Think fast . . . When a host offers you a glass of “white wine,” what is the first wine variety that pops into your head? Chardonnay, of course! It is the world’s most popular white wine grape as it produces a vast range of wine styles to suit every palate. A winegrowers’ dream comes true; it is a vigorous chameleon in the vineyard, as it can adapt to different soil types, altitudes, and climactic conditions. In the winery, it demonstrates its malleability as it can be vinified in a vast and nuanced range of ways – in new oak barrels; in old oak barrels; in stainless steel and inert vessels; aged for years or bottled young; on the lees or not; various levels of malolactic conversion or not; and it is used in both still wine production, as well as being the main white grape variety used in the production of Champagne and sparkling wines. Here is the most salient point to know about Chardonnay . . . it is the red wine of whites. It is so complex and adaptable that, unlike aromatic white grape varieties (think Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling), it almost always goes through the same production methods as red wines – specifically, barrel fermentation and malolactic conversion.
During the time of the Roman Empire, Chardonnay originated in the Burgundy region of France. However, today, with a reputation for relative ease of cultivation and ability to adapt to different conditions, it grows nearly everywhere wine is made. Many clonal varieties have been developed for their adaptive attributes to suit the vineyards’ terroir where the grapes are grown. For instance, the Chardonnay clones planted in the warmer regions of the New World will be different from the cool-loving clones planted in the Old World wine-growing regions and regions such as the Willamette Valley in Oregon, due to a climate similar to Burgundy’s. It is not unusual to walk through vineyards planted with Chardonnay and see each row with a sign that identifies the clones planted. Because Chardonnay is early budding and early ripening, it can thrive in wine regions with short growing seasons. Thus, it can be harvested before the autumn rain sets in – think of places like Champagne or Burgundy where autumn rains typically begin in late September.
The neutrality aspect of Chardonnay means it is an accurate demonstration of its climate and location and the characteristics of its terroir. Chardonnay emanates tropical aromas and flavors like pineapple and mango when grown in warmer climates. In cooler regions, the grape’s racy acidity imparts flavors of peaches, apricots, and lemon peel. Likewise, the soils in which the Chardonnay vineyards are grown also come shining through – think of the notable minerality of Chablis’ chalky soils and then taste a Chardonnay from Chablis! Each region’s soils impart highly distinguishable notes in this otherwise neutral grape.
In the winery, modern-day winemakers tend to ferment only a portion of the wine in new oak, reusing older barrels for the rest. This results in a more balanced wine that allows the terroir’s qualities to shine through. The days of Chardonnay tasting like buttered popcorn are over, and the current trend is towards a more balanced, refined expression of the variety. To soften the Chardonnay acid and tannins, it usually needs at least some barrel fermentation and malolactic fermentation to tone down the tartaric acid in the grapes. (Think of underripe green apples to a brie cheese) The time in the barrel also softens the tannins and imparts a rounded mouthfeel with a toasty flavor to the wines. MLF produces a chemical compound called diacetyl, which contributes to the buttery or butterscotch aromas and flavors that were often pervasive in New World Chardonnays in the early 2000s. Today, meticulous moderation of these production methods in Chardonnay creates more subtle and refined forms of Chardonnay wine. When Chardonnay is unoaked, the tastes similar to the zippy styles of Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, but without “green” flavors, such as grass or asparagus. Instead, the flavors tend towards a refreshing palate of citrus and green apple. Each area of the wine production has its own traditions and stylistic expressions of this wine, which, at least in the New World has gone through changes in the last ten years.
In the birthplace of Chardonnay, Burgundy has set the bar for producing Chardonnay with taut precision and elegance without an overt oak influence. “White Burgundy”, as it is called, is prized for the ability to reflect each diverse area of Burgundy’s 220 km North to South stretch. The winemaking style is restrained and meticulous, with the focus on allowing the individual vineyard sites and aspects to be reflected through the wines. The appellations are classified according to their collective village name or single-vineyard, either a premier cru (first growth) or grand cru (great growth), designation. The grand cru and premier cru white Burgundy wines can be prohibitively expensive, many of the village designate wines show immense structure and finesse and can exemplify outstanding value.
About ten years ago, Chardonnay from Napa, Sonoma, and Central Coast regions in California was heavily oaked and usually went through a significant dose of MLF. This led to the ultra-rich, buttery, and baking spice aromas that our mothers and grandmothers seemed to relish. While these wines are still popular, the consumer trend today has moved winemakers away from vinifying Chardonnay this way. In order to better coax out Chardonnay’s savory and invigorating aspects of minerality, and acidity, winemakers from California utilize prized Chardonnay grapes grown in cooler climates from the more coastal regions and counties. In the movement towards a fresher style, they restrain the use of MLF and prolonged oak barreling. The outcome is Chardonnay which no longer exudes over-ripeness or oak flavors. Instead, these wines are far racier, yet with rounded aromas embodying the elegance and artistry of discreet and meticulous winemaking choices.
Oregon has seen a recent Chardonnay renaissance. As a much-lauded producer of exceptional Pinot Noir, it only goes to show that Burgundy’s iconic white wine grape also thrives in Oregon. With experimentation in the clonal selection, site development, and improved winery practices, Oregon is producing outstanding Chardonnay wines that are different in approach from the West Coast neighbors to the South. Because of cooler vintages, the grape retains its inherent clarity, magnetic acidity, and aromatic intensity. There are nuanced notes of soil, site, and earth, accompanied by crisp citrus fruit aromas. Most of Oregon’s winemakers’ trend toward enhancing the grape’s natural qualities with the use of all-stainless and alternative fermentation methods, along with non-interventional winemaking and native yeasts. These are excellent wines that can be found at reasonable price points.
Quality has never been higher for the Chardonnays of Australia and New Zealand. Both countries produce their best quality Chardonnay coming from the cooler coastal growing regions. This is not difficult to do in New Zealand, where no vineyard in the country is further than 80 miles from the ocean. Like their New World competitors, the current focus has shifted from the big ripe fruit, and butter styles of yesteryear, to a cleaner, fresher, and more subtle expression of the grape. Across the board, the wines express less oak, more acidity, and greater complexity with a definite emphasis on the individual vineyard sites. The premium Chardonnays are crafted to be tightly wound and austere when young, but capable of aging into layered, elegant, and beautifully textured charmers. Today, many of the Chardonnays from down-under have become absolutely superb.
5 “Must Try” Chardonnays
Benchmark Wine is the “go-to” retailer to find the world’s best-of-the-best wines; therefore, it is only fitting that we recommend five of the most iconic and finest Chardonnays from the infamous regions of Chardonnay production. To fully appreciate this incredible grape’s multiple expressions in the vineyard and the winery, these are the bucket-list of Chardonnay wines. Let’s begin at the beginning with Burgundy Chardonnay and then move to Champagne and New World Chardonnay . . .
Considered to produce the most remarkable dry white wine globally, Montrachet is a Grand Cru vineyard in the Cote de Beaune subregion of Burgundy. It is situated on two sides between the communes of Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet. It is surrounded by four other Grand Cru vineyards to complicate issues, all having “Montrachet” as part of their names. To truly understand the scope of Chardonnay’s capabilities, one must start here. For the quintessential Montrachet experience, Benchmark Wine recommends the Marc Morey et Fils Chassagne Montrachet Morgeots Blanc 2019. This is an elegant, full-bodied wine with petrol, white peach, floral, and flint notes. It is an incredible value for its outstanding quality. This wine can be enjoyed now or aged for several years to develop the aromas and character fully.
Meursault Chardonnays tend to be richer and more full-bodied than Montrachet. Though they are next-door neighbors, the wines of Meursault showcase the difference terroir makes. Classically, Meursault is vinified with longer oak barreling, thus imparting more inherent roundness and nutty characteristics. Meursault still carries a zingy vibrancy but with generous hints of vanilla, hazelnut, honey, butter, and spices from the oak. One of the hallmarks of Meursault is the ability to age well for many years. Benchmark recommends trying the Laurent Ponsot Meursault Les Charmes Cuvee de la Centauree 2019. This wine fills the senses with flavors of orchard fruits, crushed stone, and the typical oak nuances. It is a perfect pairing with rich chicken dishes and soft cheeses.
Though Chablis is a part of Burgundy, it sits 181 km (113 mi) to the Northwest of Meursault. It may still be Burgundy, yet the terroir between the two growing regions differs. To begin with, there is the soil of Chablis, which is Kimmeridge Clay with outcrops of the same chalk layer that extends across much of Northern France to the White Cliffs of Dover. Additionally, the climate is far cooler than the more southerly Chardonnay vineyards in the Cote de Beaune. Between the calcareous soils and the cool climate of Chablis, the wines produced are some of the purest expressions of the varietal character of Chardonnay. The trademark winemaking style is to have minimal intervention during the vinification process. The acidity is maintained due to the cool climate with typical notes of green apples, citrus, and a flintiness from the soils shining through on the palate. People who like a lighter, brighter, and refreshing style of wine will appreciate all Chablis has to offer. Benchmark Wine suggests trying the Laroche Chablis Blanchots 2019. Perfect with oysters or a light fish dish, this wine perfectly demonstrates the distinctive taut and racy mouthfeel of a fabulous Chablis.
When a Champagne label states it is a Blanc de Blancs (“white of whites”), the grape used to make this Champagne is purely Chardonnay. The growing conditions in Champagne are very similar to those of Chablis, with Chardonnay grapes in the Champagne region coming from the Cote de Blanc. In this case, the “blanc” references the same light-colored, chalky Kimmeridgian soil found in Chablis. Champagne’s Chardonnay grapes retain their acidity throughout the growing season with even cooler climatic conditions than Chablis. There is typically a mineral saltiness from the ancient seabed soils, combined with a profound crisp character. Champagne is an amazing manipulative winemaking process because the wine undergoes two fermentations – both in tanks and barrels and then again in the bottle. It is then aged on its lees for months, if not years, and usually given a “dosage” before being bottled for the consumer. Whatever a winemaker is capable of crafting with Chardonnay, it is done in Champagne! Benchmark Wine offers several superb “Blanc de Blanc” Champagnes, but the Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2004 is the top choice. This vintage Champagne is at the top of the game, and wine critics have given it the highest accolades. It is an elegant example of what Blanc de Blanc Champagne is capable of, with complex notes of minerality, brioche, orange zest, and laser-like acidity. The finish is long and lingering. One can rink this now or well into the future, as it will only continue to evolve.
And finally . . . no Chardonnay list would be complete without the addition of the wines from one of Northern California’s finest producers of Chardonnay, in this case, the masterful Aubert Vineyards. Mark Aubert takes his cue from the Chardonnay winemakers of Burgundy and creates wines that demonstrate the warm ripeness of California grapes but with the restraint of the Burgundian style. If a bucket-list Chardonnay is what you are after, treat yourself to the Aubert Chardonnays. With meticulous craftsmanship, these wines go through malolactic conversion, the use of new French oak barrels, and lees stirring. Yet, they maintain a beautiful purity of fruit expression and lingering complexities. Benchmark Wine offers several Aubert vintages from the best vineyards in the Sonoma and Napa growing regions. With a perfect 100- point score from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Aubert Vineyards Chardonnay Sugar Shack 2016 is the finest example of a Chardonnay wine from the New World. It is layer upon layer of fruits to acid, with a luxurious and rounded mouthfeel.
With all its multiple expressions and hardiness, it is no wonder that Chardonnay is the world’s top white wine grape variety. It is a delicious form of adaptability depending on the climate where it is grown, the soils it grows in, and how it is vinified and aged. We have only touched on five Chardonnays to include in your cellar, but rest assured, there are many more to try. For wherever wine vineyards are planted, so shall there be Chardonnay.
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