This noble grape variety has long been central to some of the greatest wine styles in the world. Several famous European wines would be unimaginable without the presence of this green-skinned grape. However, in the last 30 years or so, chardonnay has exploded in popularity around the world. So called "New World" wine producing countries have been pumping out millions of litres of chardonnay at a rate once unthinkable.
Areas such as California, Australia, New Zealand and Chile now have wine regions that are heavily based on chardonnay and it has become wildly popular in wine drinking nations. The reason? Well there are several; but first, lets take a look at the grape.
Where it all Began
There are literally thousands of grape varieties, of which about a dozen or so are known as the noble vines. These include cabernet sauvignon, shiraz or (syrah), pinot noir, riesling, semillon and of course, chardonnay. All of these grape varieties, and thousands of others, belong to one hugely diverse species - Vitis vinifera. The skin colour of these grapes is panoramic. Some are pale green, almost white - while others are close to black. Chardonnay skins are a vivid - almost luminous pale green. All grapes have clear juice - it is skins that determine the final colour of the wine. Chardonnay grapes of course, end up making white wine.
The spiritual home of chardonnay is France, with 2 regions of particular importance - Burgundy and Champagne. You will most likely already know that these regions are famous for two totally different wine styles.
Champagne is considered to be the region that produces the world's greatest sparkling wine. True Champagne is always made to a time-honoured set of rules, known as methode champenoise. These rules govern many aspects of making Champagne, but we are only interested with what they say about grape varieties. Three grapes are used in making Champagne - pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay, either alone or in blends depending on the style. Blanc de blancs is the champagne style that contains only chardonnay.
Burgundy is home to some of the greatest (and most expensive) dry red and white table wines in the world. The great red Burgundies are made from pinot noir, while the great whites are made from chardonnay. There are two classic chardonnay styles made in Burgundy. Chablis, a region in the North West of Burgundy makes a comparatively light, minerally yet intense wine, while Mâconnais, to the South makes a richer, more complex wine.
These three classic wine styles go part of the way to explaining the popularity of chardonnay. Both Champagne and Burgundy make superior wine styles that winemakers around the world want to emulate, and consumers want to drink - often at any cost.
A Seasoned Traveler
It took a long time, but chardonnay finally got its passport and started to travel the world. The first assault was in the 1960's with California, while in the 1970's Australia started to discover the grape. By the 1980's New Zealand and Chile were making notable quantities of the wine. Today, pleasantly drinkable chardonnays are being made in dozens of countries around the world. The reason is chardonnay is a very good traveler. Certain grapes such as pinot noir and marsanne will only make good wine in a handful of regions. Great chardonnay is also made in only a handful of regions, but good chardonnay can be made just about anywhere there is enough sunlight and water.
Chardonnay is capable of making a wide range of wine styles. To the winemaker, there are plenty of techniques available that just aren't appropriate in other white grape varieties. The question "What does chardonnay taste like?" is a little like asking what vegetables taste like.
Chardonnay starts its life like most other dry white table wines. The ripe grapes are harvested at vintage time - depending on the region, this can be anywhere from late summer to mid autumn. Harvesting usually takes place in the cool of the morning, while the grapes are still cold. The grapes are quickly transferred to huge stainless steel crushing vats, where the juice is extracted from the grapes and the skins and stalks separated. The juice, known as must is then pumped off to a stainless steel fermenting vessel where fermentation is commenced with the addition of yeast (a few hardy souls rely on wild yeasts to do this). All this is conducted at relatively cool temperatures - around 15 - 20° C.
Where chardonnay differs from many other wine styles is during the fermentation. Most light herbaceous white wines finish fermentation in steel and are then filtered and bottled. Before chardonnay has finished fermenting, around 2 weeks, but sometimes up to 1 month, the wine is transferred to oak barrels. Fermentation is completed in the barrels and the wine is matured for a short period in wood as well, before being bottled. This step is responsible for the characteristic "oaky" flavour found in many chardonnays.
Oak barrels for winemaking come from two places - France and the USA. Each imparts their own flavour characteristic, but both have one thing in common; they are very expensive. If you are drinking a wood matured chardonnay that cost around AU$10 (US$6), you can bet that the oak influence didn't come in the form of a barrel.
These cheaper wines are fermented and matured entirely in stainless steel. Oak staves - planks of oak inserted into the fermenter, or oak chips, used in a similar manner, provide wood influence at a greatly reduced cost.
Many producers of chardonnay went a bit overboard with oak in the last 20 years or so. The mantra "wood is good" could be heard in young wineries around the world. These wines were given so much oak treatment that they began to taste little of grapes and more of trees. This practice has caused a minor backlash in the last 10 years. A popular new style is un-wooded, or un-oaked chardonnay. These wines are made with no oak influence at all, and produce subtle, fresh and somewhat simple wines that are easy to drink. All great chardonnays however, will spend some time in oak - it is just a matter of getting the balance right.
Other options available to the winemaker include malolactic fermentation, which is the process of adding bacteria to the nearly fermented wine, converting harsh malic, to softer lactic acid. Done correctly, this can take the acidic edge off cool-grown chardonnay and introduce a new level of complexity. However, too much malolactic activity can make the wine taste like butter. Lactic acid after all, is found in dairy products. Lees contact can also increase the level of complexity in chardonnay. Lees are the dead yeast that sink to the bottom of the fermenter. In most delicate white wine, the fermented juice is simply pumped off, leaving the lees behind. In more complex chardonnays, the lees can be periodically stirred back through the fermenting wine and imparting a new flavour characteristic.
Chardonnay and Food
Because chardonnay is capable of producing so many different wine styles, it can also partner a wide variety of dishes. Blanc de blancs chardonnay-based Champagne is often quite dry and flinty. It makes a superb aperitif, and thus partners pre-dinner food with natural ease. Oysters are perfect and so is smoked salmon.
Lighter and un-wooded chardonnays can partner a range of dishes - from complex salads to light pasta and seafood dishes. When I say light - I mean lightly sauced or garnished. Gently spicy food can also work well with these styles, but a hot curry is usually the domain of beer.
Fully flavoured, oak influenced chardonnays are perfect with meatier cuts of fish, such as tuna and lighter meat dishes, such as chicken, pork and veal. If the wine has malolactic influence, dishes including cream-based sauces can work well.
As with all wine and food matching, there is no right and wrong, treat the above a a guide only and not as gospel. Try experimenting and remember - if it tastes good to you - it is right.