Chardonnay has famously been described as the 800-pound gorilla of wine. That dominance (some would say arrogance) has even encouraged some wag to pronounce: "Anything but Chardonnay."
Is it fair to tag a wine with such negativity? Well, when you're leading the competition, those lagging behind believe anything is fair game.
Look around, Chardonnay is everywhere! There was a time (hopefully not anymore) when you would order white wine in your favorite trendy bar and Chardonnay would appear in your glass.
As of this writing, Chardonnay is the most popular white wine in the world. In terms of plantings worldwide, Chardonnay comes after Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo and Airen. Chardonnay is the most planted white wine grape in California and Washington state. California acreage in order: Monterey, Sonoma, San Joaquin, Napa and Yolo counties.
One more gee-whiz statistic: The average price per ton of Chardonnay in California is $3,000, while a ton of premium Chardonnay will cost you $1,500 in Washington state. Those amounts might be minimums since Chardonnay from the most prized vineyards is going to fetch even higher prices.
Years ago, in California, some wineries listed the variety as "Pinot Chardonnay" on the front label. Purists objected claiming there was no such grape as "Pinot Chardonnay." Then, along came genetic testing (aka DNA) that showed the parents of Chardonnay are Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc, an obscure grape from central and northeast France. So, there is a pinot, after all, somewhere on the Chardonnay family tree.
Modern Chardonnay, no matter where in the world it is made, comes in two popular styles: oaked and unoaked. For years, the oaked version was the only style available. Fortunately, winemakers have backed off on the oak and there has been a resurgence in unoaked Chardonnay, mostly in reaction to claims that the true fruit character of Chardonnay is difficult to taste under all that oak.
Ironically, on its own, Chardonnay can be a simple, even bland wine, so maybe a little oak seasoning will pep up the flavors. The answer to the blandness, of course, is to pick Chardonnay riper and be more selective with the grapes in the vineyard.
Proper Chardonnay, sans oak, is ripe pears and apples that have ripened past the green stage, with traces of citrus and honey. Other descriptors include acacia, but not everyone knows what that smells like. Burgundy has a noticeable mineral note. Add oak into the equation and everything changes.
White Burgundy, made exclusively from Chardonnay, was once the only benchmark for style. Those wines from the Cote d'Or were more minerally with a seamless meeting of oak and fruit. As Chardonnay from California, the Pacific Northwest and Australia, to name just a few New World regions, grew in popularity, a new benchmark was added with the minerality giving way to more fruit notes like ripe pears.
French oak seasons a wine with a spicy note, but the process of toasting (or charring) the interior of the barrel can change the character and degree of the seasoning. Even, the forest where the oak is taken (Nevers, Troncais, Limousin) will influence the "oakiness" of the aging wine. Other influencing factors include toasting levels (light, medium, heavy) and how the cooperage defines those levels.
Warmer growing conditions will, of course, yield riper grapes and lower acidity, while cool areas produce lower sugar levels and higher natural acidity, so the grower and winemaker have to find the right balance.
This contrast marks the basic difference between Chardonnays from northern California and Burgundy, two places where the Chardonnay grape is the leading white variety.
Worldwide, the local style of Chardonnay depends on such factors as where the variety is grown and how it is handled in the winery. By and large, though, Chardonnay is either oaked or not oaked. Italian Chardonnay is a good example. Gaja Chardonnay, made by the noted red wine producer from Barbaresco is unmistakably oaked. Not far away, in another part of northern Italy, Chardonnay is more commonly made in the unoaked style.
All of this begs the question: What is the best style of Chardonnay? Depends on if you like oak in your wine. There was a quote about oak and wine circulating for years, attributed to a few people. Louis Martini was the Napa winery owner I heard who was supposed to have said: "If I want to taste oak, I'll chew on a piece of oak wood."
Chardonnay has a lot going for it, with oak or without. The danger is getting in a rut, ignoring the many other white wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Arneis, Chenin Blanc, Albarino, Riesling and Gewurztraminer (even if you can't pronounce it), while knowing, that in the back of your mind, you can always come back to Chardonnay.
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