Chardonnay 101 – Guide for Wine Aficionados and Curious Minds
Chardonnay is by far the most popular white wine in the world. It is a variety that can easily adapt to almost any climate and terrain in the world. It comes in an array of styles, and many price points. It is a wine enjoyed by everyone, which has an army of loyal followers.
The taste of Chardonnay
As mentioned earlier, Chardonnay can be grown in all sorts of climates and is easy to develop. Its taste mainly depends on the terroir and the winemaker’s production style. However, the typical Chardonnay is a medium to full-bodied, dry wine featuring various flavors ranging from pineapple and papaya to lemon and apple. When aged on oak, it reveals notes of vanilla, and contains moderate levels of alcohol and acidity.
To paint a better picture of Chardonnay, we’ve divided its flavors into two groups: primary and secondary flavors. The primary flavors come directly from the grape.
Chardonnay’s primary flavors range from chalky minerals to lemon zest. If the Chardonnay is grown in a warmer climate, grapes tend to be a bit more sugary, and the acidity is low to moderate. As a result, its flavors tend to develop richer and riper fruits. If the climate is colder and the harvest is at a later date, then the citrus notes tend to be a bit more apparent.
The secondary notes appear as a result of the winemaking process. The use of oak can lead to flavors such as baking spices, vanilla, and coconut. When it comes to secondary notes, the most influential factors include the origin of the wood, how long the wine has aged in the oak, the shape of the wood (stave, chips, or barrels), etc. Then there is also the influence of Diacetyl, which gives the wine its “buttery” character.
Diacetyl appears as a by-product of fermentation and increases the wine’s buttery note. This by-product is part of a process that comes as a result of an intervention of the winemaker or naturally. Most winemakers are in favor of Diacetyl as it lowers the wine’s sharp acidity in favor of a creamier lactic acid, plus the butter notes as an added value.
Reasons why Chardonnay is so popular
There is a long list of reasons why Chardonnay is so popular, and at the beginning, we’ve explained some of it. However, to make things even clearer, we need to know that Chardonnay has a noble history, one that starts in the Old World and has roots in Burgundy.
Even today, Burgundy remains the most prestigious wine regions in France where some of the most expensive wines are produced.
Furthermore, Chardonnay is the sole variety in Blanc de Blancs Champagne. And as most wine lovers know, Chardonnay is one of the three varieties used in the process of making Champagne.
When the Chardonnay variety made it on the new continent, it arrived in California. From the first moment, until the present day, it is a successful love story. Chardonnay is the most popular white wine variety in the state of California. And if we judge by the current popularity of Chardonnay, that isn’t going to change any time soon.
Main differences between oaked and unoaked Chardonnay
It is a common practice for winemakers to promote their Chardonnay as oaked or unoaked. Winemakers and brands that favor bright and crisp taste rely on stainless steel for storage and the fermentation process. That minimizes the exposure to oxygen and keeps the wine fresh.
When the wine producer wants to make a fuller-bodied wine featuring secondary flavors of spice and vanilla, then they let the wine be fermented and aged in oak. Some winemakers decide to let it ferment into stainless steel tanks and afterward transfer it into oak for the aging part.
The introduction of Diacetyl and dead yeast makes oak aging distinctive. The final result is a wine that is very different than the one produced in steel barrels.
PS: If you’d like to know more about aging wine, we’ve written a great guide explaining what happens to wine when it ages, so you can go ahead and check that out too!
Where to find the best Chardonnay?
Even though many people like to ask that question, it is not a suitable one. The better question is which style suits you more? Different styles come from different regions, and that is largely owed to climate, as well as winemaking processes.
So it is a battle between warm regions and cool regions, between the new world and the old world.
Chardonnay produced in cooler climate regions come with higher acidity, lighter-bodied, citrus flavors, and feels elegant. There are cooler climate regions in both the New World and the Old World.
- Cool regions in the old world include Burgundy and Champagne (France, including the famous Chablis region for production of Chablis Chardonnay), Northern Italy, Austria, and Germany.
- Cool regions in the new world include Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley (California), Leyda Valley (Chile), New Zealand, Mornington Peninsula (Australia), Ontario (Canada), Casablanca, Willamette Valley (Oregon), and Tasmania (Australia).
There aren’t many new world warm climate regions. Wines produced in these regions tend to be low on acidity, boast a wide range of flavors, typically are fuller-bodies, and contain a considerable amount of alcohol.
- Warm regions in the old world: South Italy and most of Spain
- Warm regions in the new world: a big part of California, most of South Africa, and South Australia.