The Chardonnay Way
Finding the right fit for fall
By Angela Sanchez
There are as many reasons why so many people, in so many places, love chardonnay as there are, well, chardonnays. It’s highly adaptable and easily grown in many soil types and climates. It’s easily influenced by where it’s grown and by the winemaker’s hands, with as many styles and price points as its broad range of appeal would suggest. But does anyone really know what chardonnay should taste like? If we compare chardonnay-to-chardonnay (like apples-to-apples), there are styles ranging from Golden Delicious to Pink Lady to Granny Smith. If you like big, rich, round and citrus; or bold, oaky and tropical; or lean, mineral lemon-lime characters (my favorite), there is a chardonnay for you. Oak bomb, butter bomb, or classically elegant and restrained, chardonnays in all these forms, and more, are out there.
Chardonnay’s origin is in the Burgundy region of France, where I believe it’s at its very best. Burgundy is where you find chardonnay based on true terroir. In Chablis, a cool climate with limestone soil, the chardonnay is crisp, lean and clean. Minimal oak aging is used. Those who like Domaine Dauvissat use it as a complement to the natural flavors of chardonnay and to round out its natural acidity, pronounced by Chablis’ cool climate. Others, like Domaine Louis Michel & Fils, use no oak on any of their chardonnays, leaving them in their pure form, racy and mineral driven. A mix of soil types and elevation in Burgundy make the malleable chardonnay grape show different characteristics from one growing region to the next. In Meursault, chardonnay is rich, buttery with some honeyed notes, while in the neighboring region of Puligny-Montrachet, hazelnut, lemongrass and green apples are the primary characteristics. North of Burgundy in Champagne, we find chardonnay used as a blending grape in styles like brut and sec. Or it can stand alone in its yeasty, nutty, racy beauty in blanc de blanc, a 100 percent chardonnay. In regions with cooler climates and limestone-driven soils, chardonnay lends structure and backbone to the blends and bright, focused acidity to the blanc de blancs.
Chardonnay is grown all over the world, in warm climates, cool climates and those that have heavy coastal influences. Each country and region produces a chardonnay of a different flavor. Add the light or heavy hand of a winemaker and chardonnay becomes something else altogether. California chardonnay is a great example. Cooler climates in Northern California, like Carneros, produce chardonnay with higher acid and more structure than those from warmer climates in the south around Santa Barbara and Santa Lucia Highlands. Whether naturally higher in acid or more round and lush (depending on the growing region), the winemaker can greatly influence the wine as well. For many years winemakers in the New World were heavy-handed with oak “treatments,” or aging in barrels and manipulating the fermentation process, creating wines that were overly weighty, with buttery notes and vanilla, or predominantly oaky. Big, mostly over-the-top California chardonnay became the norm. Nowadays winemakers show more restraint with their influence on the wines, resulting in cleaner styles that allow consumers to taste a difference from region to region based on elevation, climate and soil — the terroir. The trend is due both to consumers’ move to a fresher, lighter style of chardonnay and to their consumption of imported chardonnay from areas like France and Italy. Winemakers are also keen to let their region, vineyard and their own house style show through rather than producing and manipulating chardonnay to be oaky, buttery and slightly sweeter.
Something about chardonnay has always reminded me of fall; maybe it’s the golden-hued color, like the turning leaves and afternoon autumn sun. With cooler weather, I still like to drink white wines, maybe just not as crisp and light as in late spring and summer — something with a bit more weight and viscosity. Enter chardonnay. As a personal preference I choose to drink Burgundy. If I’m going big on spending and style, I’ll choose a Chablis or Puligny Montrachet or, for something more budget-friendly and offering a lot of wine for the money, a selection from the Mâconnais or Côte Chalonnaise. As always, I add a cheese to snack on with the wine. Stick to the old saying “if it grows together it goes together.” Triple cream Brie, with fresh cream added during the production process, produces a spreadable butter-like cheese that matches nicely. Brillat-Savarin cheese made in the Burgundy region is a classic example of the triple cream style. Small wheels, about one pound in weight, made from cow’s milk with a bloomy white rind, resemble perfect little cakes when whole and fresh. Cut into them and you’ll find a delicate soft cheese with sweet butter and slightly nutty notes. A little stronger cheese, but still with the same elegance and beauty, is Delice de Bourgogne. The addition of cream fraiche to the cheese makes it even more decadent and luscious with added notes of mushrooms and earth. Not to mention it is a dream companion with Champagne.
As you ponder the rows and rows of chardonnay at your local wine shop, or the wine list at your favorite restaurant, be bold and try something new. If you always drink California chardonnay, try Burgundy. Or vice versa. Grab some triple cream Brie and you just might find a chardonnay style that’s right for you. PS
Angela Sanchez owns Southern Whey, a cheese-centric specialty food store in Southern Pines, with her husband, Chris Abbey. She was in the wine industry for 20 years and was lucky enough to travel the world drinking wine and eating cheese.