Literally Everything You Ever Need to Know About Chardonnay

Posted July 09, 2015

Stacy Brody

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You’ll try any wine, anything except Chardonnay. You don’t like Chardonnay, in fact, you hate it! All the Chardonnays you’ve tried are horrible, dreadful, really just not very good.

That's not fair, I say. Chardonnay is the Queen of Grapes. Le Montrachet, a Burgundian Chardonnay, inspired Alexandre Dumas to declare that one must drink this wine "on bended knee, with head bared." I’m not going to argue with Dumas - that sounds pretty worthwhile.

I will not give up on what I call “ABC” (Anything But Chardonnay) Wine Drinkers, for Chardonnay is one of the most important, elegant, and versatile white wine grapes in the world.

It may feel like shopping for jeans.

The perfect fit is out there (somewhere!), and it takes a bit of work to find the right one, but when you do, oh isn’t life good!

Chardonnay (like jeans) can vary greatly, depending on the climate in which the grapes are grown and the stylistic choices made in the cellar. From crisp, steely Chablis, to rich, buttery California Chardonnay, there is wide variation, so much so that I am adamant I can find a Chardonnay for each ABC Wine Drinker.

(Full disclosure: Till now, most of my wine industry experience has been on the production side, at a winery which, at one point, offered 5 different Chardonnays. I have had some experience defending this variety….a variety which really shouldn’t need my defense at all.)

Expressive and Uniquely Elegant

Chardonnay, like Pinot Noir, is a grape capable of communicating its origins. With its first home in Burgundy, Chardonnay is expressive of terroir, the unique features of the vineyard or village in which the wine is produced. Chardonnay is uniquely elegant (hence, the Dumas quote), producing heavenly wines in Burgundy and the premier sparkling Blanc de Blancs in Champagne.

From France, Chardonnay has spread and is now grown around the world: Italy, United States, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, to name a few.

Climate Makes a Difference

So, my ABC friend, there is a world of Chardonnay to explore, literally. Climate strongly influences the character of the wine, and its effects are readily apparent in Chardonnay. Depending on where the grapes are grown, Chardonnay exhibits flavors ranging from tart lemon and apple to ripe, tropical pineapple.

When produced in cooler climates, Chardonnay leans toward the former. Cool temperatures preserve the grape’s natural acidity. Flavors are reminiscent of citrus and apple, sometimes peach, often floral. In these regions, Chardonnay reflects the nature of the soil on which it was grown, with hints of minerality or chalk. Crisp and refreshing, these wines are elegant and perfectly food-friendly. You’ve got to eat, so why not pair your meal with a glass of wine?

In warmer climates, Chardonnay leans ripe and tropical - pineapple (fresh, canned or roasted - can you tell the difference?), guava, mango. Oh hey, it’s a luau in my glass! These Chardonnays tend to be richer and have a rounder mouthfeel.

Barrel, Tank, or...Concrete?

You may have heard the terms “oaked” and “unoaked” to described wine. Sounds a bit jargon-y, so I’ll clear that up ASAP.

   oaked - the wine has seen some time in oak barrel

   unoaked - the wine has NOT seen any time in oak barrel

Chardonnay, in many parts of the world, is “oaked.” A winemaker may elect to use barrels for a number of reasons, not least of which may be to add richness and impart length on the palate.

The winemaker doesn’t get away easy. There are even more decisions to make once it has been decided that barrels are to be used. If you are a real wine geek you may want to start learning about barrels and the regions which produce them and why the wood is different… maybe another time. For now, stick to why barrel choice is important, specifically as it relates to Chardonnay.

First, American or French oak? American oak generally has a stronger character, whereas French oak more delicate. The winemaker also considers whether or not the barrel has been used before. I use the analogy of a teabag (and I’ve used this analogy many times so please bear with me if you’ve talked to me before about this before). You can reuse a tea bag so many times until it runs out of flavor and you’re left drinking hot water that doesn’t taste like much. Same with barrels, kind of. You can use a barrel until it starts leaking or breaks. The more vintages of wine go in and out of that barrel, the less flavor the barrel will impart on the wine. Such “neutral” barrels provide a vessel in which the wine matures without taking on flavors characteristic of oak.

There is no one “right” answer here. You may think the winemaker made the “wrong” decision. Everyone’s palate is different. Also consider, a richer, powerful Chardonnay from a warm climate may stand up to the stronger flavors of American oak. A producer in a cool climate may opt for used French oak barrels to round out the wine without overpowering delicate fruit notes or detracting from minerality. A winemaker may use a combination of barrels, or even a combination of barrels and stainless steel tanks (as in Le P’tit Paysan) to make a complex Chardonnay with just the right balance. There’s an art to winemaking, and this is one of those times when the artistry and the experience of the winemaker shows.

So, will "oaked" Chardonnay taste like trees?

Time out: Next time you taste a Chardonnay, take a minute, stop, and think about what you’re tasting - is that vanilla? baking spices, like cinnamon and nutmeg (as in Migration Chardonnay)? butterscotch? Such flavors originate from the barrel in which the Chardonnay was aged, not the grape itself. If you don’t like these notes in your wine, please don’t blame the grape - Chardonnay is innocent here. If you want, you can blame the oak tree and the cooper.

Some Chardonnays are fermented in tank and don’t see wood at all. Light and bright, these wines often display crisp acidity and beautiful citrus notes. Refreshing and perfectly suited to lighter fare and fish, these are great for al fresco dining in the summer. I’ve sampled an unoaked Chardonnay like VRAC in store and had not a few visitors remark “Is this really Chardonnay?” Yes, folks, it really is.

And I almost forgot: Concrete

Now, a curveball for you: concrete. Yes, concrete. Winemakers employ concrete tanks for the same reason as they would oak barrels - controlling oxidation, imparting richness, and lengthening the finish. While concrete tanks are able to produce similar results as oak, they do not impart the same tannins or flavors as oak barrels will. An example of this is the 2013 Pattes Loup Chablis.

A Secondary Fermentation with Primary Impact

After yeast eat up all the sugars and convert them to alcohol, you may think the story’s over.

Sometimes. Not always. The wine may be put through a secondary fermentation, called Malolactic Fermentation. Oh no, scary words that remind you of high school science. It’s also commonly referred to as MLF - much easier. This “fermentation” is different from the first. You don’t get more alcohol; you simply change one acid to another.

Wine starts off rich in malic acid, a very tart acid. In fact, this is the acid that gives the tartness to green apples. (Malic sounds like Malus, the scientific name for the genus of apple.) During MLF, bacteria digest malic acid, producing lactic acid.

What do you think lactic sounds like?

During MLF, acidity is reduced, or softened, producing a rounder, creamier mouthfeel. This is where your buttery notes come in. A winemaker may allow MLF to continue to completion, or to stop it somewhere in the middle, when he or she tastes an incredible balance (Folie a Deux comes to mind). Some winemakers do not allow any MLF (as in the case of Xanadu Next of Kin from Australia).

What Pairs Best With Chardonnay?

That depends on the style, and, as you’ve seen, there’s a wide, wide range of styles. Overall, I’d say seafood, definitely. Richer, more powerful Chardonnays complement lobster and salmon whereas lighter styles pair well with scallops and shrimp. I also love Chardonnay with falafel.

Are Chardonnays Age-Worthy?

Yes and no, depending on the style, region, vintage and producer. (This is the case with many varieties.) Great white Burgundies like Chassagne-Montrachet age gracefully in the cellar. There are even some Chardonnays, particularly Chablis, that we recommend decanting! Flavorful Chardonnays with rich acidity evolve beautifully in the bottle.

So, my ABC wine lover, are you ready to give Chardonnay another chance?

--
Stacy comes to Wine Library from the production side of the industry. After studying agriculture in college, she found herself working at a local winery and, at harvest season, snacking on as many Pinot Noir grapes as she could take before the winemaker noticed. She enjoys reading, hiking, and scoping out what's in season at the local farmers' markets.
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