The Many Shades of Chardonnay
The Many Shades of Chardonnay
Some of us may remember the ABC movement of the 1990s and early 2000s. This dismissive endeavor, which stood for Anything But Chardonnay, was a reaction against the omnipresent style of sweet and oaky Chardonnay that flooded the market in the 1980s. Sadly, many wine drinkers turned away from the grape, never to return.
This is unfortunate as Chardonnay has so much to offer! First of all, it is one of the most versatile grapes in existence. By this I mean, it excels in a number of guises – from sweet to dry, from sparkling to still. It is also a fairly mellow grape (unlike grassy Sauvignon Blanc or floral Gewürztraminer) and so is easily paired with a range of foods. It is also one of the most widely cultivated grapes, with examples found all around the world. If you are among those that once shunned this noble variety, please read on! Chardonnay is well worth a second look.
Champagne and Sparkling Wines.
Chardonnay is an essential grape in Champagne. Vinified by itself, it creates apple-y and vibrantblanc de blancs. But it is just as happy in blends, where it is commonly combined with Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier to makebrutbottlings along with other styles. In such blends, Chardonnay is thought to contribute elegance and finesse. (Fun fact about Champagne: even though Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are red grapes, their juice is clear! So, if they are quickly pressed off the skins, they can be fermented to produce white sparkling wines.)
Those on a budget can look for sparkling wines from other parts of the world. Chardonnay plays an important role in many of Spain’s Cavas, France’s Crémants, and California’s sparklers.
Some forget that Chardonnay is the grape responsible for white Burgundy, a classification of wine that includes Montrachet, Corton-Charlemagne, and Chablis, among others. Though white Burgundy tends to be more elegant and higher in acidity than Chardonnay from other regions, the category contains a surprisingly wide range of styles. Expressions vary between producers, of course, but certain assumptions can be safely made. Those seeking crisp and lively wines should gravitate towards Chablis, while those that want something fatter and richer ought to seek out Corton, Corton-Charlemagne, or Meursault. Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet tend to occupy the middle of the spectrum.
As previously mentioned, Chardonnay is one of the most widely planted grapes in the world. It can be found in nearly every wine-producing country, but certain locations are better than other. Currently, one of the most exciting parts of the world for Chardonnay is Oregon, which is branching out from its flagship grape of Pinot Noir to great acclaim. New Zealand is also home to a number of dry and vibrant Chardonnays. The same is true of Canada, with excellent examples found in both Ontario and British Columbia.
It’s arguable that the state of California is producing some of the most thrilling Chardonnays in the world right now. That oaky sweet style that typified the ‘80s still exists, if you’re a fan, but it no longer dominates the conversation. Now exceptional, energetic, ethereal examples can be found in the cooler reaches of the Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, and Santa Barbara. Carneros is still a reliable source for the variety, but the wines tend to have a bit more richness and heft. While the majority of Chardonnays ae fermented in oak barrels, unoaked examples are rising in popularity. Interestingly, some producers are even playing around with late harvest (i.e. dessert) Chardonnays, which can be quite lovely when well done.
In short, there has never been a better time to love Chardonnay. Head down to your local retail store or consult a sommelier that you trust, and start pulling corks. You’ll soon find that there’s a Chardonnay for every palate imaginable, at all conceivable levels of quality and price.