Aug 19 2008

All About Chardonnay

Published by at 7:01 PM under Chardonnay,White Wines,Wine Education

Chardonnay is the most widely consumed white wine in the world today. Every country that produces wine for export has produced a Chardonnay to segue into the international market. It is one of the most malleable varietals, easily taking on various characteristics from the soil, the climate, and the manipulations of the winemaker. Steely and un-oaked, rich and buttery, a light bodied fruit salad, a full concentrated noble wine that gets better with age- Chardonnay is capable of exhibiting itself in all of these styles and more. It is also one of the primary varietals blended to create the ever popular sparkling wine of Champagne.

Common Flavor Profiles
Chardonnay is not as strongly aromatic as many other white varietals; the aromas that come through on the nose are more highly affected by the region the grapes were grown in, the quality of the fruit, and how it was handled after harvest than by the characteristics of the varietal itself. Chardonnays in general tend to have a rather muted, broad bouquet with notes of apples, pears, tropical fruits such as pineapple, and sometimes earthy aromas such as mushrooms. The flavors exhibited in Chardonnay can vary widely even within a region. In the Cote d’Or of Burdundy, France, for example, wines from neighboring vineyards have distinct flavor profiles: in Montrachet Chardonnay is steely, in Meursault buttery, in Corton-Charlemagne nutty. Even though these regions are separated by only a few hundred kilometers, slight differences in soil conditions, climate and wine making techniques result in dramatic flavor variation.
Chardonnay is one of the few white wines that can also handle malolactic fermentation, achieved by adding beneficial bacteria during fermentation, which creates lactic acid in the wine. Lactic acid, the same compound found in milk, softens acidity and fruitiness and creates a creamy texture. A byproduct of malolactic fermentation is diacetyl, the same flavoring chemical found in microwave popcorn, which can give wine a buttery aroma and flavor. Some wine connoisseurs even suggest sneaking a bottle of buttery Chardonnay into the theater with you as it makes a surprisingly nice pairing with a tub of movie popcorn.

Burgundy, France is generally agreed upon as the birthplace of Chardonnay, which is one of the most ancient grape varietals. It is a descendent of the white Muscat which is indigenous to France. The wines of Chablis, a sub region of Burgundy, set the standard. In Chablis, Chardonnay is expressed in its purest form, usually unoaked and simply vinified using the natural yeasts of the land. Chablis usually has high acidity and subtle, refined flavors of tree fruit and minerals. Many other Burgundy Chardonnays are produced specifically to be aged. These opulent, full bodied wines are often fermented and oaked in used barrels which impart a subtle oak flavor and a rich golden color as the wine ages.

Other Growing Regions

The main reason Chardonnay is so prolific is that it is very easy to grow and produces consistently high quality fruit in a wide range of climates. The grapes also have a high sugar content which translates into higher alcohol, aging potential and enough body and structure to stand up to oak. Chardonnay’s superior structure also allows it to withstand the methode champenois in which Chardonnay is blended with Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier to create Champagne, or sparkling wine outside of France. A limited quantity of Blanc de blancs Champagne is also produced using exclusively Chardonnay. Australian Chardonnays tend to be very rich and fruity, often compared to a tropical fruit cocktail. California was once known for its big, over oaked and very alcoholic Chardonnays. Wines like these fell out of style as the American palate became more refined and greater variety became available through European imports. Wine makers throughout the state began focusing on producing higher quality wines, and today Chardonnays that rival top quality white Burgundies can be found in California, especially in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. It is also grown widely throughout Italy though for many years it was viewed primarily as a blending grape.

The highest quality Chardonnays still come from Burgundy (and some would argue from California), and are built to develop a rich golden color, and nuance and complexity in flavor as they age. Lesser quality wine producers sometimes try to mimic the subtle oak flavors of higher quality chardonnays by adding oak chips during fermentation and dumping sugar into the juice to increase the alcohol content and create a fuller bodied wine. However, the subtlety and elegance of a Chardonnay crafted in the traditional Burgundy style is inimitable.

Food Pairing

The richness of many Chardonnays makes a nice pairing with buttery sea food such as lobster, shellfish cooked or dunked in butter, fish with creamy sauces, and stews. Chicken and turkey with herbs, especially dill, are other common pairings. More complex, aged Chardonnays go well with earthy foods like mushrooms and aged cheeses. A well balanced Chardonnay is always a crowd pleaser and therefore a no-brainer for dinner parties and the like.

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