Friday, February 1, 2013

Get to Know a Grape: Chardonnay

In the second of this regular installment, we're switching to white wine in order to discuss one of the world's best-known white grapes: Chardonnay

In the third edition of her Wine Course, Jancis Robinson states that growing Chardonnay is a 'rite of passage' for new wine-making countries entering the international market. Indeed, there aren't many places where Chardonnay isn't grown. From France to Chile to New Zealand to Australia, this grape is as ubiquitous as white wine gets. Perhaps owing to its popularity, Chardonnay has dozens of lesser-known (and less pronounceable) names, including Aubaine in Burgundy, Obaideh in Lebanon and Klevanjka Biela in Croatia. However, it seems that few winemakers today are unaware of the straightforward global appeal of Chardonnay, as almost all Chardonnay wines are labeled as such, regardless of their country of origin.

Chardonnay is much easier to grow than the grape we looked at last week, Pinot Noir, although spring frosts can also be a problem for those seeking to have a good harvest of Chardonnay. The grape also has what wine-makers refer to as "malleability". This means that the wine produced by the grape will change significantly due to local conditions, such as soil, climate, sun exposure, and terroir (really just a fancy French way of referring to the geography, climate, and geology of a particular region). Much of the work related to growing Chardonnay comes down to good old-fashioned pruning, as Chardonnay leaves tend to grow overly large if left to their own devices, thereby sucking up nutrients from the valuable fruit, so wine-makers must carefully monitor the leaf sizes to ensure a plentiful harvest.

'Traditional' Chardonnay (if there is such a thing) comes largely from Burgundy, and it continues to be the top wine grape in the region, particularly in the appelation of Chablis, where it is the only grape permitted if winemakers wish to label their wines with the prestigious  'AOC Chablis' label. These Chardonnays tend to be well-structured with a hint of minerality in both taste and smell. But today, Chardonnay is perhaps best known for producing heavily oaked wines from California and Australia. These wines tend to be intense in aromas and flavours, usually with a strong presence of vanilla, and are often golden-yellow in color. The rift between French and Californian Chardonnays has led many winemakers to label their Chardonnays as 'Oaked' or 'Unoaked', depending on which style of wine they produce. Chardonnay is also produced in the Champagne region, where it is either blended with other grapes, such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, or used on its own to produce the crisp, smooth and elegant blanc de blancs champagnes.

Unoaked Chardonnays pair well with lighter fare, such as scallops, non-cream soups, and pork. Oaked Chards, on the other hand, can be paired with heartier foods, such as salmon with cream sauce, chicken Dijon, and grilled vegetables. Whether you prefer your Chardonnay oaked or unoaked, you can enjoy knowing that the wine you're sipping is made from one of the most successful grapes in wine-making history.

The Short Version:

Names: Chardonnay, Aubain, Beaunois, Gamay Blanc, Melon Blanc, Obaideh, Klevanjka Biela, and many, many more.
Fl!vour Profile (oaked): Vanilla, spices, possibly notes of oak on the nose. Buttery flavour and long finish.   
Flavour Profile (Unoaked): Minerality, floral and citrus notes on the nose, elegant and crisp flavours. 
Best-Known Regions: Burgundy, California, Australia.
Price Range: $10-$50
Food Pairings: Soup, salad, chicken, seafood, pork.

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