Few grape varieties elicit a knee-jerk reaction like Chardonnay. It’s characterized as a heavy, opulent white wine, the antithesis to crisp, easy sippers like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Fans of Chardonnay’s buttery, vanilla-laden flavors can’t get enough, while naysayers adamantly refuse to try the wine at all. Love it or hate it, everyone knows what Chardonnay tastes like, right?
This image of “classic Chardonnay” is all a lie, a mere facade. Scrub away the thickly-coated makeup, layers of overripe grapes, new oak aging and malolactic fermentation, and the real Chardonnay appears, fresh-faced and rejuvenated. Yes, you do like Chardonnay — you just don’t know it yet.
The perception that Chardonnay is a full-bodied, fruit-forward wine with creamy, buttery, rich flavors is, ironically, due to the fact that the grape is actually quite neutral in character. Because it is both neutral and adaptable to many environments, Chardonnay becomes a blank canvas for winemakers to paint in any style they choose.
Today, Chardonnay is planted in every major wine producing country, which can greatly affect the structure and fruit quality of the resulting wine. Cooler climates produce Chardonnay wines with higher acidity, lighter body and restrained fruit character, while warmer climates can produce big, boozy Chardonnays with in-your-face flavors. Though it originally hails from cool-climate Burgundy, California Chardonnay is more pervasive in the American marketplace, which is why most wine drinkers associate the grape with this warm-climate, New World style.
Let’s strip Chardonnay down to its core. Structurally, the grape has above-average acidity and body, and while flavors can vary based on climate, Chardonnay is a fruit-forward grape, with notes ranging from fresh citrus to overblown tropical fruits. From there, anything is possible, as Chardonnay easily translates the terroir of the region in which it is produced. Chardonnay can have accents of subtle flower blossoms, raw almond, toasted nuts, parmesan cheese, mushroom, honey, white stone and more — not exactly the stereotypical descriptors of the grape.
Most of the well-known aromas and flavors associated with Chardonnay don’t come from the grape itself; they come from vinification processes often used for this grape. Malolactic fermentation — the secondary fermentation process that converts sharp malic acids into soft lactic ones — can add those buttery, dairy-like aromas and flavors, while new oak aging is responsible for those stereotypical vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg notes.
For those that firmly knee-jerk away from big, oaky Chardonnays, look to cooler climates instead, like the grape’s homeland in Burgundy. Chablis wines will shock newcomers with their citrus and limestone-driven austerity, while Chardonnays from the Mâconnais (where there is, in fact, a town called Chardonnay) are typically straightforward and value-driven, with fresh apple fruit.