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Chardonnay - Profiled

Native to Burgundy and a descendant of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay is an abundant and versatile grape with an outsized influence on the white wine world. Adopted by vineyards across the globe, Chardonnay's proliferation has resulted in an enormous range of different styles and expressions of flavor - not all of which do justice to this beautiful little grape.

Despite its popularity, early budding makes Chardonnay vulnerable to spring frosts, resulting in a high-risk and high-reward grape. This duality has been heightened by the temperature fluctuations of global warming, which have been both a blessing and a curse to vignerons. On the one hand It’s why Burgundy Chardonnay vintages have consistently topped the charts for excellence for over a decade now, but it's also why yields in 2021 hit lows not seen since the 1970s.

But whether it's the crisp minerality of citrusy Chablis or the rich, golden and ambrosiac aromas of an oaked Côte de Beaune, there’s a reason winemakers are willing to take these risks: Burgundy Chardonnays are simply incomparable to any other wine in the world. 

So without further ado, here is Chardonnay: profiled.

The Grape

Chardonnay vines are vigorous, lively, and robust, adapting themselves to a wide range of soils and growing conditions. Left unchecked vines will rapidly proliferate both upwards and outwards, developing extensive leafy coverage and spreading to occupy nearby terrain.

Due to its extensive canopy, Chardonnay requires diligent pruning and canopy management to reach its highest potential. By pruning away greenery, the energy and nutrients drawn from the sun and soil can be funneled into the grape itself, instead of into the leaves and vines. This produces a more concentrated and flavorful grape juice, and a more delicious wine. 

Because of its energy and adaptability, Chardonnay is relatively easy to cultivate, making it a reliable starter grape for new wineries looking to enter the international market. An unfortunate side effect is that the global wine market is saturated with relatively low quality Chardonnay wines, giving the grape an undeserved poor reputation.

The Catch

For all its robustness, Chardonnay's tendency to bud early in the season can represent a considerable risk to grape growers.

In years where a cold winter is followed by a warm spring and summer, early budding presents no problem. But a warm winter followed by a cold snap in spring is incredibly damaging to Chardonnay. New buds are sensitive to cold, and an early frost can result in significantly reduced yields. 

This is exactly what happened in France in 2021. An unusually warm winter encouraged early bud break, followed by a nearly unprecedented three-day deep freeze in mid-April, killing the new growth and nascent fruit. Losses in yield were as high as 90% for most Burgundian white wine vineyards. While less severe, April frosts have resulted in low yields in 2016, 2019 and 2020 as well.

Some temperature fluctuations are of course entirely natural, but climate change has made these swings more extreme and unpredictable than ever before. 

The silver lining is the attendant increase to overall temperatures, which have resulted in an extended growing season. Chardonnay has long suffered from underripiness at harvest, and with more time to ripen and mature, the grapes that have made it to harvest through the hazards of spring have been of great to exceptional quality for every Chardonnay vintage since 2009.

The Flavor

Like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay is famous for its 'blank canvas' quality. Grapes will produce vastly different wines depending on local features like sun, soil, climate, exposure, drainage, and producer practices, leading to a bewildering variety of possible flavors.

In cooler regions like Burgundy, Chardonnay produces crisp, mineral, citrusy, slightly saline wines. Like a bubbling stream of pure spring water running over a bed of crushed stones, Chardonnay from cooler regions are all about clarity, purity, energy, balance, and an elegant acidity that makes the wine sing. 

In warmer temperatures, Chardonnay begins to express fruitier notes; from yellow apple, pear, and honeydew melon in warm and mild climates to pineapple, mango and guava further south. Riper grapes tend to result in rounder, juicier wines with less zippy acidity.

Another important factor is whether or not the Chardonnay is “oaked”, or stored and aged in virgin oak barrels. Oaking changes both the flavor of the wine, adding toasty and spicy notes, as well as the texture, making the wine softer and creamier on the palate.

Some producers put oak chips in barrels to crank up these woodsy flavors. While this practice is rarely employed in Burgundy, it is popular in California, which has a reputation for very oaky and juicy chardonnay wines. 

This isn't the case everywhere though. In an attempt to simulate the lower alcohol, crispier and more refreshing style of Burgundy, some California producers are planting vineyards along the cooler Sonoma coast, where the wind and rain of the Pacific ocean somewhat temper the hot California sun.

Burgundy and the Influence of Terroir

While delicious Chardonnays are produced the world around, the best Chardonnays are still considered to be those made in Burgundy. The climate perfectly encapsulates the best of what Chardonnay has to offer. From the cool crispy whites of northern Burgundy to the rich, golden and lightly oaked wines of the south, hilly terrain means grapes can be grown on the sunny, south-facing slopes for riper, juicier flavors, or in the shadier areas for a quiet, floral elegance.

Like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay shines brightest in Burgundy because that’s where the variety originated, and winemakers have had generations upon generations to refine their techniques. From parent to child, each has learned to coax out the absolute best flavors their terroir has to offer over time, adding their own philosophy to create a generational winemaking tradition unique to the region. 

After all, is there a better match for a grape that expresses the best of its terroir than a region where winemakers have been perfecting their craft for generations?

Food pairings

Unlike fruitier, oakier and bolder Chardonnays of California, which can overwhelm the flavors of most dishes they’re served alongside, the complexity and nuance of Burgundy whites makes them perfect accompaniment to a wide range of dishes - no surprise given the culinary gourmet reputation of France.

In terms of complementary flavors; crisp, mineral-focused and zippy Chardonnays pair excellently with oysters and other seafood, which have a salty minerality of their own. The refreshing acidity and citrusy flavors meanwhile elevate the whole into an experience that's more than the sum of its parts. 

For contrasting flavors, pair these with flavorful cheeses like brie or blue, where the crisp chardonnays provide a clean counterpoint to the rich cheese, cutting through that creamy funky flavor to refresh the palate between every bite. The same can be said for rich white-sauced pastas like carbonara or alfredo.

Fuller, rounder and more fruit-forward chardonnays also pair well with most dairy-based dishes, while bolder, buttery and oak-aged chardonnays can be served alongside slightly more robust foods like roast chicken or grilled fish. 

White Burgundy should generally be served cool enough to keep the flavors tight and crisp, without being so cold as to dull the delicate fragrance of the wine - around 50-55 °F. An easy rule of thumb is to store your whites in the fridge for a couple hours and remove them 15 minutes before drinking. If you live in a hot climate, it’s better to serve it straight from the fridge - A little too cold is better than a little too warm.

If you don't finish the bottle in one sitting, remember to store the bottle vertically when you put it back in the fridge. This minimizes the surface area in contact with the air in the bottle, and helps the wine stay fresh for longer.


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