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Wine 101-Chardonnay

 

chardonnay Wine 101 Chardonnay

About Chardonnay

 

The best Chardonnays in the world continue to arrive from the region where the grape first emerged: the chalk, clay, and limestone vineyards of Burgundy and Chablis. While the origins of the grape were disputed for many years, with some speculating that the grape came all the way from the Middle East, DNA researchers at the University of California-Davis proved in 1999 that Chardonnay actually developed, most likely in eastern France, as a cross between a member of the "Pinot" family and an ancient, and nearly extinct variety called Gouais Blanc.

Chardonnay vines are temperamental, as they are relatively small, thin-skinned, fragile, and oxidize easily. Furthermore, harvest time is crucial to winemaking, for the grape loses acidity rapidly once it ripens.

A particularly delicate grape, Chardonnay readily expresses the characteristics of the growing region as well as the specific techniques employed in the winery. Consequently, soil composition plays a key role in the profile of the finished wine. In Burgundy, particularly in the Côte d’Or region, thick layers of topsoil above the limestone lead to wines with lush, ripe concentrated flavors. But just as important in Burgundy, and especially in the Côte d’Or, is the wood. Producers can be fairly fanatical in their choice of wood for Chardonnay, deploying wood from different forests in France and abroad, the latter often to cut costs. Why does wood matter? Ultimately, it’s the source of the pronounced buttery qualities characteristic of Chardonnay from the Côte d’Or. The top Chardonnays from this region are highly sought after by collectors; don’t leave your credit card at home. Consider Domaine Boillot, Domaine Sauzet, and Maison Louis Jadot.

In the region of Chablis, nearly one hundred miles to the northwest, more clay and chalk in the soil lend Chardonnay greater minerality, briskness and citrus character. We’ve found that vinification techniques in Chablis are less intrusive than those employed in the Côte d’Or, with producers less inclined to use malolactic fermentation or oak barrels than their Burgundian comrades. The result is a crisper, more acidic wine, unequaled for precision, balance, and verve. Some of the best examples come from Domaine Louis Michel, Domaine Droin, and Domaine Raveneau.

When we’re seeking values in Chardonnay, we often look to the south of the Côte d’Or to the Burgundian region of the Maconnais, where warmer weather allows for a slightly longer growing season. Basic wines, labeled either Macon or Macon-Villages, are fermented in stainless steel and bottled quickly to preserve their bright, fruity character. More ageworthy wines come from the appellation of Pouilly-Fuisse, which encompasses both high-elevation vineyards showing minerally soils as well as warmer, south and southeast facing sites producing wines with rounder qualities and tropical fruit flavors. Look for Maison Verget, Chateau Fuisse, and Domaine Daniel Barraud.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t note Chardonnay’s role in the famed sparkling wines from Champagne. Here, Chardonnay, grown in chalky soil, is generally blended with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Champagnes under the label blanc de blancs are made entirely from Chardonnay grapes. Top blanc de blancs producers include Pol Roger, Pierre Peters, and Salon.

In the New World, California and Australia are the two largest producers of Chardonnay. Here, the wines made from the grape take on many forms, but we find that, for simplicity, they can be divided into two general categories. First are the oaky, blowsy styles of overly warm vineyard sites, rich in flavors of tropical fruits, with high alcohol levels. In a refreshing development, these wines are slowly losing favor to the powerful yet elegant style found in the cooler New World microclimates, which show more restrained oak flavors and greater minerality and citrus notes. More food friendly than the warm climate Chardonnays, these wines, like Old World bottlings, pair well with seafood and white meats. In California, we like Kistler Vineyards and Ramey Wine Cellars. The best examples from Australia, especially when seeking the Burgundian style, come from Leeuwin Estate and Cullen.

Snapshot:

Recommended Growing Regions: Chablis, Côte d’Or (Burgundy, France); Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbera (California), Washington, Australia, New Zealand
Flavor Profile: From lean, minerally and acidic to full, fruity and oaky, depending on region
Food Pairings: Poultry, game birds, pork, cream sauces
Other Notes: New world Chardonnay will likely show greater tropical fruit flavors, compared to the more restrained examples from the old world.

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