Chardonnay, for most American wine consumers is synonymous with white wine. Even internationally this ubiquitous grape variety enjoys an unprecedented popularity, as it can be fashioned to markets with different palates and expectations. It is a wine that can smell of oak, as Americans like it, or offer a full-bodied mouth feel with a high alcohol content, can be off dry, or smell of apples/pears with mineral flavours, completely dry and memorable, as in Burgundy’s grand cru quality, but it can also be un-oaked and relatively innocuous.
In shirt it is a chameleon grape!
DNA analysis has proved that chardonnay has exactly the same parents as much more acid aligote, gamy and melon de Bourgogne; pinot and gouais blanc.
Yet, planted in Cote de Beaune in Burgundy and in the hands of caring and knowledgeable winemakers, it yields memorable wines. Drinking a well-made Montrachet from a successful vintage is an experience wine aficionados don’t forget easily, if ever.
Chardonnay grows on all the continents successfully given proper terroir of lime rich soils, and long moderately warm growing season.
Yet, in Australia, chardonnay ends up with completely different flavours, and mouth feel than in Ontario, or California.
It ages well in barrels, but also tastes beguiling without the help of oak and its contribution vanilla flavours, especially if the barrels are made with American oak.
Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, West Australia’s Margaret River, and Tasmania produce fine, dry and elegant chardonnays, as do Oregon’s Willamette Valley, California’s Carneros district.
Ontario in Canada is home to several outstanding chardonnays both oaked and un-oaked.
In Europe, outside of France, Alto Adige in Italy is known for its fragrant chardonnays; on Catalina’s high-altitude vineyards it can yield respectable, if not memorable wines.
Chardonnay ages differently in barrels made of French oak ( Allier, Troncais, Vosges), than in American oak, which contains more vanilla and imparts a completely different mouth feel.
Despite its ubiquity, there are many wine lovers that slum chardonnay. They inverted the term ABV (Anything But Chardonnay) movement, but to no avail. There are still millions who love chardonnay in all its guises.
Some suspect Americans started to turn to chardonnay because approximately 40 years ago wineries used mostly American oak barrels to age and which reputedly imparts vanilla aromas that anyone can smell immediately, also it is easier to pronounce than Muller-Thurgau.
There are two styles of chardonnay – chardonnay of cosmetics and chardonnays of consequence.
The chardonnay of cosmetics is fermented with cultivated yeast, in barrels or stainless steel tanks, or “flavoured” with oak chips, chaptalized, acidified, of de-acidified, filtered, or otherwise manipulated.
The chardonnay of consequence is made naturally by hand harvesting, subjecting every bunch to a visual inspection and discarding unsuitable grapes, using indigenous yeast, aging in French oak barrels of 225 litre capacity, and filtering minimally.
The term of flavour is a psychological construct and is based on experience, expectations, emotions, background, ability to recall smells, environment of consumption and the company, and a keen palate. All of these impact the perception of flavour.
The best way to start tasting chardonnay is to establish a benchmark with the best available from a successful vintage, and being under the guidance of an experienced and knowledgeable taster.