Chardonnay, a grape, a white wine, a sparkling wine! What does it taste like? To answer this question you need to know more about its variations and origins. Chardonnay is a white grape variety which grows in many places around the world. There are more than 1,000 recorded chardonnay vineyards in more than 30 countries. Some of these vineyards are small and produce only a limited amount of chardonnay, while others are large and produce a large amount of wine from chardonnay grapes.
The variety, and the wine made from it, differ greatly depending on where it is grown and the winemaker’s exacting standards. The article below explores what chardonnay tastes like and why. The two main Chardonnay variations are crisp, chalky citrus fruit flavored and buttery round tropical fruit flavored wine. Sometimes the latter variety is combined with oak notes.
What Is Chardonnay?
Chardonnay is a hybrid of the Douais Blanc and Pinot grape. It`s among the top 5 grapes based on the prevalence of the grape. In Austria Chardonnay is sometimes called Morillon. Chardonnay grapes yield chardonnay wines as well as a number of sparkling wines. It`s the most important grape for the manufacture of champagne. The character of the wines varies greatly depending on the soil and climate where the grapes grow as well as the winemaker’s exacting standards.
In the 1990s wine markets were flooded with oaked chardonnay which did not do justice to the grape. Nowadays chardonnay wines which elaborate the fine, slightly acidic and fruity characteristics are common. You can still find a large number of oaked Chardonnay wines with a very fine balance between the wood aroma and fruity acidity.
The most expensive Chardonnay wines come from Burgundy in France. It`s the second most important grape next to Pinot Noir in Burgundy. Regarding price the rest of the world is still catching up to the Chardonnay wines from Burgundy. Looking at the quality, wine makers from all over the world are catching up to the high quality of Burgundy Chardonnays.
How Is Chardonnay Made?
When we talk about making chardonnay, we talk about how the grapes are processed. In chardonnay production, the grapes are harvested, and crushed to extract the juice to make the wine. The taste of the final wine strongly depends on the fermentation method. Chardonnay wines can be produced by classic fermentation or malolactic fermentation .
Malolactic fermentation (MLF):
The grapes are partially crushed, and the mash is layered with carbon dioxide to avoid oxidation of the grape juice. During this process tannins are liberated from the skins and stones. Grape juice, skins and stones are left for up to 24 h at controlled low temperature. Lactic acid bacteria which are present on the skins of the grapes start the malolactic fermentation (MLF). The bacteria turn malic acid which is naturally present in the mash into lactic acid and “diacetyl” (butanedione) as a by-product. Malic acid is associated with an acidic taste like green apples whereas lactic acid and “diacetyl” are responsible for a round, buttery taste.
The resulting wine is dry to medium dry as the natural acidity is partially removed by the malolactic fermentation. The aroma is still very fruity with a flavor of papaya, guava or mango.
The grapes are crushed, and the juice is separated. This way you avoid malolactic fermentation and keep the acidic characteristics of the chardonnay. Fermentation is carried out at low, controlled temperature. This fermentation is preferred in regions where the chardonnay grapes have a low natural acidity like in Australia or California.
The wine keeps its acidity and light fruit aroma like green apples, pear or citrus fruit. You can find these flavors in Chardonnay wine which grows in colder regions or at vineyards at higher altitudes.
What Does Chardonnay Taste Like?
The aroma of chardonnay can be expansive. That is honey, tropical fruit, herbs, vanilla, nuttiness, stone, or oak. The flavor of a chardonnay often mirrors the region where it`s produced.
Depending on the way the chardonnay grapes are fermented you obtain two different kinds of flavors, round, buttery, tropical fruit flavored or crisp citrus fruit flavored wines.
Round buttery flavored: These wines are produced using malolactic fermentation. They`re more common in Europe. The resulting wine is dry to medium dry as the malolactic fermentation partially removes the natural acidity. The aroma is still very fruity with the aroma of papaya, guava or mango. These wines are often elevated in oak barrels which is a good match to the buttery flavor.
Is Chardonnay Wine Sweet?
Depending on the elevage of the Chardonnay wine it can be crisp dry or buttery medium dry. Wines which are produced using the malolactic fermentation (MLF) yield dry to medium dry wines. The absence of acidity/malic acid which is removed during the malolactic fermentation makes them appear sweet.
Chardonnay which is produced without maltolactic fermentation (MLF) is often described as dry, crisp, or refreshing. The wine keeps its acidity.
Depending on your taste, Chardonnay is a versatile companion as it can be crisp with citric flavors or medium dry with rich fruity buttery aroma and a slight oak note!
What Are the Primary Flavors in Chardonnay?
During the winemaking process, the grapes are turned into wine and develop the primary flavors. During the fermentation and ageing of the wine the secondary flavors develop.
The primary flavors in chardonnay range from crisp, chalky citrus notes to rich notes like baked apple or tropical fruit. The primary aroma depends on the climate and time of harvest. Colder climates favor citrus notes whereas warmer climates produce richer notes. Chalky flavors depend only on the soil the grapes grow on. This combination of climate and soil is called “terroir”. It underlines the singularity of each vineyard. This is very prominent in the Chardonnay wines produced in the Chablis and Burgundy region.
The time of harvest influences the sugar content in the grape. The later a grape is harvested the more time the vine has to generate sugar. A higher sugar content masks the citrus notes and generates richer flavors like baked apple or tropical fruit.
What Are the Secondary Flavors in Chardonnay?
We just talked about the primary flavors of Chardonnay. The secondary flavors form during the fermentation and ageing of the wine.
Depending on the further production of the Chardonnay wine different secondary flavors form. In case the wine is stored in oak barrels or oak chips are added during the storage in steel tanks flavors form which otherwise can`t be obtained. These include coconut, cinnamon, vanilla or baking spices. The level to which these flavors form depends on the oak used (French vs American) or the toasting level of the wood as well as storage time.
A secondary aroma which comes from the winemaking are the buttery notes caused by the malolactic fermentation (MLF). Lactic acid bacteria which are on the grapes` skins convert malic acid into lactic acid and “diacetyl” (butanedione). “Diacetyl” is responsible for the rich buttery taste. Malic acid tastes like tart green apples whereas “diacetyl” has a rounder butterier note. In cases where a winemaker wants to reduce the acidic note malolactic fermentation (MLF) is used.
The Difference Between Oaked and Unoaked Chardonnay
Chardonnay is available as oaked or unoaked wine. So, what`s the difference except for the oak note?
A winemaker who wants to have a crisp, fresh tasting wine will ferment it in steel tanks without the use of oak. Fermentation in steel tanks at controlled temperature minimizes the contact with oxygen and preserves the crisp notes.
Chardonnay wines with rich notes are produced by partial or full MLF. The round, buttery notes suit well with vanilla and baking spice aroma. These come from the use of oak. The wine can either be stored for the entire time or partially in oak barrels. This depends on the desired level of oak notes.
Brioche aroma forms during storage of the wine over lees (dead yeast). The lees need to be stirred up on a regular basis to avoid the formation of bitter notes. This process is called batonnage.
The vanilla and baking spice aroma, together with round buttery notes, controlled oxygenation and brioche flavors are the stylistic antipode to unoaked chardonnay.
Chardonnay Taste Per Region
There`s no best Chardonnay region as the wine differs strongly depending on the climate and region. Therefore, it makes sense to group Chardonnay wines into warm climate and cold climate wines. You can find the two types of Chardonnay in these wine regions.
Cold Climate Chardonnay:
The flavors in chardonnay which grows in colder climates are chalky citrus or green apple notes combined with a mineral character. These wines are normally lower in alcohol.
France (Burgundy, Champagne, Chablis Region), Germany, Austria (e.g. Vienna) and Northern Italy.
Ontario (Canada), USA (California: Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast; Oregon), Australia (Tasmania, Mornington Peninsula), New Zealand, Casablanca and Chile.
Warm climate chardonnay:
You can find these wines in the new world and southern Europe. The wines have round buttery notes with tropical fruit aroma. Warm climate Chardonnay normally has a higher alcohol content than cold climate Chardonnay.
You may be able to find cold climate Chardonnays in regions where you would expect a warm climate Chardonnay. This is only possible for vineyards at higher altitudes and therefore lower temperatures.
Spain, Southern Italy
South Australia, South Africa, California
Best Chardonnay Food Pairings
Chardonnay pairs well with a large variety of food depending on which type of Chardonnay you`re drinking. Unoaked, crisp Chardonnay pairs well with seafood e.g. lobster, fish soup or grilled gamba prawns.
When pairing oaked chardonnay with food you need to avoid spicy and acidic food like tomatoes or tomato sauce as the acidity will make the wine taste sour. A good match with oaked Chardonnay is grilled salmon, grilled chicken or turkey. The remaining acidity in the Chardonnay will cut through the greasy taste and the buttery, fruity notes will complement the roast notes of the white meat. You can also pair Chardonnay well with hard cheese.
Chardonnay is a versatile grape which grows all over the world. Its wines offer flavors ranging from crisp citrus fruit notes to round buttery tropical fruit flavors depending on the region they`re produced. Oaked and unoaked Chardonnay wines give an even larger spectrum of possibilities to taste and food pairings – Enjoy!
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