Chardonnay is one of the most divisive white wines: are you team butter or team crisp apple?
When I was first starting to drink wine, I heard about the “buttery” taste of Chardonnay and I could taste nothing else for years. Through all my wine classes, I would dread the Chardonnay tastings, not wanting to taste all the butter. I finally learned that not all Chardonnays are buttery; in fact, Chardonnay, is not buttery at all, it’s the winemaking technique that adds the butter-flavor.
Originally from France, Chardonnay is named after the small village called Chardonnay, meaning place of thistles. Chardonnay is now the most widely planted white grape in the world — grown everywhere from the Champagne region (it’s the main white grape in Champagne) to South Africa.
Flavors/Aromas and Styles
Chardonnay grapes themselves are fruit-forward and greatly affected by the climate in which they’re planted. In warm climates, Chardonnays are full bodied, higher in alcohol, and taste of ripe fruit — pineapple, papaya, mango, passion fruit, and pear. Some of the most common places for warm-climate Chardonnay are California and Australia.
In cold climates, Chardonnay tend to be more acidic and have strong citrus notes — lemon, grapefruit, orange, nectarine, and green apple. Cold climate Chardonnays are most seen in France, especially the Burgundy and Champagne regions, and cooler parts of California and Oregon.
Regardless of where the grapes are grown, Chardonnay changes greatly when aged in oak barrels. It takes on characteristics of the oak, getting notes of vanilla and baking spices, and undergoes a process of malolactic fermentation that turns it buttery, creamy, and rich.
Malolactic fermentation occurs when the grape juice is in oak barrels comes in contact with a bacteria called Oenococcus Oeni and the malic acid in the grapes is converted into lactic acid creating a naturally occurring compound called diacetyl. Sometimes this is called a second fermentation, as it follows right after the primary fermentation, and happens in both red and white wines. In white wine, this transformation turns the taste buttery and creamy (hence the lactic acid name), whereas in red wine, the butteriness is not as apparent. So, it turns out the buttery flavor that makes Chardonnay so famous doesn’t even come from the grapes, it’s from the winemaker! Because it’s an added characteristic, it’s entirely subjective — how much of a buttery, creamy taste is imparted on the wine is up to time, the acidity of the grape before this second fermentation, and the type of oak it is aged in.
Oaked Chardonnay goes well with rich dishes, butter, cream, and sweet spices. On the other hand, unoaked Chardonnay goes well with lighter and brighter dishes – think chicken piccata and seafood. In general, you want to avoid pairing Chardonnay with any food if it’s an overly oaky Chardonnay and you want to avoid sweet food and overly pungent cheese or goat cheese.
Chardonnay is one of the few white wines that can age. Depends on the bottle but most are best 5+ years after they’re harvested. White Burgundy, and a few other oak-aged Chardonnays, can be aged for a few decades!