Exploring Chardonnay, an Overview of This Popular Wine
Chardonnay is literally all over the map, ranging from ripe, fruit-forward white wines of the New World to leaner, more understated whites of the Old World. Despite notable differences in flavor profiles—a result of everything from the vintage and harvest setting to the terroir and winemaking style—many wine lovers seem to lump all Chardonnays into one generic stereotype that they either love or loathe. "I think your average wine drinker still thinks of Chardonnay in the old-school California sense: a bit of residual sugar, nice heavy oak toast, and butter aplenty," says Tracy Kendall, associate winemaker for Nicolas-Jay, a small winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley, who holds a masters in enology and viticulture from UC Davis. "That said, many of our consumers are also pivoting towards more austere, mineral-driven Chardonnay, with tension and breadth on the palate, and they’re coming to expect that from Oregon."
How does a chardonnay from Oregon differ from a California or Australian Chardonnay, or for that matter, the mothership of them all, French Chardonnay? Let's dig deeper.
Chardonnay is a green-skinned grape that hails from the legendary Burgundy wine region in eastern France, and it's also the main part of Burgundy's production (aside from Pinot Noir for Bourgogne rouge). The region's terroir is a true expression of Chardonnay's character: sophisticated, flinty, and complex. The name Chardonnay, by the way, is usually nowhere to be found on the wine bottle. Instead, French Chardonnays, called white Burgundy (or Bourgogne) wines, are typically 100 percent Chardonnay, with labels depicting one of the wine=growing areas where they are made: Côte de Beaune, Chablis, and Mâconnais. Côte de Beaune's white Burgundies are the crème de la crème.
Aged in oak barrels, the full-bodied whites have aromas of fresh apple and honeysuckle, and many are made in the villages of Chassagne-Montrachet, Santenay, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, along with the Corton-Charlemagne vineyard. Chablis, the furthest north, is perhaps the most well known, producing crisp, minerally white Burgundies, with the top-notch tier known as Chablis Grand Cru. The Mâconnais region, west of the Saône River, is where you'll find great values. The light-bodied wines are usually unoaked, and have lean acidity ranging from notes of melon and apricot to hazelnut. And you may have heard of its famous appellations, Pouilly-Fuissé and Mâcon-Villages. Then, there's Bourgogne blanc, which is the most budget-friendly, and can be made with grapes from throughout Burgundy.
An ardent fan of French Chardonnays, one of Kendall’s favorites is the Patrice Rion Bourgogne Chardonnay (yes, it says Chardonnay is on the label!) which she deems a lovely example of the Burgundy wines ($27.99, wine.com). Try it with Fish with Lemon-Parsley Relish, Sriracha Shrimp, or a One-Pot Clambake. Another French treasure: Domaine Méo-Camuzet Hautes-Côtes-de-Nuits ($42.99, pluckywines.com). (Nicolas-Jay cofounder and winemaker, Jean-Nicolas Méo, is also the owner and winemaker of the renowned Domaine Méo-Camuzet). "It's a stunning white wine coming from a top producer (whom I obviously know quite well) that is predominately chardonnay grown in high elevation soils in the heart of Burgundy. If you can find it, it’s a chardonnay not to be missed, pair it with Country Duck Pâté, Crisp Baked Lemon Cod, Veal Chops with mushroom sauce, or Seafood Stew.
Chardonnay is one of those rare whites that pairs well with a wide range of foods. Others to try: Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey Creuzilly Bourgogne Haut-Côte de Beaune ($46.99, suburbanwines.com) with Potted Crab or Grilled Chicken Breast. Jean-Paul Droin Chablis 2017 ($29.99, wine.com) with Baked Fish with Summer Squash or cheeses like Gruyère and Gouda, or Louis Jadot Pouilly-Fuissé 2018 ($29.99, wine.com) with Sautéed Chicken in Mustard-Cream Sauce, or cheeses like Camembert or Brie. Or sip Domaine Romy Clos de la Chapelle Bourgogne Blanc 2016 ($26.99, wine.com) with a Caesar salad, Fresh Spring Rolls, or charcuterie.
One Grape, Many Styles
"Chardonnay is an amazing grape in that it can grow, produce, and even thrive in so many different climates. There aren't many other varietals that can do that, which is why we see so many different styles of Chardonnay," explains Kendall. The profusion of styles can also make it somewhat confusing for people perusing the shelves at the wine store; you may like a Chardonnay from one region, but from another, not so much. "It's a varietal that can be susceptible to winemaking style, responding strongly to oak, secondary fermentation, aging approaches, sugar levels, ripeness levels, and other ways of manipulation," she says.
New World vs. Old World
California Chardonnays, renowned the world over, are typically richer and heftier than those white Burgundies, and they're likely to be oaked, sometimes to a staggering degree, but they too can vary wildly, from young wines with mouthwatering acidity, to wines with a heavy mouth feel and notes of vanilla. "It's difficult to generalize each region into one style, particularly an area like California, since wines coming from the Sonoma Coast are markedly different than those coming from the valley floor in Napa or the Santa Rita Hills," says Kendall. More heavily oaked, with riper fruit and dominant fruit characters, Australian Chardonnay is on something of a parallel. The New World wines are oftentimes higher in alcohol, too.
Sample 2017 Chanin Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley ($34.95, klwines.com) with Mushroom Risotto or Creamy Pasta with Ham and Broccoli. And from Western Australia, Stella Bella Chardonnay 2018 ($25.99, wine.com) with Seared Scallops Niçoise or Creamy Polenta.
"French Chardonnay, on the other hand, much like Oregon Chardonnay, where I make wine, is a more tension driven, lighter oaked, brighter mineral style," explains Kendall. "The fruit is more typically in the lemon/lime, stone fruit, tropical descriptors, with white flowers, wet stone, limestone, chalk as secondary characters." Kendall literally had a hand in making Nicolas-Jay's chardonnays. Try the complex Nicolas-Jay 2018 Affinités Chardonnnay ($40, nicolas-jay.com) or the 2018 L'Alliance, blended with Pinot Gris ($40, nicolas-jay.com) with dishes like Fish Fumet or Veal Chops with Shallots and Wild Mushrooms.