Celebrating Chardonnay: A Guide to America’s Favorite White Wine

Kate Winslet, one of the finer actors of her generation, had this to say while talking about getting fit: “Everyone can commit to 20 minutes, especially if there’s a glass of Chardonnay afterwards.” It’s a sentiment that echoes how the world views America’s favorite white wine varietal. Chardonnay is more than just a drink, it’s the reward you look for after a particularly long day. It is an indulgence, but interestingly, this can easily and affordably figure into the everyday wine lifestyle. It helps that you can get this high-quality wine for under US$10,  making this tipple all the more appealing to the most ardent wine lovers.

But its throngs of consumers aren’t the only ones raving about this easygoing wine. Chardonnay is also a popular choice for vintners from virtually all corners of the globe. Known as the ‘Winemaker’s Grape,’ the green-skinned variety is grown in more wine regions than the indisputable Cabernet Sauvignon, the King of Reds. The international market’s massive demand for this wine, coupled with its relatively easy growing standards, make Chardonnay one of the  must-have varieties in neophyte wine estates.

Join us here at Singapore Wine Vault as we pay homage to one of the most best-loved varietals on the planet: the sumptuous and utterly delicious, Chardonnay.

A History Rooted in Burgundy

Although vintners from as far as Syria, Lebanon, and Cyprus have claimed the grape as one of their own, Chardonnay is believed to have originated from the French region of Burgundy. Results from the DNA fingerprinting test conducted by researchers from the University of California, Davis (UCD), show that the grape is the product of a natural cross between Gouais blanc and Pinot Noir. Historians posit that the cross resulted after the Romans introduced Gouais blanc to the region. Commoners began growing the Croatian vine near the French aristocrats’ Pinot plantings. Interbreeding occurred, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Well, almost. There was a time when Chardonnay suffered the same fate as its Spanish cousin, Airén. Early farmers often mistook Chardonnay to be another grape variety because of its incredibly similar leaf structure to Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir. In spite of this brief period of confusion, the varietal soon grew to become one of the most popular wine grapes in the world.

In the 1980s, Chardonnay became the go-to white wine in the United States. Winemakers struggled to keep up with the consumers’ demand. In their haste to ‘improve’ the grape’s neutral flavors, they committed one of the worst mistakes in winemaking: they over-oaked their wines. By the 1990s, the varietal had the misfortune of being generalized as ‘butter bombs,’ with little or no substance and the bad rap persisted until the mid-1990s. Eventually its sheepish vintners learned their lesson and started oak aging the tipple properly or just selling their wines ‘naked,’ or unoaked.

Today, Chardonnay is regarded as one of the top white wines on the market. Currently, it has  over 30 clones planted by vignerons from all over the globe. These clones are used to enrich the grape’s natural flavors and aromas, while generating better yields.  Although fantastic as a varietal, Chardonnay is also used to produce excellent sparkling blends such as Champagnes, and sweet ice wines.

Chardonnay Flavor Profile

We’ve all had our share of flavorsome Chardonnays. But did you know that at its rawest form, Chardonnay is actually quite a neutral wine? Most of its flavors are derived from its terroir, aging, and winemaking techniques. Because of its adaptable nature, its wine can be produced in a myriad of styles.

Ripe Chardonnays often exhibit tropical fruit flavors like pineapple, melon, guava, and mango. While its crisper varieties offer hints of lemon, lime and  lemon zest. Aside from the lemony flavor, this wine offers tastes of pink grapefruit, passion fruit, peach, figs, pear, and green apple. Its acidity levels may vary from medium low when oaked to medium high when naked. Other perfumes and tastes like honeysuckle, jasmine, saltwater, beeswax, and crushed celery are byproducts of its growing and winemaking conditions.

Although often described as ‘liquid butter,’ this is a phrase that applies only to oaked Chardonnays. Underlying notes of caramel, tobacco smoke, coconut, vanilla, cinnamon, cream, dill, and praline usually accompany the creamy texture of these wines. These oaked varietals are vastly different from unoaked Chardonnays. These ‘naked’ wines are zesty, zippy, and refreshing. Think Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc (sans grassiness).

Another factor that could affect the wine’s structure and texture is fermentation. Depending on the technique and yeast used by the producer, the resulting vino could either be smooth, oily, creamy, or waxy. Malolactic fermentation also introduces distinct hazelnut undertones to the wine. While colder fermentation is used to enrich the wine’s tropical fruit flavors.

To understand the versatility of this grape, try sampling Chardonnays from Chablis and Napa Valley. You’ll find the former to be dryer, with notes of green apple, wet stone, and steely minerality.  The latter is riper with tinges of tropical fruits like pineapple and even guava.

Terroir Matters: How Climate Affects Chardonnay

Chardonnay is highly reflective of its terroir. The wine’s structure and aroma vary from one region to another.  Soil composition, pruning, winemaking techniques, and wine storage practices all affect the overall quality of the wine as well.  Also, climate dictates the general flavor of Chardonnay from a particular region.

Take, for example, Chardonnay from the cooler provinces of France and the Californian AVA of Los Carneros. Wineries from these areas usually produce light- to medium-bodied vinos with zippy acidity. Notes of green apple, lemon, pear, lime, and green plum contribute to the crisp nature of the varietal. On the other hand, Chardonnays produced in regions with moderate climes are middling in acidity. Noticeable stone fruit underpinnings—think nectarine, peach, pear, and apricot—deliver large flavor to the palate.

Lastly, you have the warmer wine regions in New Zealand, Australia, and the Central Coast of California. Oak aging is popular in these areas, so their wines tend to be on the riper side of the flavor spectrum. Hints of vanilla, butterscotch, and cream complete the complex flavor profile of Chardonnay.

Food Pairing

Though not the most food-friendly of wines, Chardonnay is still flexible enough to go with a multitude of fares. Like other white wine varietals, the wine goes well with poultry, pork, and seafood dishes. Think roast chicken or turkey with a creamy mushroom sauce, grilled halibut fillets with herb butter, buta no kakuni (Japanese braised pork belly), and steamed lobster with garlic-parsley butter.

As for vegetables, think summer and spring, like zucchini, yellow squash, and peas. Earthy mushroom dishes like wild mushroom ragout, Portobello mushroom stroganoff, and baked lemon chicken with mushroom sauce are all excellent accompaniments to a nice glass of this wine.

Now, if you’re planning on indulging in oaked Chardonnay, a word of caution: this heavier varietal won’t go well with fish and lightly seasoned seafood dishes.

Bottle Aging Potential

When it comes to wine storage potential, bear in mind that most affordable Chardonnays are structured for early consumption. Malolactic fermentation, which is the process responsible for giving the wine its buttery texture, can greatly shorten the vino’s lifespan. For this varietal, we recommend using its price point as an indicator of its longevity.

Wines priced US$10 and below need to be consumed within a few months. Mid-range Chardonnays, priced US$12-$25, can continue to improve in flavors for 3-5 years post-vintage. While fine wines that cost upward of US$25 have a storage potential of 4-8 years.

Now, if what you want is an age-worthy Chardonnay, then we suggest going for specialized wines or Old World varietals from Burgundy. With their robust structure and acidity, these wines can continue aging for decades.

Recommended Brands and Vintages

2002 Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Brut Chardonnay.  Loaded with layers of citrus and stone fruits with just the right amount of steely minerality, this 2002 offering from Champagne Salon represents all that is good in a quality Chardonnay. It is  somewhat hard to find but if you can get your hands on this particular bottle don’t let it go. Enjoy now or wait a couple more years for this exquisite vino to fully mature.

2010 Domaine Laflaive Bâtard-Montratchet. As far as White Burgundies go, this Domaine Laflaive favorite takes the top spot for the region’s 2010 Chardonnay offerings. It beautifully balances its intense tree fruit and citrus flavors with gorgeous wet stone minerality. This is a wine that’s structured for a superb drinking experience. Though smooth, borderline oily on the palate, it has a backbone of pure steel that adds complexity to its mouthfeel. This is an excellent wine with great aging potential.

2013 Wayfarer Vineyard Chardonnay. Effortlessly weaving racy acidity with the ripe fruit flavors of guava and melon, this Chardonnay is a brilliant study in balance and complexity. Touches of stone and steel minerality combined with the fragrance of crushed white flowers bring freshness and intricacy to this mouthwatering wine.  Definitely a wine vault must-have.