Lesson 08 – About the Wine Grape Chardonnay

Chardonnay is the most important white (wine) grape. It is responsible for the greatest names in white wine, such as Meursault, Chablis, Montrachet, Corton-Charlemagne and Pouilly-Fuissè. These white wines of Burgundy are made entirely from Chardonnay. They are capable of extensive ageing and continue to improve inside the bottle for many years. Some of the great vintages are awesome even at 50 years old.

Chardonnay also plays a crucial role in the greatest Champagnes in the world. The usual Brut Champagne contains three kinds of grapes namely Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Some excellent Champagnes are made entirely from Chardonnay and these bear the name “Blanc de Blancs” on the label, the most notable is from the legendary producer, Salon.

France is not the only country that succeeded in exploiting the versatility of Chardonnay. California, Australia, South Africa, Chile and Italy have jumped on the band wagon to produce excellent Chardonnay varietal wines.

Chardonnay is quite easy to grow and its yield is good. It is planted almost everywhere in the world. However the grapes are small, thin-skinned and fragile so harvesting must be gentle and that means a bit more in labor cost. What makes Chardonnay the king of white grapes is the fact that no matter where it is grown, at the optimal point of ripeness it always manages to achieve uncanny balance between sugar and acidity. However, sloppy growers can ruin that by waiting beyond the point of optimal ripeness to harvest. Chardonnay grapes will lose acidity rapidly and the resulting wines lack vigor and taste dull and flat.

Chardonnay grape is high in extract which means there is a lot of flavorful stuff to squeeze out of each grape. Given enough hang-time it produces good acid levels, something that is crucial to white wine. Because it interacts brilliantly with wood a lot of great Chardonnay wines are either matured or actually fermented in oak barrels. This gives the wine a charming buttery flavor and rich mouth-feel accented by aromas and flavors of vanilla.

Food pairing varies depending on the style of the Chardonnay wine. At one end of the scale we have steely texture of a classic Chablis which sees little or no oak in its maturation. It pairs well with dry shellfish like lobsters. A buttery, rich Chardonnay from California or Australia often weighs in at over 13.5% alcohol by volume – higher than the average red wine from Burgundy for comparison. These might be better off with sea bass, halibut, poultry and light cream sauce.

The overwhelming popularity of Chardonnay in the 80s and early part of the 90s brought about a backlash from these same wine lovers. A movement called “ABC” which stands for Anything But Chardonnay ensued making it un-chic to order Chardonnay for a while. To a large extent, the ABC repercussion was brought on by New-World wine-makers over-oaking their white wines to appeal to novice palates. Wine palates felt exhausted by these excessively buttery white wines and sought refuge in other varietals that don’t involve as much barrel ageing. These wines offer a crispier feel and more freshness in their fruit flavors. The result is renewed popularity for Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Grigio. We will discuss them in due course. It certainly won’t hurt if you get started on your own by uncorking a good Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc) the next time you order a Pork or Poultry dish in a good restaurant. Until then, there are lots of great Chardonnay wines to be savored. Have a glass of 1999 Meursault from Parent or for the very sophisticated palates, a 1988 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Caillerets from Camille Giroud. Life’s not long enough for less interesting stuff, is it?