BY CARLOS CARDENAS
If cabernet is king of all grapes, then chardonnay is without question the queen. The result of a crossbreeding between pinot noir, pinot blanc and gouais blanc, chardonnay is the most popular varietal planted for white wine and the fifth most popular overall.
Chardonnay prefers cooler climates, but is a rather accommodating grape and can grow essentially anywhere. Much like cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay can express the full gamut of flavor, depending on where the wine comes from. It’s possible to find fruit notes ranging from yellow apple to pear, white peach to apricot, and if the wine has been aged in oak, hints of vanilla, pie crust, butter and crème brûlée will surface as well.
If someone required a crash course in chardonnay, it’s possible to cover the main bases simply by discussing two regions — Burgundy (France) and California. Although this would undoubtedly be a disservice to the Khaleesi of wine, the most sought after and widely consumed chardonnay comes from these two regions.
Another possibility when categorizing chardonnay can be done by dividing them into two groups: oaked and unoaked. Once the grapes have been pressed and the juice is ready to be transferred into its holding vessel, the winemaker typically has the choice of oak or stainless steel. This is quite possibly the most important decision a chardonnay producer must consider, since the choice will result in drastically different wines.
Chardonnay aged in oak, such as wines from Napa Valley and the Sonoma Coast in California or New South Wales in Australia, can sometimes be described as “butter bombs” for their rich, creamy textures and aftertastes. This comes from the malolactic fermentation that occurs when the wine is aged in the presence of oak. The wood is alive, slowly allowing oxygen to seep in as the barrel contracts and expands, breathing in ridiculous slow motion. During fermentation, tart malic acid from the juice is converted into lactic acid, which is the same acid that’s found in milk, and thus, the creamy, buttery goodness.
When chard is aged in stainless steel, oxygen never sneaks its way into the tanks. This allows the bright, zesty acid from the grape juice to express itself unencumbered, bringing the consumer wonderful citrus blossom, lime, and sometimes melon flavors. If these wines sound more appealing, search for chardonnay from New Zealand, the Casablanca Valley in Chile or the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
Oaked chardonnay will also allow for ageability. Oak provides structure and complexity, and these are the kinds of wines that cellar better than chardonnay fermented in stainless steel. If the wine has no oak, drink it young, cool and fresh. A creamy and buttery chardonnay can be served slightly warmer, at around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. This will release more aromas into the glass and will make the wine bolder and richer.
What is a queen without her palace? For chardonnay, the home and spiritual mecca for this grape is with-out question Burgundy. Historians and researchers have narrowed the birthplace of chardonnay to this region, dating back to the Romans, specifically in the Mâconnais district in Burgundy. Drinking Burgundy is a unique and visceral experience, and many professionals in the wine industry struggle to adequately describe what it is about this place and these wines that are so astounding.
In short, Burgundy produces two types of wine: pinot noir and chardonnay. Should the opportunity arise, drink chardonnay from Chablis, or my personal favorite, the Côte de Beaune, where the jaw-droppingly good Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet producers dominate.
In this incredibly hot season we are experiencing in South Texas, chardonnay can be both a friend and a godsend. Crisp and refreshing fruit flavors dance over the tongue in a generous display of hospitality, cooling and comforting the body from within.
She is a noble and beautiful grape, rich in history and flavor. Long may she reign.
Carlos Cardenas is an introductory sommelier and writes monthly wine columns for The Monitor.