If Cabernet Sauvignon is "King" of the red varietals of the world, then Chardonnayis "Queen" of the whites. It is easily the most popular white varietal on the planet. Chardonnay can be many different things in the glass. It can range from the delicate, mineral-driven wines of Chablis to the creamy wines of California.
Body: Medium - Full
Acid: Medium - High
Alcohol: Medium - Medium High
Fruits: Pears, Green & Yellow Apples, Pineapple, Figs
Non-Fruits: Honey, Nuts, Straw, Chamomile Tea, Vanilla
Minerals: Chalk, Flint
Main Growing Regions
Burgundy / France: Arguably the true home of Chardonnay
California: Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Santa Barbara
Australia: Most notably in Victoria, South Australia, & Western Australia
Washington: Columbia Valley, Walla Walla, Yakima
Champagne / France: One of the three grapes used in Champagne
Where else I’m grown
New Zealand: Taking a bigger foothold along with Pinot Noir
Soils I like to grow in
Chalky, well-drained soils are where I work the best.
Climate I like
Moderate / Cool - Arguably my best wines come from cool climates (Chablis) but I can be grown successfully almost anywhere.
The more the merrier! Chardonnay is a very moldable in terms of style, which is why it is grown in many different countries and many different climates. It can be a blank canvas for winemakers to imprint their style upon (if that is what they want to do). Chardonnay can be anything from very austere, dry and high acid (Chablis) to very big, rich, buttery and oaky (Napa Valley).
Chardonnay Growing Regions
If you’ve ever heard a sommelier talk about New World wines vs. Old World wines, Chardonnay can provide one of the most clear cut examples of the differences between the two. There is a marked difference between Chardonnay from California and Chardonnay fromChablis for example. It is amazing to taste these wines side by side. Many people rarely take the time to do so. Even though these wines are from the same grape they are incredibly different – ‘worlds’ apart.
The area of Chablis is found in the northernmost reaches of the famous wine-growing region of Burgundy. It lies just southeast of the city of Paris. Any bottle labeled as Chablis AOC is 100% Chardonnay by law. The wines from here are very elegant. The cool climate keeps the alcohol on the moderate side, which gives a lighter mouth feel. It also retains a lively acidity in the wines making them very refreshing. Chablis is thoroughly enjoyable on a late summer afternoon with a plate of oysters. Its zingy acidity makes it a wonderful food wine.
One of the great hallmarks of Chablis is its minerality. The best vineyards of Chablis are planted on a soil that is primarily made up of decomposed, fossilized seashells. The vine’s roots dig into this soil, and soak it up like a sponge. If you like Chablis as much as we do, check out our section on Chablis.
California is blessed with a warm and stable climate. It is this fantastic weather that gives the wines of California their lovely ripe fruit flavors. The texture of these wines is very different from their Old World counterparts, making them richer and creamier. California experiences constant warmth throughout the growing season, which raises the alcohol level a touch, bolsters sweet fruit flavors, and makes the body of the wine fuller. California Chardonnay is also often oaked. It is the oak that gives them that sweet vanilla and caramel-like aroma. It also adds to the rich, buttery texture of the wine.
The balance achieved from great Burgundy vineyards in great vintages is difficult for others to match. Winemakers there have had hundreds of years to match the perfect grapes with the perfect plots of land to grow on. Any White Burgundy will be made from Chardonnay and like Chablis, they see little to no oak treatment.
If you are up for an experiment taste French and California Chardonnay side-by-side without food first. The California one will usually be the favorite of the group. Its ripe fruit and lower acidity make it a better ‘cocktail’ wine. However, when both wines are tasted alongside foods that go well with Chardonnays, the White Burgundy will often be the favorite. Its higher acidity and less oak treatment amplifies the flavors of the food.
While Washington may straddle the line, Australia is firmly flying the flag of the New World camp. Australian Cabernets are lushly textured and brimming with ripe fruit. Red currant, blackberries and eucalyptus rampantly swirl in the glass. Some of the wines from South Australia’s Coonawarra are already gaining cult followings, but it is West Australia’s Margaret River that shows the most potential. With its well-drained, sandy and gravelly soils, it already draws comparison to Bordeaux. People always think of Shiraz first when someone mentions Aussie wines. Those are certainly the most famous, but Cabernet Sauvignon shows great potential here. Look for these wines to burst out onto the world scene in coming years.
The well-heeled and established Cabernet regions are home to amazing wines. But the truth is there is always someone young and hungry with the ambition to pave a new way. A wise wine buyer will always keep track of areas where groups of ambitious producers are emerging.
Chardonnay Production Methods
Aging a wine in new oak barrels dramatically changes its flavors and aromas. As solid as oak is, it is still a slightly porous material. Wine will slightly penetrate the inside of the barrel and pick up some of its flavors. A wine that has spent time in new oak barrels will have flavors akin to toasted vanilla bean, crème brûlée, butterscotch, caramel, and baking spices. Before you taste any wine, take time to smell them thoroughly for aromatics. See if you can detect these aromas to determine which has seen oak, and which has not.
Stainless Steel Treatment
Stainless steel is a neutral vessel. It doesn’t alter the flavors or aromas of wine much, if at all. Even though it is less expensive for a winery to use stainless steel to age their wines, it does not mean they are out to make a cheap wine. In fact there are some very high quality (and very expensive) examples on the market. It is typically a stylistic decision made by the winemaker, in order to showcase the liveliness of their wines.
A wine that has spent time in oak will usually have undergone a secondary fermentation called malolactic fermentation. MALO-WHATSIT?! Malolactic fermentation is the process of converting malic acid, the type of acidity found in a wine after the primary fermentation, (a sharp, refreshing acid typically found in green apples) into lactic acid (a smoother, creamier acid typically found in milk and butter). Without question a chardonnay that feels soft, creamy, and buttery has almost definitely undergone this second, malolactic fermentation.
The decisions a winemaker makes can have great influence on the finished wines they release. However, the bigger question is, do you have a favorite or can you appreciate each production method and region for its own unique character?
Food Pairing with Chardonnay
Chardonnays exhibit notes of apples, lemon, pineapple, melon, vanilla, butterscotch, slightly burned toast, butter, figs, honey and nuts. Most are medium to full-bodied and their weight matches bold flavors and rich sauces. Burgundy produces steely acidity along with more minerality, due to the colder climate. The wine acts just like a squeeze of lemon to cut through fattiness of rich sauces. Fattier styles from California are ideal for rich cuisine. They complement butter, sauces and anything creamy…
Leaner Chardonnay with Citrusy Notes:
- Shellfish, simply prepared
- Lighter mushroom dishes
- Delicate fish, simply prepared
- Beet Salad with Vinaigrette
- Summer Vegetables
- Caprese Salad
Fuller bodied, richer styled Chardonnays:
- Roast chicken
- Alfredo Pasta
- Rich fish, buttery sauces
- Grilled Pork
- Mild game
- Veal Scallopini