Chardonnay is a non-aromatic grape varietal. What this means to you is that most of what you pick up on the nose is more like to come from choices of the winemaker during the wine-making process rather than particular qualities of the grape itself. These choices may surround the blending grape, the type of yeast used, the type of oak used, the age of the barrels, etc. It is also a grape that is lower in acid, but it makes up for the low acid and aromatics in high extract and alcohol. It produces still wines in all body styles and is a popular ingredient in sparkling wines.
A rather unique quality about Chardonnay is that it can perform well in any climate. What you will notice when comparing wines across climate zones is that the fruit you taste will differ. While the aromas from the grape may not be intense, the flavors will be. A good way to predict what you are going to pick up in the wines is to think about what fruits are grown in each of these regions. Green fruits thrive in cooler climates; stone fruits come from warmer, more moderate, climates; and tropical fruits immediately bring visions of island music, beaches and a hot climate.
Now we know the effects of climate on the flavor of Chardonnay, but where do the butter or cream flavors that are common in these wines come from? Malolactic fermentation is an additional fermentation process carried out by bacteria that some wines go through that converts tart acid (malic) into softer acid (lactic), resulting in a more palatable finished product. This secondary fermentation produces a chemical called diacetyl (also present in butter) which, in turn, presents itself in the wine.
Another way creamy aromas and flavors are imputed into wine involves the yeast in winemaking, in both the choice of yeast and what may be done with them. Lees are the cells that remain after alcohol kills the yeasts during fermentation. If these are stirred within the wines rather than merely leaving them to settle on the bottom, a creamy flavor and texture develop.
Where Pinot Noir has the exclusive on red wines from Burgundy, Chardonnay holds the exclusive on the whites. The names to look for in the region are Chablis, Macon, Pouilly-Fuisse, and - for a worthwhile splurge - Meursault. Chablis will show more of a mineral character where citrus and green apple tend to dominate in the wines of Macon. Pouilly-Fuisse will be the fullest, with higher alcohol levels and will have more of a stone fruit character. You will also see oak influence. Wines of Puligny-Montrachet are held in great esteem, but the wines of nearby Meursault are also quite good. While still on the high side, they are a value in the $40 range. In my opinion, they take all of the best characteristics of the white Burgundies above, then add some almond or hazelnut to the party.
Moving north, Chardonnay also holds a monopoly as the only white grape that can go into the production of Champagne. Its high acid and citrus fruit character make some of the world’s best.
Other good examples of still wine Chardonnay can be found in California, specifically Carneros and the Russian River Valley, and in Australia, in Adelaide Hills and Hunter Valley. They can also be found in Chile and New Zealand.
For many years I would have pleaded with you not to buy your wine from a box. However, there is a company called “Black Box Wines” which is now defying the boxed wine reputation with a pretty tasty Chardonnay.
Before shopping for this exercise, go back to your notes on "Tasting for Oak.” Which did you prefer - unoaked, French oak or American oak? It may be a good idea to choose your wines from the same category so that you are comparing regional differences, rather than differences in manufacture. If you can, choose one wine from each of the three climate zones. Take note of the differences in flavor and in color.
If you can afford to splurge a bit or are splitting the investment for these tastings, choose a Mersault as your cool climate example. You will not be disappointed.
On The Label
Chardonnay, Pouilly-Fuisse, Mersault, Chablis, Macon, Puligny-Montrachet
In The Bottle
Green fruit, stone fruit, citrus fruit, tropical fruit, mineral, butter, cream
At The Table
Creamy sauces, shellfish, chicken, risotto