What is Chardonnay’s true identity? Fresh apple and pear – crisp, with a hint of minerality? Or rich, buttery and oaky? It seems to be any of the above depending upon the producer. Chardonnay is a malleable variety that some say has little varietal distinction to call its own, yet it’s a beautiful showcase for terroir and also for the winemaker’s bag of tricks – production aromas and flavors.
Chardonnay is an ancient resident of the Burgundy region of France and became important in Champagne long before it traveled to California. It’s a child of Pinot Noir, which may explain why some have persisted in calling it Pinot Chardonnay. The other parent is a variety known as Gouais Blanc, which is rarely produced anymore, but is called the “Casanova of grapes” because it fathered so many better-known offspring. Like Pinot Noir, terroir and clonal selection have a significant influence on Chardonnay character and flavor intensity, so clonal research has been important for relatively young wine-producing regions like the Napa Valley.
It’s grown all over the world because of its great popularity and adaptability. When it comes from a cold climate, like Chablis, the apple-like fruit is usually joined with crisp, mineral flavors. Warm climates, like Napa Valley, often produce a fruit-driven wine that is softer and rounder. It’s a generous producer and winemakers must resist the urge to over crop or risk watered-down, bland flavors. Chardonnay tends to lose acidity as it ripens and the winemaker needs to time the harvest carefully or risk making a flabby, unappealing wine on warm years.
Regarding that bag of tricks, oak and butter play a big part. For an oaky style, the winemaker may decide to use a high percentage of new barrels or, in the case of moderately-priced Chardonnay, toss in some oak chips to contribute the oak flavor. If he wants the wine to age without picking up too much oak flavor he can use older, less flavorful, barrels or larger containers that provide less wine-to-wood contact.
Buttery character is another option. The winemaker may choose to put the wine through a secondary fermentation, the malolactic fermentation, to introduce butter or butterscotch character. He can dial the buttery character up or down by deciding how much of the total blend to put through malolactic and by choice of timing and technique.
To give the Chardonnay a creamy texture, the winemaker ages the wine on the spent yeast cells (the lees) after fermentation is over rather than using the standard cellar operation of moving the wine off of the sediment. This is called sur lie aging. If the lees are periodically stirred up into the wine, a technique called battonage, the effect is accentuated.
These are some of the reasons Chardonnay is viewed as a blank canvas by producers and consumers alike. The variability in style also means variability in food choices. Most styles work well with poultry and fish. The rich, buttery Chardonnay can be a complement to shellfish and rich, creamy foods. Preparations that include nuts bring out the nuttiness of the oak. At Goosecross, we prefer a crisp, fruit-driven Chardonnay, and this style pairs easily with an even wider variety of foods. You can find delicious recipes to pair with Chardonnay or any other variety if you go to Colleen’s Kitchen.
Flavor profile: apple, pear, lemon, tropical, peach, rose petal
Malolactic fermentation may add: butter, butterscotch, cream
Weight: medium to full bodied