aroma or a toasty, hazelnut flavour that you’ll find in Champagne and traditional method sparkling wines, this can add brioche or cake-like complexity to wines. Look for the words ‘sur lie’ to find wines that have been aged ‘on the lees’. Wines that aren’t sur lie, can have sharper flavours and a lighter mouthfeel.
WHICH FOODS SHOULD YOU EAT WITH CHARDONNAY?
Again, this is not a simple question because of the numerous forms Chardonnay can come in. But this also means that you can find a Chardonnay out there for a plethora of dishes! Lighter, unoaked Chardonnays go well with sushi, shellfish, goats cheese and grilled chicken or fish, the acidity and relative neutrality helping complement but not overpower these foods. More full-bodied Chardonnays and oak-age styles work with cream-based dishes, veal, meatier fish, pates and nutty cheddars, the MLF present often complements these dishes well, and rounded fruit notes can lift relatively creamy numbers and provide interesting contrasts.
Still stuck? Visit Pairings for a selection of Chardonnays, cheeses, charcuterie and other dishes that pair with them. If you’re still not convinced by Chardonnay or believe staunchly in ABC then we’ll find a different wine which is perfect for your palate! Take a look at our wine list to whet your appetite.