Chardonnay is the most widely planted white grape variety. It is responsible for some of the world’s greatest and most expensive white wines—the grand crus of Montrachet in Burgundy—as well as inexpensive, high alcohol and fruity quaffers the world over. A few weeks ago I introduced here the theme of wine styles as a key to figuring out what wines most suit your own palate. Since Chardonnay is not only ubiquitous but also perhaps the most malleable of grape varieties in responding to a range of different winemaking and oak treatments, it seems fitting to continue the discussion of wine styles by looking at the most common styles of Chardonnay.
Chardonnay most likely originated in France’s Burgundy region—it’s the result of a cross between Burgundy’s Pinot Noir and a white grape known to have been grown extensively in the Middle Ages in France, Gouais Blanc. Since Chardonnay also reaches its highest heights in Burgundy, let’s start with what Burgundian Chardonnay, known as “white Burgundy,” is like. Grown on chalk or limestone soils primarily in the southern part of Burgundy’s Côte d'Or, Chardonnay in Burgundy tends to be rich and minerally, with relatively high acidity. When young, its flavors tend toward ripe lemon and apple, often with a heavy dose of new oak that adds vanilla tones. As the wines age—and white Burgundies tend to be among the most ageworthy of white wines—they take on a range of secondary flavors, including hazelnut, mushroom and truffle.
Chablis is another special region in northern Burgundy devoted to the Chardonnay grape. Thanks to cooler growing temperatures and the fact that many producers there avoid malolactic fermentations and the use of new oak, the Chablis version of Chardonnay tends to be even higher in acidity and minerality than the average white Burgundy. Chablis tends to pair beautifully with shellfish and oysters, while white Burgundy goes well with a variety of fish and seafood, especially crab and lobster, as well as chicken and dishes with rich white sauces. Great examples of Chablis are made by Raveneau, Dauvissat and William Fevre. Notable white Burgundies are made by many producers, including Coche Dury, Domaine Leflaive and Comtes Lafon. The greatest sources of white Burgundy are the Montrachet grand cru vineyards, and the premier cru vineyards of Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault. For excellent values in white Burgundy, try Chardonnay from Saint-Aubin or village-level Meursault.
Chardonnay is also one of the three principal grapes of the Champagne region, north of Burgundy, and the only one that is a white grape, so it’s responsible for all of Champagne’s blanc de blancs.
In the past decade, California managed to outplant even France with Chardonnay, so that by 2010 the state had over 95,000 acres of the grape. Some California producers try for a drier, more minerally “Burgundian” style by sourcing their grapes from cooler climates, like the Sonoma Coast, Santa Cruz Mountains or Santa Lucia Highlands, and by blocking or limiting malolactic fermentation. Some of the most successful California producers in this style are Hanzell, Mount Eden and Rhys. Rhys is a fairly new producer, but Hanzell and Mount Eden have been around for decades and both have a long track record for very ageworthy, complex Chardonnays. At the other extreme are Cali Chards grown in warmer climates, where the grapes get quite ripe and therefore ferment to high alcohol levels.
Some of the riper, richer, more fruit forward style California Chardonnays worth checking out come from producers like Kongsgaard, Kistler, Peter Michael, DuMOL and Aubert. Typical flavors range from pineapple, ripe pear, apple and tropical fruits to lemon chiffon and butter. Aubert and other producers, like Walter Hansel, also tend to use new oak with some toast on it, resulting in toast flavors in the wine as well as an accentuation of the buttery nature of ripe Chardonnay.
Other ripe, tropical fruit oriented Cali Chards abound. Chateau St. Jean, Testarossa, Merryvale and Rudd offer rich, tropical fruit wines with some sweetness, and often coconut notes. I find these to work more as quaffers rather than wines with food, but they could work with salads that include tropical fruits and Thai and other Asian dishes that feature coconut flavors. There was a time ten and 15 years ago when oaky and sweet Chardonnays were particularly popular. The Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, for example, which was one of California’s biggest selling Chardonnays for some years, was intentionally made with close to 1% residual sugar. Wines with that sweetness level are virtually impossible to pair with most foods. Today the residual sugar level in Kendall-Jackson’s Chards has dropped to half that.
Bottom line: If you like higher acid, more minerally wines, try Chablis, white Burgundy or California Chardonnays from Hanzell, Mount Eden or Rhys. If you are fond of more fruit and sweetness in your wine, try California producers like Kistler, Peter Michael and DuMOL. And if it's the buttery and toasty taste of oak and general richness you long for, your best bets are Chardonnays from the likes of Aubert and Walter Hansel.