There are many kinds of white wine grapes, but the three majors are Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. I’ve covered the first two grape varietals in prior columns. Now that the weather is cooling off, it’s a good time to look at Chardonnays. The Chardonnay grape thrives in many climates and is relatively easy to grow. Good Chardonnays can be cellared for five to ten years, sometimes longer. The best Chardonnay-based wines come from Northern California, France, and Australia. I find these wines are highly influenced by the terroir from which they come-in other words, the characteristics of the soil, weather, regional climate, and all the things that make the growing area unique. Another thing that dictates unique flavor is what the wine is aged in prior to bottling.
A friend of mine recently referred to me as an “ABC” wine drinker. His definition is “Anything But Chardonnay,” and it fits! However, truth be told, the best whites I’ve ever tried are white Burgundies, made from Chardonnay grapes. How can one person like and dislike wine made from the same grape? The answer is the wide range of styles this varietal can take on. In warmer climates, alcohol content increases and wines have stronger flavors. In France, Chardonnay takes on a mineral quality from the terroir that makes it complex and varied. The Chardonnays in the heavier, oaky style became popular in the boom of California winemaking. They can be aged in oak, and often newer oak, and sometimes go through a second fermentation called “malolactic fermentation.” This process softens the acids and smoothes the flavor, generating what we know as a “buttery” taste. So everyone can find a Chardonnay to suit their own preference.
Bottle prices for Chardonnay vary all over the spectrum, from $4.00 at your local grocery store, to Le Montrachet from Burgundy, which can cost upwards of $3,000. Villages that make excellent Chardonnays in France are Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, and Chassagne-Montrachet. The best wines are considered “Grand Cru” wines, so look for that rating on the label. Shippers matter too in Burgundy: Good names to look for are Joseph Drouhin, Bouchard, Louis Latour, and for a special treat, Olivier Leflaive. In California, Ramey and Kongsgaard make heavier, buttery Chardonnays, while Chateau Montelena and Au Bon Climat make Chardonnays that even an ABC wine drinker can love!