January 4, 2016
Understanding Chardonnay Across Regions
Though Chardonnay tastes simply like Chardonnay to most people, true connoisseurs know that the varietal, like Pinot Noir, varies significantly based on where it’s grown and produced. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering whether you prefer French or California Chard, or perhaps how Chardonnay from Washington compares to Australia, keep reading!
“Though Chardonnay isn't crazy expressive on its own (unlike Gewürztraminer or Ruche), like virtually all grapes, it tends to take on different characteristics when grown in different climates and soils,” explains Michael King, general manager over D.C.’s Knightsbridge Restaurant Group. King notes that cooler climate Chardonnays are generally leaner and more austere, higher acid and lower alcohol, while warmer climate Chardonnays are generally more round and fruity, lower acid and higher alcohol. Likewise, how the wine is produced (think: is it aged in oak barrels or stainless steel tanks?) affects the flavor. “People opting for a 'buttery Chard' enjoy a specific process called malolactic fermentation, which softens the acid in the wine and gives it a richer character.”
Take a look at how three Chardonnay experts compare the grape’s nuances across different regions around the world:
“The epicenter of Chardonnay production is Burgundy—this is where the grape reaches its full potential in terms of expression and elegance,” says Victoria James, wine director at Piora in NYC. Stacey Blalock, certified sommelier at Atlanta’s Cape Dutch agrees: “Some of the best chardonnays—legendary rich, complex, age-worthy and also pricey wines—are from the northern section of Burgundy, called Cote de Beaune.” Though these wines are oak aged, because of the cool climate in France, they’re higher acid and thus do not overwhelm the palate with honey, oak and buttery notes, as some of the heavily oaked wines from California do.
Master Sommelier Andy Myers, wine director for José Andrés' ThinkFoodGroup’s 23 restaurants, seconds that notion: “Typically the great white Burgundies have a fair shake of new wood on them, but it’s used as a judicious component instead of a loud feature,” he says, noting the hints of kaffir lime, hazelnut and sesame seed you’ll taste instead. “Malolactic fermentation is necessary here as that tart, tense fruit needs a bit of softening to really entice the subtleties of texture required to make greatness happen.” Adds James, “The barrel aging and/or fermentation lend the juice toast and vanilla flavors, so these rounded out wines sometimes need years to shed their baby weight.” Expect to pay big bucks for these wines, though James encourages Burgundy lovers to look for values from smaller appellations and modest family wineries.
Though you can find outstanding Chardonnay throughout Burgundy, one area in particular where the wine stands out is in Chablis. “The vineyards here are closer to Champagne than they are to the rest of Burgundy, and the grapes are grown in limestone and clay soils once covered by water—the best vineyards are filled with fossilized oyster shells, giving Chablis a steely minerality that is unfound elsewhere,” explains Blalock. “Basic Chablis is made almost entirely in stainless steel or neutral oak, giving a pronounced oaky, vanilla flavor.” Adds James: Structurally, Chablis has soaring acidity, but remains at refreshingly low alcohol levels.” Myers gets notes of cheddar and yeast from the lees and green apples, too. “Frankly, Chablis is the last place in Burgundy where you can afford Grand Cru.”
“California chardonnays are fuller in body, with riper fruit in the wine and often heavily oaked or buttery, which can be credited to the warmer temperatures,” says Blalock. This started because of American consumers who, in the early 1990s, favored a richer more oak-driven and heavier style of wine, explains James. “Influenced by the Grand Cru wines of Burgundy, these winemakers adopted the practices of barrel aging/fermentation and battonage (stirring of the lees for added texture and approachability in youth), but what they didn’t realize was that California is not France.” The warmer climate led to higher alcohol levels and lower acidity, coupled with large amounts of oak added to already full-bodied wines and they became too heavy. Now, “new California winemakers are picking earlier, retaining the freshness and acidity in the grapes, and using minimal amounts of oak, almost to an extreme. The pendulum will keep swinging until a balance is found,” predicts James, who recommends chardonnay from Santa Barbara and on the Sonoma Coast, where the wines “exhibit a ripe nose of lemon curd and mineral notes with an elegant structure to match, plus restrained alcohol and elevated acidity.”
“Price and quality do not always match in California wines, and we see them being a bit pricey,” warns Blalock. Adds Myers: “Lower prices in California Chardonnay often translates to less real oak and/or bulk winemaking.”
“Washington State is the country’s number one producer of balanced chardonnay,” avows Blalock. “With two more hours of sunlight each day than California, the grapes here have a chance to evenly ripen.” Adds Myers: “Older vine versions are showing lots of potential, especially in Yakima and Columbia Gorge: they’re cleaner, terroir-driven and surprisingly interesting, but they aren’t cheap.” James gets notes of stone-fruit in the supple Chardonnays from Washington, which are “creamy with well-structured acidity and sometimes alcohol that creeps up on you.”
“Chardonnay is Australia’s number one growing white grape,” says Blalock, who recommends wines grown along the windswept coast of the Indian Ocean in Australia’s Margaret River. “These are some of the most elegant, rich, age-worthy wines outside of Burgundy, and among the best in Australia.” Thanks to Australia’s technical winemaking and proficiency, Australian Chards can be found at a lower price point, says James, noting the grape also does well in South Australia’s Eden Valley and Victoria’s coastal, maritime Port Philip Zone. “Often compared to California Central Coast Chardonnays, here the wines carry a sharp, crisp, clean quality with a slight saline character and a mineral depth in the best ones.” Though not everyone is convinced: “I was just there and while the wines were consistently well made, I didn’t find anything to really distinguish them from so much other generic, competent Chardonnay around the world,” admits Myers.
Be sure to whip out your Coravin so you can personally sample Chardonnay from around the world, without having to open multiple bottles at once (read: goodbye waste!).