Chardonnay 101: Not Just for Real Housewives

Chardonnay rocks. There, I said it- red wine-obsessed Meg loves this grape. To me, it’s a white wine for people who like the structure and body of a red wine, as well as for foodies who want a lot of fruit and acid. It’s also a prime example of the versatility of a grape and the impact the winemaker, climate and the terroir can have on a wine.  The difference between a chardonnay out of Burgundy in France vs New Zealand is massive- a white Burgundy is going to have flavors of lemon, pear, green apple, probably some minerality (think about licking a flagstone from your garden- that’s what I mean by minerality); it’s going to be complex, have tons of acid and a crisp finish. But go closer to the Equator, to New Zealand and you’re looking at a wine that’s going to burst with tropical fruit flavors like pineapple and melons. Plus, it’s probably spent some time aging in oak and that’s going to give it flavors of toasted nuts and cream.

Before I get into the wine tasting portion of this post, let me give you some more information on the grape.

Around 800 AD Emperor Charlemagne owned some vineyards in Burgundy. Apparently the Emperor also was a bit of a hot mess- just a total slob at the dinner table and his wife got sick of him having red wine stains all up in his beard, so she ordered white grapes to be planted in their Burgundy vineyards. And because chardonnay is a much heartier and easier to grow varietal than the area’s famous pinot noir, it really took off and became, until 1976 and the Judgement of Paris, the quintessential chardonnay.

Chardonnay grows just about everywhere, from temperate to fairly cool climates- but it does do best in soils full of limestone, clay and chalk. The vines start budding very early in the season so frosts are a concern, but it takes about an extra week to ripen over pinot noir letting it really develop the high sugar content into high acidity- which is what makes it such an incredible wine to pair food with.

A lot of people talk about the buttery and vanilla qualities of chardonnay- frequently that’s their reason for disliking it. Here’s the thing, the vanilla and butter qualities are coming from malolactic fermentation (MLF). MLF, or I’ve heard a bunch of experts call it just malo, is the process of taking the sour, pucker worthy acid of the juice and rounding it out into it’s more buttery/creamy tones. This happens when the acid in wine is introduced to certain bacteria that basically eat the malic acid in grapes and give off softer, rounder, more buttery lactic acids.

And when talking white wines, especially chardonnay, you gotta talk about oak. A lot of white wines don’t spend any time in oak, stainless steel being the most common while others actually use cement or clay- the idea being that most whites are just too delicate for oak- it overwhelms the gorgeous but light floral and fruity perfumes. But chardonnay- that’s a heartier grape and oak can really stiffen up that backbone.

Oak barrels have tiny, pretty much microscopic pores that allow oxygen in, slowly exposing the wine to oxygen. Add to that, American oak is more porous than French oak, and that begins to explain why Sonoma- especially the Russian River Valley- produce chardonnays with such distinctive flavors of vanilla, cream, baking spice and caramel- not only is that a characteristic of American oak barrel aging, but the more porous the barrel is, the more MLF the wine experiences.

Sips of Information on Chardonnay:

Flavor profile: Fruit up front (pear, green apple and lemon in cooler climates, pineapple, tangerine, melon in warm climates. Oaked: smoke, vanilla, cream, baking spices (nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon).

Most famous regions: Burgundy (check out Maiconnaise, Pouilly Fuisse), California’s Sonoma (Russian River Valley), New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Oregon, Washington

Best Food Pairings: Buttery popcorn. Seriously, you might be downing beers or something while sitting at home and watching your favorite movie, but I promise, next time you sit down for a favorite flick, just pour a chardonnay- any chardonnay will work. The acid in the wine is going to cut through the butter of the popcorn, the fruit is going to be refreshing and keep you awake, even if the movie is a little boring. If you’re really worried about the quality of the movie being more in line with Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull than Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, go with a new world Chardonnay- they tend to be higher in alcohol content, so maybe, just maybe, you won’t notice so much.

Unconventional Food Pairings: Steak- I promise, the full body rises to the occasion while the high acid helps to cut through the fat in the meat and some of the creaminess of the sauce. This is a great thing to take to a summer barbecue when you want to enjoy the crisp, refreshing qualities of chardonnay, but don’t want the wine to completely overpower your meal. Not to mention, it’s also going to be ridiculously good with the creamy potato salad and coleslaw you’re eating alongside the t-bone, and can handle the juxtaposition of sweet/salty/hot barbecue sauce you might want to dip your meat in.

Meg’s Picks: Il Nobilo from New Zealand was like a fruit-forward tropical creamsicle that made me feel like I was on a white sand beach in paradise… not on my couch in 100 degree weather feeling guilty that I didn’t go to the gym… and I loved it for that.

Next post- Chardonnay 201- it’s time to taste some of the wines from around the world and see if I figured out the grape at all.

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