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Chardonnay

Know its traits to find your favorites

Fine Cooking Issue 59
Photo: Scott Phillips
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Grown from Tasmania to Chile, from South Africa to France, and just about everywhere in between, Chardonnay is the most popular of all white wines. Why? Because it’s both a winemaker’s and wine lover’s dream: It’s easy to grow, easy to make, and a reliably delicious drink made in a wide range of styles.

Though Chardonnay can be planted just about anywhere wine grapes can grow, it tends to thrive in cool climates. Cool-climate Chardonnays tend to be lean and crisp with mouthwatering acidity, while warmer-climate ones tend to be rich and full bodied, with lots of fruit and, at their best, enough balancing acidity. The Chardonnay grape itself is fairly neutral. But winemaking technique can transform it into something out of the ordinary.

The world’s Chardonnay can be generally divided into two categories, Old World and New World.

Old World means European wines. The best examples of Old World Chardonnay come from France; specifically, from Burgundy, where Chardonnay has been grown for centuries.

The Chardonnays of Chablis are renowned for their steely intensity with lemon-citrus and chalky-mineral flavors. Further south, wines from the villages of Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet have a remarkable combination of high-intensity fruit and rapier-like acidity while maintaining the stamp of the specific vineyard where the fruit was grown.

New World means anywhere vines were transplanted from the Old World. In North America, New World Chardonnay ranges from the vast spectrum of California wines, to Chardonnays made in Oregon and in Eastern Washington, to those made in New York, Virginia, Texas, Ohio, Michigan and New Mexico.

In the southern hemisphere, delicious New World Chardonnays come from Argentina, Chile, and South Africa. But no other New World winegrowers have taken Chardonnay to heart like the Australians. Because they’re skilled in the latest winemaking techniques and in blending fruit from many different regions to achieve a specific style or price point, the Aussies have mastered Chardonnay in practically every possible style; there’s an Australian Chardonnay to match every taste and budget. And though you usually think of Sauvignon Blanc when it comes to New Zealand whites, the Chardonnays there are impressive for their tart green fruit and racy acidity; they pair beautifully with food.

Five key traits

The key traits of Chardonnay are the following: fruity, buttery, oaky, earth/mineral, and lean.

Fruity
Refers to: The naturally fruity flavors of the Chardonnay grape. Fruity Chardonnay undergoes minimal manipulation during winemaking.
Shows up as: Aromas and flavors of apple, pear, peach, tropical fruit, or any combination.
Good with: Picnic-style food like cold roast chicken or turkey, composed salads with chicken, turkey, or seafood; simple pasta with seared vegetables and good olive oil.
Stay away from: Nothing. Fruity Chardonnay is one of the most versatile wines around.

Buttery
Refers to: Creamy, buttery aromas and flavors common to Chardonnay. A buttery Chardonnay has undergone a winemaking process called malo-lactic fermentation, where the tart green malic acids in the wine are converted by a bacterial culture to the softer type of lactic acids found in dairy products.
Shows up as: At its best, a buttery, creamy aroma. At its worst, smells like stale microwave popcorn. A by-product of malo-lactic fermentation is diacytel, a substance that smells and tastes like butter (and is often used to flavor microwave popcorn).
Good with: Rich foods: pastas with cream or cheese sauce; grilled chicken with butter sauce; grilled seafood like tuna, swordfish, or scallops with butter or cream sauce.
Stay away from: Dishes with vinegar- or citrus-based flavorings.

Oaky
Refers to: Oak barrels (or oak chips) used during fermentation, aging, or both. Oak is a great component in the overall Chardonnay recipe. But too much overpowers the wine.
Shows up as: At its best, flavors and aromas of vanilla, toast, sweet baking spices, or just plain wood. At its worst, bitter and unpleasant flavors that make the wine practically impossible to pair with food.
Good with: Grilled or seared fish or chicken; rich, soft-ripened cheeses; Swiss-style cheeses.
Stay away from: Delicate, subtle dishes.

Earth/mineral
Refers to: European-style Chardonnays that tend to be less fruit-forward, especially Chablis.
Shows up as: Aromas and flavors of mineral and earth.
Good with: Roast chicken with root vegetables; sushi, and sashimi; oysters on the half shell; strong-flavored, soft-ripened cheeses like Epoisses; aged goat cheese.
Stay away from: Dishes with fruit-based sauces and compotes.

Lean
Refers to: A wine made from grapes grown in a cool region, with a light-bodied, crisp feeling. Chardonnays from Chablis and New Zealand are known above all for this style.
Shows up as: Tart, juicy acidity; flavors of lemon, lime, or Granny Smith apple.
Good with: Salads and vinegar- or citrus-based sauces; sea bass and shellfish; Camembert and aged goat cheese.
Stay away from: Grilled foods.

Chardonnays to seek out

A good wine is a balance of many qualities, but along with each wine are listed its most distinctive traits, in order of intensity.

Milton Park Chardonnay
Australia
fruity

Penfolds Rawson’s Retreat Chardonnay
Australia
fruity, oaky

J. Lohr Riverstone Chardonnay
Monterey, California
fruity, oaky

Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay
Casablanca, Chile
fruity, oaky, buttery

Handley Chardonnay
Dry Creek Valley, California
fruity, buttery, oaky

Thornbury Estate Chardonnay
Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
fruity, buttery, oaky
Matanzas Creek Chardonnay
Sonoma County, California
fruity, buttery, oaky

Domaine Drouhin Chardonnay
Willamette Valley, Oregon
fruity, buttery, oaky

Domaine Tremblay Chablis 1er Cru
Fourchaume Chablis
Burgundy, France
lean, mineral

Mount Eden Estate Chardonnay
Santa Cruz Mountains, California
fruity, buttery, mineral, oaky

Domaine Francois Jobard Meursault “Poruzots”
Meursault, Burgundy, France
fruity, mineral, oaky

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