The most famous vine variety of all. She can evoke a love/hate relationship. Some enjoy her softer, creamier side, while others adore her zest and character. In fact, few grape varieties elicit a knee-jerk reaction like Chardonnay. In many ways, Chardonnay is the “Big Daddy” or “Queen” of white wine grapes and one of the most widely planted in the world.
It is a well-known fact that France’s Burgundy region is Chardonnay’s spiritual home, famed for their bone-dry Chablis or their beautifully wooded Côte D’Or. This week, we’re exploring the basics of Chardonnay. All hail the queen!
Grape Variety: Chardonnay (pronunciation: Chard-on-nay)
Origin: Burgundy, France
Style: Dry white wine
Colour Profile: Medium gold – straw yellow hue
Flavour Profile: Key identifiers include green apple, citrus aromas, wet flint rocks, and vanilla or buttery notes (if wooded)
Key Regions Planted: France, North America, Australia and New Zealand, Italy, South Africa
In general, there are two different styles of Chardonnay wine. This difference comes in depending on how the winemaker chooses to make the wine.
Creamy & Rich:
This is the classic style. If you prefer your Chard to have buttery aromas, then you prefer an oak-aged Chardonnay.
An oak-aged Chardonnay means the wine has spent time in oak barrels and undergone a process called malolactic fermentation, whereby the tart malic acid in the wine is converted to softer, creamier lactic acid (the same acid found in milk). This releases the buttery notes.
Dry & Lean:
This is the modern style. If you prefer your Chard to have fruity, zesty notes, then you prefer an unwooded Chardonnay. This wine is not exposed to any or much wood, and thus does not undergo the process of malolactic fermentation or take on the strong aroma of new barrels.
The Food Pairing
Most wine drinkers find Chardonnay flatteringly easy to enjoy, with her broad, exuberant charms, relatively high alcohol and low acidity, and lack of powerful scent.
She is also a match made in heaven with most foods. Depending on the style you opt for, the fresher, unwooded versions go perfectly well with light and delicate food such as raw and lightly cooked seafood, chicken or vegetable terrines and pasta or risotto with spring vegetables.
A wooded Chardonnay has more body and thus can handle food with more texture and cream. Umami-rich (savoury) dishes such as grilled seafood, creamy pasta, simple roast chicken or dishes that include wild mushrooms are delightful.
South African Chardonnay
Experimentation with the world’s favourite grape variety in South Africa was severely hampered in the 1980s by the fact that the original official planting stock was seriously inferior, but the quality can be truly inspiring.
Luckily, in recent decades, that story is a thing of the past, with South African Chardonnay being rated as some of the best in the world as judged by various competitions. Areas known for producing particularly outstanding Chardonnay at the moment include the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Elgin and Constantia.