Mention Chardonnay and images of little old ladies sipping the yellow-ish wine at Tuesday card club comes to mind. Or the world’s most planted white grape may conjure up mental images of the wine-country Bachelorette party.
No grape is more loved nor hated than Chardonnay. For many years, often still prevalent, is an entire group of wine drinkers identifying themselves as ABC consumers – Anything But Chardonnay!
Chardonnay is even more dominating than many would guess. If consumers think of wine and California, they generally think of the king of grapes Cabernet Sauvignon. But guess what, Chardonnay is the most planted grape in California with Cabernet second.
Chardonnay is popular, in part, because it offers an array of flavors. Depending on style, the palate might discover lemon, pear, apple, pineapple, peach, citrus, honeysuckle, minerality, almond, and the list goes on and on. If the Chardonnay is oaked then expect vanilla, butter, butterscotch, and caramelization.
Winemakers around the world grow and produce Chardonnay in a multitude of styles to appeal to consumers or to represent the area – think terroir – where the wine grapes are grown.
So for a bit of education let’s compare the two extremes – California’s iconic oaked chardonnay versus the mostly-unoaked Chablis of Burgundy, France.
While the trends, even in California, is somewhat away from the big, buttery, and oaky Chards, there is still a market for those classic wines. What has happened in recent years is a mixture of oak and stainless steel to create a somewhat softer version of the taste you know.
In addition to oak aging, Chardonnay often undergoes malolactic fermentation. But let’s not make this chemistry or complicated. Malolactic fermentation means using a different type of yeast to create a softer tasting wine than one which is more acidic. Those creamy, round soft Chardonnays from Napa most likely underwent malolactic fermentation.
Traditional oaked chard pairs wonderfully with chicken, soft cheeses, herbed fish, pork, and turkey.
In the small village of Chablis, in northern Burgundy, chardonnay is Chablis. Chardonnay is all about minerality and acidity – no butter and creamy sips for the traditionalists.
The Chardonnay grapes of Chablis come from a relatively small area. The wines are aged in stainless steel or decades old cement vats. Some of the wine is oaked but it’s usually neutral oak that does not impart the strong vanilla and woodsy taste. And often Chablis is a blend of the traditional and oak aging methodology.
There are wine writers and Chablis old-timers who will vehemently proclaim Chablis as the greatest white wine in the world. One of my most memorable wine experiences was centered on this discussion during a 2012 fall visit. Wine icon Bernard Billaud was meeting with a small group of wine press folks and being pushed on the younger winemakers uses of some oak.
The older statesman of Chablis became a bit aggravated and said, “If you’re not talking about acidity and minerality,” and then he growled, “you’re just making Chardonnay.”
Chablis, or unoaked Chardonnay, is a better match with shell fish and sharp cheeses. The best sipper is debate centered on stylistic preferences.
To suggest California and Chablis are the two primary styles of Chard isn’t too much of a stretch but there are many wines made in styles at all points between the two.
There are interesting Chards from California’s Central Coast, Oregon, South America and New Zealand.
It’s loved. It’s hated. There are many types of Chardonnay to try and one to match your palate.