Chardonnay is the most often purchased white wine in the world. On top of that, it’s also widely reported as America’s favorite wine in general. Chardonnay grapes are those popular light green, robust bunches that you often see pictured in vineyard photos. With the ability to grow all over the world and a palatable taste that pairs well with a variety of foods, it’s no wonder this favorite wine variety draws so much worldwide adoration.
Chardonnay at a Glance:
Most Prominent in: Born in Burgundy, France, Chardonnay now has a sizeable growth in all of the major wine production regions. Vineyards in France, Italy, America, Chile, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand all have distinctive offerings from Chardonnay grapes.
Looks Like: The grape itself is a large, robust, green variety that grows in plentiful, large clusters. The resulting wine is a buttery yellow color with great opacity.
Tastes Like: The vineyard where it was produced. Chardonnay is a varied wine with great influence drawn from the place of origin. Everything from temperature, soil conditions, and aging choices made by the winemaker will impact the overall bouquet and flavor. In general, expect strong fruit flavors.
A Bit about Her History
For many years the origins of Chardonnay were widely debated. Many assumed a genetic connection to Pinot Noir due to Chardonnay’s origins in Burgundy, France, while others insisted that the grape was established in the Middle East and brought to Europe by early crusaders. Modern science, complete with DNA testing, has shed light on the wine in recent years, however, and shown the original assumption of a relation to the Pinot Noir grape as most likely. Genetically, Chardonnay is linked to both Pinot Noir as well as Heunisch grapes. Heunisch grapes are believed to have been brought to France from Croatia, where they then would have been crossed with the popular Pinot Noir grape.
While always a popular grape to grow and wine to produce, Chardonnay experienced a surge of popularity in the 1990s as it became a sophisticated drink among the “Bridget Jones” generation of young, urban women. As such, vineyards experienced a boom in production. Since then production has leveled off but remains quite global. Chardonnay is the 6th most grown grape variety in the world, covering close to a half million acres.
As of 2006 wine experts note 36 varieties of Chardonnay worldwide. These variety “clones” are sought out to optimize bunch sizes and flavor. The resulting clones and variations result in highly aromatic and even pink chardonnay varieties. Currently, the USA is working on a genetically modified Chardonnay grape variety.
Regions of Prominence
For many wines, it is important to understand which regions of the world produce perfect growing conditions. Understanding this can help you choose a better vineyard and a flavor that is more true to the desired essence of the grape. This is simply not the case with Chardonnay. The grape grows easily in many climates leading to easy production in any area where wine is produced. In fact, Chardonnay is often thought of as a winemaker’s entry into the wine producing world due to the ease of producing a quality wine. Perhaps, in the case of Chardonnay, it’s is more important to understand the climate of the region from which you’re choosing the wine, as opposed to the region in general. The climate and conditions of the regions will impact the flavor and body of the Chardonnay, meaning that you may have a climate preference as opposed to a regional preference.
The good news is that Chardonnay grapes can grow just about anywhere. The flipside to this is that Chardonnay flavors can be incredibly varied, making it a bit confusing to choose a Chardonnay with a consistent flavor. Wine flavoring takes so many factors into consideration in determining a flavor. Everything from soil conditions, air temperature, humidity, and seasons come into play. So when it comes to the flavor of Chardonnay, think of it as a great adventure. In general, you can expect a gamut of flavors from crisp to buttery, but always with strong fruit notes. Expect anything from zesty lemon to fragrant pineapple and everything in between.
In general, expect the wine flavor to be representative to where it was grown. Chardonnays from cooler regions will preserve the acidity in the grape, leading to citrus flavors, something blended with apple and floral essence. The soil in these regions can give the wine a chalky flavor, too. These chardonnays are almost always on the crisp, sharp side.
Conversely, Chardonnays from warmer climates tend to be sweeter and reflect a tropical fruit flavor. Think pineapple, mango, and guava when choosing one of these wines. In general, they’re a fuller-bodied Chardonnay with a strong, buttery flavor.
The Perfect Pair
With so many varied flavor varieties out there, how can it be possible to understand how to pair Chardonnay without keeping a pocket-sized guide in your purse? The simple trick is to always pair Chardonnay with seafood. A richer Chardonnay will work better with a meatier fish, think salmon or lobster, while a crisp Chardonnay works best with flaky fish, shrimp, and scallops. These intricacies are quite minuscule in the grand picture, however. In general, when you think Chardonnay, think seafood.
If you don’t care for seafood, Chardonnay also pairs well with roasted or smoked white meats like chicken or turkey. Chardonnay pairs well with a simple cheddar cheese, though it also works well with a creamy brie. For a completed cheese tray, add figs or artichokes to round out the flavor palate.
While most wine lovers think red wines are the go-to choice for health benefits from wine, turns out white varieties, including Chardonnay, can also have health benefits. They include the same flavonoids and antioxidants that have made red wine famous, and in some studies, have shown to be just effective as red wine. The antioxidants and flavonoids have been credited with everything from reducing the risk of developing cancer to aiding in the fight against heart disease. A recent study out of the University of Barcelona even shows that some white wines may have more antioxidants than red wines.
The Oak Debate
Typically, any wine that is described as having a buttery flavor is assumed to also have a strong oak essence as well. This is certainly the case for Cabernet Sauvignon, which is desired for her strong oak notes. When it comes to Chardonnay though, oak flavors aren’t always a guaranteed thing. In the case of the popular white, oak flavors are the result of the aging process as opposed to the flavor of the wine itself. In many cases, Chardonnay will be aged in oak barrels. This will lead to notes of oak in the overall bouquet of the wine. However, other winemakers prefer to age Chardonnay in steel tanks or in concrete. In these cases, the result is a stronger citrus infusion and a crisper flavor. While neither option is superior to the other, some critics will put great stock in the buttery oak flavors of Chardonnay made in oak barrels. To these discerning consumers, the difference in French and American oak barrels can even represent a significant difference in flavor.
Chablis vs. Chardonnay
There is much confusion between Chablis and Chardonnay in recent years. The foundation for this likely lies in the fact that the Chablis region of France is a large producer of Chardonnay grapes. As the region has grown in popularity, the “Chablis” label has grown to encompass its own type of wine. The term “Chablis” is now widely used to describe a generic, dry, white wine. However, a Chardonnay from Chablis is something entirely different than a colloquial Chablis wine. To try and clear up the confusion, the European Union recently protected the name “Chablis” saying that this title can only be used on Chardonnay wines that are produced in the Chablis region. Today, Chardonnays from this region can be quite expensive and are prized for their pure expression of the varietal character of the grape.
Betcha’ Didn’t Know…
- Chardonnay is an important component to developing Champagne. It is one of just 3 grapes planted and grown in the Champagne region- where all Champagne is made.
- Despite worldwide popularity, many people are adamantly opposed to Chardonnay. This group of people has given themselves the nickname of “ABC” (Anything But Chardonnay) wine drinkers.
- The alcohol by volume varies from bottle to bottle! When it comes to Chardonnay, the ABV (alcohol by volume) can range from 12-15% per bottle. The difference is most easily noted by flavor. Those crisp Chardonnay bottles from cooler climates? They have less alcohol per volume. The sweeter, more buttery Chardonnay grown in warmer climates also have a higher alcohol volume.
- Chardonnay overtook Riesling as North America’s dominant white wine in 1990.
- The first successful Chardonnay in the United States was cultivated in Livermore Valley, in California.
- Many states within the USA are currently producing world renowned Chardonnays. Apart from the often thought of California, New York, Washington State, Oregon, and Texas are also big players in Chardonnay production. In addition to these leading states, Chardonnay winemakers can be found in 30 of the 48 contiguous state.
- While Chardonnay was first introduced to the Australia and New Zealand region in the 1830s, it did not take off in prominence until the 1950s.