Chardonnay is the world’s most popular white wine. The green-skinned grape originated in Burgundy, France, but is now grown in almost every major wine region around the world, from Chile to New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.
The chardonnay grape is a winemaker’s dream to work with because it is strong, easy to grow, and naturally neutral. Depending on where it is grown and how it matures, it can quickly take on a variety of different characteristics. As a result, the wine is endlessly sippable and easy to enjoy, with low acidity.
What Is Chardonnay?
Chardonnay is a white wine grape variety grown in almost every wine region worldwide, as well as the buttery white wine of the same name.
The grape is simple to grow and adapts quickly to changing climates, making it a dependable choice for winemakers.
The only risk with chardonnay grapes is that they bud early (about a week after pinot noir), making cool-climate areas vulnerable to frost (such as Chablis and Champagne in France and the Casablanca Valley in Chile).
Where Did Chardonnay Originate?
Chardonnay’s history dates back to the Middle Ages, when its parents, the Pinot and now-nearly extinct Gouais Blanc grape varieties, flourished throughout northeastern France.
Because of the grape’s versatility, it has a long history of cultivation in France and the rest of Europe, particularly Italy. Chardonnay, which means “place of thistles” in Latin, first arrived in California in the 1880s. California plantings would outnumber those in its native France a century later. (In a few years, France would catch up.)
Chardonnay was sold in France as high-quality white Burgundy until the late twentieth century, when varietal naming replaced geographical naming. Although French chardonnay’s popularity peaked during the late 1980s’ “Chardonnay mania,” the classic old world white has survived the ABC (“anything but chardonnay”) backlash of the 1990s and remains one of the world’s most-grown wine grapes.
What Are the Characteristics of Chardonnay Grapes?
The chardonnay grape has green skin and grows on a strong vine with plenty of leaf cover. This shields the white grape from direct sunlight. The chardonnay grape is known for its malleability, which means it can effectively absorb the influences of its terroir and various winemaking techniques.
As a result, depending on where the grape was grown and how the wine matured, different varieties of chardonnay can taste very different.
What Is the Flavor Profile of Chardonnay Wine?
Chardonnay grapes produce medium to light-bodied wines with high acidity and notes of green apple, pear, and plum in cooler climates. Chardonnay varietals from warm climates tend to be more medium-bodied, with heavier fruit flavours like peach, melon, and tropical fruits.
The warm climate of California, particularly Napa and the Sonoma Coast wine regions, produces unoaked chardonnays known as “naked” Chardonnays. These lighter, fresher-tasting California chardonnays are not aged in oak barrels and have notes of apple, citrus, lime, and peach.
Why Is Chardonnay Called “Buttery”?
Chardonnay wine is commonly described as “buttery.” This is due to a process known as malolactic fermentation, which involves adding a special bacteria called Oenococcus oeni to the fermenting grapes. Malic acid, which has a distinct tart flavour, is converted by bacteria to lactic acid, which is softer. This reduces the wine’s overall acidity, resulting in a creamier, richer wine with more body.
Malolactic fermentation is widely used in the production of both red and white wine as a quick, simple, and low-cost way to add texture and body. It usually produces a white wine with notes of butter and hazelnut in chardonnay. This chardonnay develops a full body and creamier, dessert-like notes when aged in oak barrels, including nuts, butterscotch, vanilla, honey, and wood.
What Is the Difference Between Oaked and Unoaked Chardonnay?
Chardonnays differ in flavour and body depending on whether they have been oaked (aged in oak barrels) or not (aged without oak influence, usually in stainless steel vats).
Oaked Chardonnay has:
- A full body
- A rich texture
- A sweet bouquet, characterized by notes of vanilla and butterscotch
- A creamy, buttery taste, characterized by hazelnut, honey, and caramel
Unoaked, or “naked,” Chardonnay has:
- A light body
- A bouquet centered on fruit and citrus, notably apple, lime, and peach
- A brighter color
- A crisp taste
Is Chardonnay Dry or Sweet?
Chardonnay is classified as a dry white wine if it is unoaked, or “naked.” Unoaked chardonnays, like pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc, can be dry, crisp, and refreshing.
If it has been aged in an oak barrel, Chardonnay is sometimes considered a sweet white wine. Chardonnay that has been aged in oak develops a richer flavour with hints of dessert flavours such as butterscotch and vanilla.
What Is the Difference Between Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc?
Chardonnay and pinot blanc are frequently confused because pinot blanc grapes produce a smooth, semi-dry white wine that is similar to chardonnay. Many characteristics are shared by the grapes, including size, colour, and an abundance of leaves at the top. However, there are several significant differences:
- Grape colour. Chardonnay grapes turn golden-green as they ripen, whereas pinot blanc grapes remain grass-green.
- Oak influence. Pinot blanc typically does not mature with oak influences, whereas oaked chardonnay does.
- Sweet and sparkling. Pinot blanc can be crisp and light, but also sweet, making it a popular choice for sparkling and dessert wines. However, Chardonnay is the most commonly used grape in the production of Champagne.
What Is the Difference Between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc?
Chardonnay is a more neutral grape than sauvignon blanc, with lower acidity and apple, lemon, and pineapple aromas.
When aged in barrel, Chardonnay readily absorbs oak flavours, producing a full-bodied, vanillic, and occasionally buttery style.
The aroma of Sauvignon blanc is more floral and green, and it is rarely aged in oak barrels.
One exception is fumé blanc, as some sauvignon blanc wine is labelled in California, which gains richness and smoky depth from oak ageing.
What Is the Right Temperature for Serving Chardonnay?
Chardonnay’s aromas and rich flavours are enhanced by chilling it before serving.
A less oaky, naked Chardonnay should be chilled for at least an hour at 10°C.
A more oaky, full-bodied Chardonnay should be chilled for at least an hour at 12°C.
What Are the Best Food Pairings With Chardonnay?
Chardonnay is a versatile wine that can be paired with a wide variety of foods. Heavy-oaked chardonnays, for example, go well with stronger-flavored foods, such as anything smoked, spicy, or garlicky, as well as some Asian cuisine.
Chardonnays that are lighter or naked will go well with chicken and turkey, pasta, and tomato-based dishes.