Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Get to Know your Grapes Series - Chardonnay

Chardonnay Grapes
Chardonnay grapes are used to make wines with a variety of incarnations. Since Chardonnay is a very “neutral” grape, the decisions of the winemaker throughout the winemaking process have a significant impact on the finished product. 

Some winemakers choose to use oak barrels to ferment and age the wine, others prefer to forego oak and stick with stainless steel, while others may choose a combination of fermentation in stainless and aging in oak. Since it can be manipulated so much as part of the winemaking process, Chardonnay is typically bottled without blending it with other grape varieties.  

All of this flexibility in winemaking with Chardonnay can make it a difficult wine to pair with food, because you must make sure you are selecting the correct style of Chardonnay as they can vary quite a bit. If you are pairing wine with a dish that needs a crisp, unoaked version and you end up with a heavily oaked version of Chardonnay... well the results just might not be pretty!

Chablis - All Chardonnay Baby!
The white wine of France’s Burgundy region is 100% Chardonnay (for all practical purposes, although there is another white grape - Aligote - that is used to make cheaper wine in the region). Blending Chardonnay with other grapes is definitely more of an exception than a rule, so the majority of Chardonnay wines from throughout the world will be 100% Chardonnay.

Within the Burgundy region of France, there are a couple of very famous Chardonnay wines. The first is Chablis, a wine made from Chardonnay in the northernmost part of Burgundy. At one point in history, cheap bulk made wines from other places were labeled as "Chablis", so some people may still have a negative connotation when they here about wine from this region. Now, wines labeled as Chablis must be from the Chablis region within Burgundy. Chablis is often identified as the ultimate pairing with raw oysters, as the grapes for Chablis grow in soil that is rich with fossilized oyster shells.   Pouilly-Fuissé is another example of Chardonnay from the Burgundy region - but differs from Chablis by the frequent use of oak barrels in the winemaking.  Also in France, Chardonnay is one of the key players in Champagne, either blended with Pinot Noir or bottled as 100% Chardonnay (noted on the Champagne bottle as “Blanc de Blancs.”) 

Napa Valley Chardonnay
In the US,  California is the hotspot for Chardonnay.  The best examples are made in the Anderson Valley (Mendocino area), Russian River Valley (Sonoma), Carneros (between Sonoma and Napa), Santa Barbara (Central California Coast) and Santa Maria Valley (Central California Coast). California’s Chardonnay was one of the wines that helped bring recognition to US winemaking in 1976 when a “Judgement of Paris” blind tasting of French versus California wines held in France  ended with Chateau Montelena from the Napa Valley coming in first place - surprising the world by beating world renowned French Chardonnays.  If you want to try a wine geek movie - Bottle Shock the movie is all about this great event in wine history.
Typical Aromas of Chardonnay.  Fruit aromas which can range from apples and pears to lemons and grapefruit, depending on the region, climate, and vintage of the wine. Winemaking approaches including oak barrel aging, aging the wine in contact with the yeast cells from fermentation (also called lees), and malolactic fermentation (process that takes tart malic acid and converts it into buttery lactic acid) can add an array of aromas including nuts, popcorn, biscuit dough, butter, cream, and butterscotch.

Typical Styles of Chardonnay Wine. Chardonnay can provide bold and intense fruit flavors of apples, pears, melons, melon, peaches, pineapples, lemons, grapefruit, and even fig or dates. Oak barrel aging can add butter. spice, honey, and hazelnut flavors.  Chardonnay is a very big seller, so you will be able to find versions that are cheap and ordinary all the way up to complex, bold and expensive. 

Let's Eat! What Food Pairs with Chardonnay Wines? .

  • Lighter, Unoaked. Lighter wines like Chablis are great with fish, shellfish, and even salads.
  • Lightly Oaked, Medium Bodied. Wines that see some time in oak are great with more flavorful varieties of fish, plus chicken, pork, and veal.
  • Oaked, Fuller Bodied. You need heavier dishes to stand up to the weight of a big Chardonnay.  Lobster (don't forget the butter), roasted chicken, and even a steak with a béarnaise sauce will work nicely.
Who Makes Chardonnay Wines? In addition to France and Sonoma, here are just a few examples: 
  • Other locations in California.  The Sonoma area and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean gives us some of the best Chardonnay in California. Other California spots also produce some very good examples including:
    • Napa Valley. Pricey, but some great stuff.
    • Central Coast. The ocean coolness also helps out in Central California.
  • Washington State. Washington also cranks out some very excellent Chardonnay, and mostly priced a bit (or sometimes a lot) cheaper than Napa or Sonoma Chardonnays. 
  • Oregon. From the land of Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc - Oregon has started producing some very good Chardonnay. I have seen a few, but have yet to try one as I am a big fan of Oregon's Pinot Blancs and usually don't make it past those bottles in the white wine section.
  • Chile.  Chile has received Chardonnay recognition including the Marques de Casa Concha 2010 Chardonnay which made the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2012 (ranked #87) - the first and only Chilean Chardonnay to make the list.
Words of Advice. Some things to keep in mind to make sure you get the most out of your Chardonnay Purchase:
  • Forget your ABCs.  Chardonnay became one of the more popular wines as droves of new wine drinkers looked to move beyond their beloved Beringer or Mondavi White Zinfandels. Some negative backlash within the wine community followed, to the point that the acronym ABC for "Anything But Chardonnay" was, and still is often used. There are lots of great Chardonnay wine made in vastly different styles available, so forget about the Chardonnay in your grocery store that comes in Sparklett's water bottle sizes for less than $10 - and instead find a good wine shop and explore the interesting and varied world of Chardonnay! 
  • Look for value. South American Chardonnays from Chile and Argentina offer some great value opportunities and give you a taste of a variety of winemaking styles. Be careful about going too cheap, as the quality will likely suffer - but staying about $10 a bottle you should find some really nice examples.
Looking for some good brands to try?
    • Abeja - Washington State. May be tough to find, but very good stuff.
    • Chateau Ste. Michelle - Washington State. They make several different bottlings of Chardonnay all at great prices.
    • La Crema - Sonoma Coast. Nice value - usually around $15.
    • Paul Hobbs - Russian River Valley. With a price approaching a splurge wine - try it if you love Chardonnay!
    • Darioush Signature Chardonnay - Napa Valley. Also a bit spendy, but join their wine club for a discount!
What is your favorite Chardonnay? Share with us in the comment below!

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