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.  

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Chardonnay Rocks

There, I said it. Yes, red wine-obsessed Meg loves chardonnay. Yes, it’s a white wine for people who like the structure and body of a red wine. But, it’s also perfect for foodies who want a lot of fruit and acid with their meal. And, it’s a prime example of the grape’s versatility, the impact the winemaker, climate and terroir have on a wine.  

For example, if you try a chardonnay from Burgundy and compare to New Zealand, the differences will astound you. A white Burgundy is going to have flavors of lemon, pear, green apple, probably some minerality. It’s going to be complex with layers of flavors and have tons of acid and a crisp finish. But closer to the Equator, like New Zealand, it’s going to burst with tropical fruit flavors like pineapple and melons. Plus, it probably spent some time aging in oak, gaining flavors of toasted nuts and cream.

About The Grape

Around 800 AD, Emperor Charlemagne owned vineyards in Burgundy. Apparently the Emperor was a bit of a hot mess- a total slob at the table. Eventually his wife got sick of him having red wine stains in his beard. Ever practical, she ordered white grapes be planted in their Burgundy vineyards.

Burgundy is famous for the much harder to grow red, pinot noir (red Burgundy). But, chardonnay is much heartier and easier to grow, so it really took off and became the quintessential chardonnay.

Chardonnay grows just about everywhere, from temperate to cool climates. However, it does best in soils full of limestone, clay and chalk. The vines start budding very early in the season, but it takes about one week longer than Pinot Noir to ripen. The long growing time lets it develop the high sugar content into high acidity- which is what makes it such an incredible wine to pair food with.

Why Does It Taste Like Butter?

A lot of people talk about the buttery and vanilla qualities of chardonnay- frequently their reasons for disliking it. But, 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 eat the malic acid in grapes giving off softer, rounder, 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, they’re too easily overpowered. Now, a lot of wine makers are using stainless steel to avoid oaky flavors. Then again, for people who think the wine is too delicate for oak, they are trying cement or clay. These alternatives to oak help to bring out the wines’ light floral and fruity perfumes. But chardonnay isn’t so delicate and the oak can really stiffen up that backbone and develop flavors.

You see, oak barrels have tiny, microscopic pores that allow oxygen in, slowly exposing the wine to oxygen. Additionally, American oak is more porous than French oak, and that explains why Sonoma produces 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: In colder climates, you’ll get fruit up front (pear, green apple and lemon. If it’s from a warmer region, look for pineapple, tangerine and melon. If it’s been oaked, you’ll get smoke, vanilla, cream, baking spices.
  • 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. I promise, next time you sit down for popcorn and your favorite flick, just pour a chardonnay. The acid in the wine cuts through the butter and the fruit is going to be refreshing to keep you awake, even if the movie is boring. And if you’re watching a terrible movie, like Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 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. This is a great pick for a summer barbecue. The wine is crisp and refreshing, but pairs with most summer foods. 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. It also stands up well to sweet/salty/hot barbecue sauce.

Meg’s Picks: I personally love Il Nobilo from New Zealand. It’s crazy affordable, around $11. It’s fruit-forward with tropical creamsicle flavor that makes me feel like I’m on a white sand beach in paradise. And let’s face it, when I’m on my couch in 100 degree weather, feeling guilty that I didn’t go to the gym, a bit of paradise goes a long way.

Check out my other post, Chardonnay 201. In this article I taste some of the wines from around the world and see if I’ve figured out the grape at all.

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