In the spirit of learning about Champagne and all of its deliciousness, I thought a great place to start would be the grapes. Yes, history of the region is also a good place to start, but without the grapes, there'd be no wine! Champagne can be made from three different varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. I've already done a grape series on Pinot Noir, which you can find here, and I felt that Chardonnay was a natural next place to go. It's recognizable, accessbile, and even if you don't like or are unfamiliar with Champagne, you may be Chardonnay fan!
Key Facts for Chardonnay:
- It is the most planted white (or green) grape in the world.
- Chardonnay originated in Burgundy, France.
- The grape is more neutral in flavor which is why it tastes so incredibly different depending on where or how it is grown and/or the winemaking process (oaked vs. unoaked).
- Unlike Pinot Noir, Chardonnay is fairly easy to grow and is very adaptable to different growing conditions.
- Wines you may not know are Chardonnay: Blanc de Blanc Champagne, Chablis, and White Burgundy.
As I mentioned above, Chardonnay is a grape whose flavor ranges widely. Flavor depends on the ripeness of the grape, which is linked to the region it is grown in. In colder climates where the grapes don't get as ripe, the flavors tend to be more crisp like lemon and green apple. In warmer climates, the flavors can become more tropical with notes of pineapple or peach. When researching, I came across these other, more unexpected flavors: Beeswax, smoke, saline solution, and wet rock.
What's with the buttery Chardonnays?!
Buttery and oaky Chardonnay has to be the most polarizing wine. Totally love or hate with that one. The vanilla and oak flavor is imparted from... well, oak. Oak barrels, to be specific. The buttery and creamy texture that is often paired with oak comes from malolactic fermentation (MLF). I've discussed it before in this review of Ramey's Chardonnay, but to recap, MLF is a secondary fermentation with a different kind of yeast where the tart malic acid is transformed into a "creamier" lactic acid. This produces diacetyl which is the chemical compound that causes the buttery flavor. Love buttery Chardonnays? Be on the lookout for wines that have gone through MLF... a good wine professional will be able to point you towards those, but Napa Valley Chardonnay is well known for these types. Hate it? Maybe look toward Old World Chardonnay (specifically Chablis) or Australia, as wines from that region have minimal to no oak aging.
Chardonnay is very versatile when it comes to pairing with food and is a great white if you're uncertain what to do. Keep in mind that the style of Chardonnay, mostly whether it's oaked and buttery or unoaked, will be the most important factor in deciding what to pair with your food. Oakiness can overpower lighter fish dishes, while the acid and citrus notes of an unoaked Chardonnay would work great with shellfish (ex: oysters). Oaked chardonnay would work very well with poultry (chicken, turkey, etc.), especially when roasted or more bold in flavor. But what have I always said? Drink what you want with what you want!