Chardonnay is one of the world’s most widely planted, commonly drunk varietal wines. Experts consider the grape to be elegant and terroir-expressive, meaning it carries the characteristics of the soil and climate in which it’s grown. Yet, there’s a lot of unbalanced Chardonnay out there. Anyone who’s had an overly oaked, fruit-bomb bottle would be understood for never wanting to try the grape again.
An important variant in the final flavor of a Chardonnay-based wine is whether the juice is aged in oak. To understand how oak affects a wine and why winemakers choose to age wine in oak barrels, it helps to look at how barrels are used in Burgundy, France, which has been the world’s most famous Chardonnay-producing region for hundreds of years. In Burgundy, wine made from the highest-classified vineyards (the Grand Cru) is partly aged in new oak. These wines are barrel-aged because they are meant to be drunk with at least five years of age, and it takes that much time for the strong flavor of oak to become integrated into the wine. Neutral oak, which has been used several previous times and therefore imparts less flavor, is used for wine of lower classifications, or sometimes those wines will rest in stainless steel instead.
Chardonnay is one of the world’s most widely planted, commonly drunk varietal wines.
Another important factor in Chardonnay is malolactic fermentation—a process that takes place when wine converts its naturally present malic acid into lactic acid (and, as a byproduct, carbon dioxide). When this happens, the palate’s perception of acidity is lowered, and wine develops more mouthfeel (texture). Virtually all red wine goes through "malo," but with whites it’s up to the winemaker. Malo can either occur or not occur based on the temperature in a winery or by adding sulfur.
According to respected Napa Valley, California winemaker Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Wines, it’s very important when a producer harvests Chardonnay. An early harvest can result in grapes with very high acidity (grapes lose acidity as they ripen), which is why Matthiasson picks his fruit from the Linda Vista Vineyard, in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains (which divide Napa from Sonoma), two weeks earlier than other producers. The classic Napa producers Chateau Montelena—who famously won the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, when California Chardonnay trumped French for the first time—and Far Niente, both make wine from Linda Vista grapes, but they harvest much later than Matthiasson.
"In general, in California, you can lose the freshness if you go through malo," says Matthiasson. By comparison, in Chablis, France thanks to a much cooler climate, "you don’t lose the freshness if you go through malo because they start with a lot of acid." Overall, Matthiasson says that Napa Valley Chardonnay is more structured than its Sonoma counterpart, just on the other side of the mountains. "We don’t have as much plushness and the broad texture that you would find in Sonoma wines," he states.
An important variant in the final flavor of a Chardonnay-based wine is whether the juice is aged in oak.
Another excellent study of Chardonnay is its use in Champagne, where it’s referred to as blanc de blancs when the wine is made from 100 percent Chardonnay. Most Champagne is actually made from a trio of grapes—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier—but blanc de blancs wines typically have a richness and power that isn’t present in other Champagne blends.
Soil type in the Champagne region is an important factor in the presence of Chardonnay there. Wine importer Jenny Lefcourt of Jenny and Francois explains that chalk influences Chardonnay-based Champagne by lending structure, tension, and acidity to the wines. Charlie Woods, who brings in several top Champagne producers through his importing company Bonhomie, describes the unique terroir of the Chardonnay-heavy Villers-Marmery area, where finely crushed chalk sits at the surface, as "highly accessible to the roots of the vines, as opposed to neighboring villages where chalk is a solid mass composing the deeper subsoil" and where mostly Pinot Noir is planted. There are a lot of nuances involved in soil and grapes, and one could spend forever pleasurably studying these relationships. Regardless, below, an assortment of excellent Chardonnays to sample.
Chardonnay Bottles to Try:
Producer: Les Capriades
Wine: "Pièges à Filles" 2014
From: Loire Valley, France
Pétillant-naturel is a simple way to make sparkling wine, by bottling the juice during the fermentation process while it is producing carbon dioxide, a natural by-product of fermentation. Called pét-nat for short, it is not quite as carbonated as Champagne or champagne-method wines, and because it is unfiltered it will also contain a bit of sediment. In other words, it’s a fizzy, funky, easy-to-sip, low-alcohol wine, and your best friend for all casual situations when you need an easy quaffer. This nearly-100 percent Chardonnay pét-nat is nothing short of a perfect example of its kind. Made by a winemaking duo that focuses on pét-nat, this one is disgorged three times, which helps stabilize the wine without the addition of sulfur. This bottle is completely dry, clean and refreshing, with just enough fruitiness to make it interesting. Pair it with any fried, snacky food and close friends.
Wine: Blanc de Blancs 1er Cru
From: Champagne, France
A great Champagne at fifty bucks is as important as a reliable friend you know you can call when you need an ear: it will be there for you, to reset your mood. A sip of fifth-generation winemaker Marie-Noëlle Henriet-Rainon’s blanc de blancs is guaranteed to enliven your spirits; the wine is robust and just a little oaky, and totally dry, bright, and full of mouthfeel. This wine is made through a solera process, meaning that a base wine from 1968 is blended with the current harvest wine each year. Once mixed, the wine sees three years of lees-aging, when fermented juice is kept in contact with the dead yeasts and skins, creating a robust texture.
Producer: Jacques Lassaigne
Wine: Blanc de Blancs "Les Vignes de Montgueux"
From: Champagne, France
The Lassaigne estate, run by second-generation owner and winemaker Emmanuel Lassaigne, produces only blanc de blancs, nearly all from estate-grown fruit grown. The grapes for this particular wine are hand-harvested from nine different sites, in the hills of Montgueux, which has topsoil composed of flint and clay, and chalk underneath—making it ideal for Chardonnay, which develops tension and minerality from the chalk, and richness from the clay, according to Jenny Lefcourt, who imports Lassaigne’s wines. Malolactic fermentation takes place, and both new and neutral barrels are used, though the oak influence is almost completely undetectable. The wine is a great example of excellent blanc de blancs: elegant and finessed, with richness from the Chardonnay, and excellent acidity. It’s Champagne at its best: refreshing, dry, and crisp, and overall an excellent value at this price point.
Producer: Marnes Blanches
Wine: "Les Molates" 2014
From: Jura, France
The traditional way of making wine in the Jura, to the north of Burgundy in France, is to age it sous voile, when a layer of yeast forms atop the fermented wine, which lends a creamy, nutty, very strong oxidative flavor. But the ouillé style is a much milder approach, in which winemakers top up their barrels to prevent oxidation; there is still evidence of the Jura character in these wines, however. Marnes Blanches is a small family-run operation, founded in 2006. They have holdings in several locations, all organically farmed, and they harvest them all by hand and vinify them separately; the whites go through malolactic fermentation and spend 8 months in neutral oak. This wine is full of minerality, and smoky, nutty notes woven with a lemony kick. It’s a stunner. Paired with a hunk of aged Comté cheese—also produced in the Jura—it’s a complete knockout.
Producer: Patrick Piuze
Wine: "Terroir de Chablis" 2014
From: Chablis, France
Chablis, in France, is an appellation (technically within Burgundy, though geographically separate) that only makes Chardonnay. Chablis is beloved for its Kimmeridgian soil, rich with oysters from the Jurassic Era and limestone. Originally from Quebec, winemaker Patrick Piuze makes five different village wines, all hand-harvested, and each is a radically different expression of terroir. The fruit for the "Terroir de Chablis" wine comes from a north-facing vineyard near the Premier Cru site, Les Forêts. It is aged in stainless steel with spontaneous fermentation, and goes though malo. It tastes like classic Chablis, steely and bright, with stonefruits on the nose and a long, killer mineral finish. Have it as a lunch wine with sandwiches, or with oysters as aperitif.
Producer: Fanny Sabre
Wine: "Bourgogne Blanc" 2013
From: Burgundy, France
Bourgogne Blanc is the lowest wine classification in Burgundy, meaning the grapes can come from anywhere within the appellation, and these wines are usually wonderful, drinkable when young, and a great value. Thirty one-year-old Fanny Sabre inherited an estate from her father, who abruptly passed away in 2000, and her wines have become notably good. From 2000 to 2005, legendary winemaker Philippe Pacalet (nephew of Marcel Lapierre, one of the leaders of France’s natural wine revolution) served as a winemaking consultant. Fanny trained for one year with Pacalet before taking over the 4.5 hectare estate in 2006. Her Chardonnay is from certified organic vineyards near Meursault, and is made with native yeasts and fermented in three-year-old barrels. The wine sings with acidity, and the fruit is clean and pure. At this price, it’s a beautiful example of entry-level white Burgundy.
Producer: Steve Matthiasson
Wine: "Linda Vista" 2014
From: Napa Valley, California
In the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, the Linda Vista vineyard is one of Napa’s classic Chardonnay sites—it was planted by Beringer in the 1960s. The cool winds and clay soils here bring acidity and freshness, while the Napa sun gives flesh and ripeness. The Matthiassons (Steve and his wife, Jill) lease the vineyard and farm it themselves. "Linda Vista" is whole-cluster pressed, then fermented and aged in neutral barrels. In 2014, the acidity was very high, so the Matthiassons decided to allow two-fifths of the barrels to go through malolactic fermentation. With lemon, citrus, and honey on the nose and through to the palate, the wine’s bright acidity is balanced by pleasant fleshiness. Drink with roast chicken.
Producer: White Rock Vineyards
Wine: "Napa Valley Chardonnay" 2013
From: Napa Valley, California
A surprising fact about Napa Valley is that 95 percent of its wineries are family-run. White Rock is a great example of a true family operation; it’s currently headed by second-generation winemaker Chris Vandenriessche. White Rock makes two Chardonnay wines from estate-grown fruit planted just near their winery, and they are both exemplary of a balanced approach to the grape. This one only partly went through malolactic fermentation (10 percent), and then spent almost one year aging on the lees in neutral French oak. The result is a mingling of creamy texture, notes of green apple and ripe peach, and a layer of zesty lemon brightening up the entire experience. An excellent wine at this price.
Producer: Pyramid Valley
Wine: "Grower’s Collection" 2014
From: Marlborough, New Zealand
Mike Weersing and Claudia Elze Weersing founded their biodynamically farmed estate 15 years ago, and one taste of their Pinot Noir or Chardonnay will trump any idea you might have had about New World wines being less elegant than their Old World counterparts. The "Grower’s Collection" Chardonnay comes from a single vineyard grown on the Waihopai Valley's clay-limestone soils. Grapes are handpicked and whole-cluster pressed, then spontaneous fermentation and malolactic fermentation take place over ten months. The wine is then aged in used French oak. This is the first vintage Pyramid Valley is offering of this wine, and very small amounts were produced—only 168 cases. Expect rich flavors in this bottle: golden straw, acacia, honeydew melon, and a touch of buttered popcorn, laced with a lemony acidity.