Chardonnay: The Misunderstood Queen of White Wine
Chardonnay seems to exist on this weird plane where you either love it, or you hate it. It is somehow one of the most revered white grapes in the world and also one of the most despised. Not surprising considering the wide range of styles and methods of winemaking used on the grape. It is actually one of the most widely planted white grapes in the entire world. It has a long and checkered history and, whether you know it or not, your feelings on it may have a lot to do with where you’re from. In fact, because of the wide range of styles and places its grown, you may not even realize that you like Chardonnay! Most people think they don’t like this grape because it’s developed a reputation for being “too oaky.” Well I’m here to set the record straight and talk about one of the world’s greatest white wine grapes.
A Brief History:
Chardonnay originated in Burgundy and it is here that it is truly at home. One of the most prestigious wine regions in the world, a bottle of top White Burgundy can cost thousands of dollars. One of the top vineyard sites in all of Burgundy is named after the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, and legend has it that this top site was planted to Chardonnay because his wife preferred white wines as they did not stain his massive beard. Eventually other top vineyards in the area followed suit. The grape’s prestige stretched its reach far and wide and it eventually landed in California, becoming one of the state’s most important grapes. Prohibition had a huge impact on the growth of the American wine industry, and it took a long time for our wines to become renowned on the world stage. It wasn’t until 1976 when the now famous wine writer, Steven Spurrier, decided to hold a competition pitting the best of California against the best of France in honor of America’s bicentennial. Nobody had any real expectations for the American wines to do well. Especially considering that the judges were some of France’s leading wine figures. This created one of the greatest scandals in wine history: the Americans won! Specifically, Stags Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon beat the best of Bordeaux, and Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay beat some of the finest White Burgundies available. This result changed everything, and California Chardonnay was suddenly elite. Of course, with any success comes exploitation and suddenly value driven, poorly made Chardonnays flooded the market. Combine that with the surge of wine critics and the point system that often benefitted richer and oakier whites, Chardonnay started to lose its luster with the younger generations. I know most of my friends think of Chardonnay as that gross white wine their grandmother drinks with ice cubes. Thankfully winemakers have started to push back and are forgoing oak and creating a new generation of beautiful, delicious, and well-made Chardonnay that are indulgent and refreshing at the same time.
Where Are They Making Chardonnay?
Chardonnay is easy to find among American wine because we label with the variety. Historically Napa and Sonoma were the most prestigious areas, but now you’re seeing people venture south for cheaper land and cooler climates. Santa Barbara has become, in my opinion, one of the best areas for Chardonnay. In other countries, specifically France, it can be harder to realize that you’re even drinking Chardonnay. Have you ever had a bottle of Champagne? Chances are you were drinking Chardonnay! In fact, it is the main white grape of the region. Blanc de Blancs are almost always 100% Chardonnay. I have many friends that love a good cold Chablis on a hot summer day. Guess what, you’re drinking Chardonnay! Burgundy is much harder to navigate because there are so many different villages and vineyard names, but no matter which one you choose odds are it’s Chardonnay. You can find it in Italy, Spain, just about anywhere, but when it’s used in non-traditional regions, they will probably label with the grape which makes your life easier.
What Determines Chardonnay’s Style?
Like any other wine, how it’s grown. But Chardonnay’s style is uniquely subject to how it’s made, more than any other grape. Chardonnay by itself is considered a neutral grape. A blank slate for the winemaker to paint his picture. This is why we see oak used on it more than most other white grapes; the flavors don’t clash. Most top Chardonnays are made in very similar ways. A former colleague of mine used to refer to it as the “Holy Trinity” of white wine making. That is: oak, lees, and malolactic fermentation. Oak is easy enough to understand, and how oaky it is depends on how much of the wine goes in barrel, how new the barrel is, and how long it’s aged in it. 20 years ago people were often using 100% new oak, now were seeing trends in top wines hovering more around 20-30%, obviously with some exceptions. Lees is the byproduct of fermentation; they are the dead yeast cells. If you age the wine in contact with them, and stir regularly, they add a texture and mouthfeel to the wine. Malolactic fermentation is something that happens naturally in wines unless you choose to stop it. Virtually all red wines go through this, most white wines avoid it. It essentially converts the tart malic acid (think granny smith apples) into softer malic acid (tangy yogurt). This process also contributes some of those creamy or buttery aromas you often find in Chardonnay. How you balance those three things greatly determines the final product.
Chardonnay is going through a renaissance as far as the wine industry goes and it deserves a second chance! You should go out and experiment, try different styles, and find the one you like. If you like richer wines look for California and Classic Burgundy (although they can be pricier). If you prefer lighter more fruit forward wines with less oak look for Chablis and wines from the Macon. Don’t be afraid to ask questions at a restaurant or wine shop. Tell them what you’re looking for and they can help guide you to the right style.
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