Chardonnay is one of the most maligned grapes in modern history. The very mention of this varietal often begins a stimulating conversation, if not a stirring debate. Bullied and stereotyped for the last decade, chardonnay has fallen from grace; yet this classic grape remains one of the best varietals there is for food and cheese pairing.
The popularity of chardonnay rises and falls like a roller coaster; it’s in, it’s out, it’s oaky, it’s not oaky…but one thing is certain: wine drinkers everywhere have strong opinions about this great wine grape.
The chardonnay is one of the Classic grape varietals. It is pure, it is authentic, and it produces arguably one of the most complex white wines. This is due in part to winemaking techniques, and in part to this grape’s unique ability to draw flavor from the nutrients and minerals in the soil. It also can be grown in very diverse climates which greatly effect the type of wines that are produced.
Terroir is a French term that refers to “sense of place”. This is critical in wine production. A great example of this is the contrast between chardonnay that is grown and produced in California’s Napa Valley, a warm region, and one that is produced just over the mountains in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, in cooler conditions.
The significance difference between these two growing conditions is:
- Warm weather produces large grape clusters and large berries, with prominent fruit and sugars; the wine is fruit forward, full bodied, buttery, with tropical fruits and a hint of vanilla; it can be oaky, lush, and dry from the tannin in the fruit and oak barrels.
- Grapes grown in cooler areas produce smaller grape clusters and a smaller berry. Cooler conditions also allow for a longer hang- time on the vine. Grapes grown in cool climates will have fruit and sugar that is far more concentrated, producing wines that are much more restrained, and characterized by crisp acidity, medium body, tree fruits, less pronounced tropical fruits, and little or no oak.
Another critical factor in wine production is technique. Winemakers age chardonnay in new oak barrels, old oak barrels, steel tanks, and cement vessels, all of which produce varying nuances in the wines. New barrels produce the strongest oak nuance; older barrels have a more subtle oak influence. Chardonnay that is fermented and aged in oak can be rich, bold, fruit forward, a hint of vanilla, and a bit toasty. Steel tanks produce no oak; they are crisp with bright fruit, floral, with notes of citrus, apple, pear, and tropical fruit aromas. The steel tanks preserve the natural fruit esters of grape characteristics within the wine. Cement vessels leave the wine in a neutral state, neither imparting nor diminishing its characteristics.
Complexity and variety define chardonnay. Which is best? Answer: the one that suits your palate.
Best regions to find great chardonnays: Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Cruz, California; New Zealand; Chile; Argentina; Washington State; and, believe it or not, New Mexico. A less expensive chablis (French chardonnay) is Bourgogne blanc.
So whether you enjoy your chardonnay in a style that is oaky or steely, fruity or flinty there is a wine out there for you. Remember that chardonnay is a great wine to pair with your meals, cheese courses, or to just enjoy on its own.
Liquid Planet, located in the Heart of Downtown Missoula, has a varied selection of quality chardonnays from around the world. Find yours at Liquid Planet, Missoula’s best wine shopping experience.
To learn more about wine and see my chardonnay wine reviews visit WineGuyMike on his blog at www.WineGuyMike.com , please drink in moderation and in good health.