Like a chameleon tweaking its pigmentation to blend into its environment, chardonnay’s versatility knows few bounds. It can be left “naked” or treated with oak, undergo malo-lactation, be aged sur lie (French for on the lees, the sediment of grape particles and dead yeast cells that accumulates during fermentation) or even blended with other grapes, with each bottle revealing a diverse profile.
It’s a happy-go-lucky grape known by many as the “vineyard growers dream” — easy to please, no hassle, grows in diverse climates, diverse soils and, to the growers’ pleasure, produces incredibly high yields.
It is no wonder chardonnay lines the retail store shelves in so many styles and price ranges.
Even with its range and versatility, not all chardonnay is created equal, with some regions producing distinctive styles.
PLAYING IT COOL
Chablis is the coolest part of Burgundy and is noted for its unique Kimmeridgian soils (soil with fossilized shells). This combination of climate and soil means the chardonnay grape must struggle to ripen, resulting in a more steely, crisp style, quite unlike the full-bodied flavors from warmer climates.
- 2010 Joseph Drouhin Chablis, France (about $26 retail)
- 2010 Jean-Marc Brocard Monte de Tonnerre Chablis, France (about $47 retail)
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
Comprising the southern half of Burgundy’s famed Cote d’Or (slope of gold) is the Cote de Beaune, Chardonnays’ sacred ground. Chardonnay from this region is considered to be the best of the world.
To really get to know the homeland in which chardonnay is worshiped you will need to get to know the various regions because the styles can range from buttery, creamy, nutty and even light-bodied depending on the producer and vineyard.
The producers tend to use a mixture of used and new oak for their best chardonnays.
- 2009 Olivier Leflaive Puligny Montrachet, France (about $64 retail)
- 2009 Girardin Les Combettes Puligny Montrachet, France (about $90 retail)
California chardonnay is extremely varied, from rich complex styles to the heavy, high alcohol sweet styles. And with the varying styles come a range in prices. You’ll find some of the most exceptional examples of this grape’s complexity in the cooler regions of Sonoma, Napa and Carneros.
- 2010 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Chardonnay, California (about $22 retail)
- 2009 Kistler Les Noisetiers Sonoma Chardonnay, California (about $70 retail)
Australian chardonnay has a distinctive citrus, lime flavor when grown in ideal conditions and with a reliable producer. (The best are Adelaide Hills or Margaret River.) If the wine label simply states “Southeastern Australia” or “Australia” without listing a specific region it is most likely made with blended fruit from numerous regions.
These blends may make great bargains, but they are not for aging.
- 2010 Grant Burge Chardonnay, Australia (about $26 retail)
- 2010 d’Arenberg Lucky Lizard Chardonnay, Australia (about $49 retail)