Chardonnay is easily the most ubiquitous fine wine grape grown on the globe. Wherever wine drinkers go, Chardonnay wine was there before them. (Except in Bordeaux, where both the law and local vainglory consign its wine to the shops.)
Chardonnay is everywhere for two reasons: it is relatively easy to raise, and, of itself, is fairly neutral—a perfect canvas on which to paint depth and variety of flavor.
Like Pinot Noir, its red counterpart (and father), Chardonnay reflects its terroir. In cooler climates, its wine is lean, crisp and high in acidity. In warmer places, Chardonnay gives up honeyed, tropical fruit flavors, though it can also become heavy and flabby (winemakers in such areas sometimes correct for low acidity by adding some).
On chalky soil (such as Chablis), Chardonnay makes tight, mineral-laden wines. On limestone, wines with power and restraint. On richer soil, Chardonnay is round and deep.
Irrigation matters (because yield does). So does leaf canopy and clone.
In other terms, one could assert that because Chardonnay is so “neutral, “ in and of itself, it is more malleable, impressionable and capable of being played with than most other white wine grapes. That can be good. That can be bad.
At the winery, this neutral grape can face as many decisions as a teenage girl before her morning closet—and each makes for a different style of wine: how to crush and press the grapes; whether to use indigenous or added yeasts; to ferment in barrels or in temperature-controlled steel (or to combine both); whether to put the wine through malolactic fermentation* (or add acid), stir the lees or rack the wine; and in what sort of oak to age the wine (or even to age it so at all).
The accumulation of these decisions turns out various styles of Chardonnay. For example, cold fermentation augments what are called “fruit-forward,” green- and yellow-fruit (think lighter tropical) flavors. Barrel fermentation and lees stirring** make for Chardonnay that’s creamy and buttery.
Unoaked Chardonnay will taste of green apples, white peaches, perhaps a touch of citrus and possibly minerals; whereas time in French oak gives Chardonnay those tones of vanilla and butterscotch that Burgundy drinkers love so much.
In the Vineyard and the Cellar
Chardonnay’s faults are few but significant. It buds early and is therefore susceptible to spring frost (a constant concern in Champagne and Chablis). It has thin skins and consequently can rot easily. Picking time is crucial because, as it ripens to full maturity, it precipitately loses its acidity. And, frankly, Chardonnay from young or over-productive vines will taste a wee step above the taste of water. (Look no further than the mass-produced Chardonnay of northern Italy.)
The best and rarest Chardonnays—contrary to the manner in which they are commonly used—age gracefully for years. Their power and nuance in their mature years is stunning and ravishing.
Pairing Chardonnay with food takes some skill. Lean, fresh, high acid Chardonnays—Chablis, certainly, or some from Carneros, northern Italy or Mâcon—are delicious with simple fish preparations. Chardonnays with residual sugar (a common element in many New World Chardonnays) pair well with dishes having some sweetness themselves, a chicken breast with a tropical fruit salsa, for instance, or rich, buttered lobster or crab.
Oaky Chardonnays serve for smoked fish. High alcohol Chardonnays are best by themselves, as apéritifs (as is Blanc de Blancs Champagne, although this is fine with simple fish as well). Middle-of-the-road Chardonnays are terrific for foods from simple roast chicken to elaborate Thanksgiving dinners.
If the Chardonnay sports good acidity, sheep’s cheeses and firm-pressed cow cheeses marry well (e.g. Cheddar or Caerphilly; a great surprise is Chablis with Cantal or Beaufort). The “classic” match of Chardonnay with Brie isn’t as delicious as Brie with a light red wine.
~ Bill St John, St John on Wine
* Malolactic fermentation is a second, or ancillary, fermentation that changes and softens the wine’s malic acid (from malum, Latin for apple) into lactic acid (like that in milk).
**Lees are the sediment of dead yeast cells and small grape particles that accumulate during fermentation. Some winemakers stir them for a short while as the wine ages (in French, battonage) to increase and round out flavors.