Arguably the most versatile and popular white wine grape. To judge it now on its over-oaked, butterscotchy 1990's past, is a mistake, there is a Chardonnay out there for everyone.
France is indisputably its home, indeed Chardonnay's roots can be traced to the Saône-et-Loire area of Burgundy. It was first cultivated here between Burgundy and the Champagne region in the 16th Century and shares its name with the village of Chardonnay in the Mâconnais near Uchizy in Southern Burgundy.
The first mention was under the synonym Beaunois in 1583 but the earliest reliable mention of Chardenet/Chardonnet/Chardenay was not until 1685. The current spelling did not become common until the 20th Century.
Just like many of the other most common varieties Chardonnay's parentage can be traced back to the Pinot and Gouais Blanc grapes, to an extent the Adam and Eve of grape varieties. It has other Burgundy based siblings like Gamay Noir (The grape of Beaujolais), Aligote and Melon de Bourgogne.
This is one of the most widely planted varieties because it is productive and can work well in a range of climates. There are the more steely, minerally, green fruited, cool climate versions, moving towards the more stone fruit peachy wines of milder climates up to rich tropical flavoured warmer climate wines.
Part of Chardonnay’s versatility is that it is relatively neutral in its flavour profile. This means it reacts well to a wide variety of winemaking techniques:
Barrel Fermentation – Fermentation is a chemical reaction and this process when done in a barrel will pick up texture with some creamy, buttery, woody notes. Lees Stirring (Bâtonnage) – Lees are the dead yeast cells, grape seeds, pulp, stem and skin fragments, and insoluble tartrates. Much of this may be removed to leave fine lees which when stirred with the wine will add complexity and mouth feel. Malolactic Fermentation – Bacteria is used to convert tart malic acid into softer lactic acid, softening the fruit and giving a buttery, nutty flavour. Chaptalisation – Is the process of adding legally permitted quantities of sugar in cooler climate areas where ripeness is tough to achieve. Acidification - In warmer climates tartaric, malic or citric acid is often added due to the lack of natural acidity. Maceration with the skins – Uncommon for white wines but gives more body and flavour compounds when done for short periods of time. Cold Fermentation – Promotes the production and retention of esters that give fruity aromas and flavours as well as freshness.
There are plantings of Chardonnay worldwide with California, Australia, France, Italy, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina the most significant. Other places making a success of this grape are New Zealand, England, especially for Sparkling production, Portugal and Spain where it is allowable as a component in White Rioja. From Belgium to Denmark, to Israel, Greece, New York and Canada, Chardonnay is everywhere including, China, Japan and India.
Chardonnay, along with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, is an important grape in the production of Champagne. For example a 'Blanc de Blancs' Champagne will be made with 100% Chardonnay. There is a relatively recent move to vastly improve the quality of the base wines for Champagne with an emphasis perhaps moving towards quality over consistency of flavour year to year.
Food Matches for Chardonnay
Chardonnay has a lot of presence on many wine lists because it is so versatile but the more restrained versions with higher acidity are arguably better for food matching. It does not matter what the fishmonger provides there’s a chardonnay to match. There are a fair few for the butcher too.
Crisp unoaked ones go with shellfish and cod or haddock. Bigger ones go with monkfish, turbot, and hake. Trout and Salmon too, especially poached. Rich and buttery Chardonnays work wonderfully with lobster, white meats like chicken and pork, and some are good with Game Birds.
One of the key things when wine pairing food and wine is the sauce on the plate, while you likely wouldn't pair white wines with a plain steak (though we're not judgy if you do), red meats in creamy sauces can definitely work well with more textured wines made from Chardonnay.
Pumpkin, squash and sweet potato pair favourably, dishes like pumpkin pie or roasted butternut squash risotto can be a lovely match. Its also great with sweetcorn with barbequed corn on the cob slathered in butter a very pleasing combination.
Lighter more acidic Chardonnays are good with most cheeses but if stinky ripe brie is your choice then you’re going to want a rich buttery chardonnay, perhaps from North East Italy, Western Australia or Burgundy.
While we are certainly not suggesting breakfast wine pairings, the following wines work well with dishes where eggs are main ingredients. Mushroom omelettes or Asparagus with poached egg and hollandaise are just a couple of fine matches.