Lookin' Good at 58

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Chardonnay , unlike Pinot Noir last week's grape variety , is very easy to grow. It can grow in warm or cool climates and this together with it's world wide popularity makes this grape the vitner's favourite.

It buds early and ripens early just after the Pinot Noir so it makes for a good grape to grow where the season is short. Ripening early it can avoid the rains in autumn which can dilute the finished product , but in hot humid areas it is susceptible to rot which is combatted with spraying sulpher on the vines. Because it buds early , in the cooler climates such as here in Canada , or France , it can be affected by a Spring frost.

To protect the buds during bud break from the frost which would kill it , the vitner will sprinkle the buds with water to act as a shield to protect it. Sounds weird when you think of protecting something from frost by sprinkling it with water but this outer coating protects the bud from the impending frost. The water coating freezes but not the buds underneath. This is called "aspersion."

Chardonnay grows well in warm weather as well but the vitner has to be ready to pick the grape when it is ripe and not let it overripen or the wine will be on the flabby side. Chardonnay has low to medium acidity to begin with and a high alcohol so you want to pick it immediately when it is ready especially in these warmer climates.

Flabby meaning that when you taste it the acidity is lacking. Try a Gewurztraminer and see what low acidity is when you get a chance. Sort of like drinking oil. Okay that is my opinion only.

Chardonnay is one of the few grapes that as long as the soil is not the richest or wettest it can grow without problem. Like most grapes where the soil is not very fertile it will grow best with the roots going deep to get their nutrients. The best wines are when the grapes have to work the hardest. It responds well to irrigation and soils where calcium , limestone ( which gives nice acidity to the finished product), chalk ( in Champagne where Chardonnay gives the fizz longevity characteristics), and sandstone are found.

What is really nice for the winemaker is Chardonnay is a neutral grape and he can do whatever he pleases to suit the market to which he wants to sell.

It easily takes on the characteristics of the terroir upon which it grows. In cool weather climates , Chardonnay takes on aromas of green apples ,minerally and citrus notes while in warm weather climates it can take on the aromas of mango , pineapple , melon , and peach.

Chardonnay takes well to new oak which gives it a nutty , toasty , vanilla flavour giving the wine more complexity as it matures and better texture.

A secondary fermentation takes place with Chardonnay called the malolactic when the harsher malic (appley) acids are converted into softer lactic ( milky) acids. This occurs naturally when ageing in barrels under the influence of lactic bacteria and heat usually in the following Spring after fermentation. This gives the wine a buttery , creamy texture. This happens in Burgundy where Chardonnay can be drank up to 10 years after bottling. Most Chardonnay should be drank within 4 years though and that only depending on the quality. Others much sooner.

Chablis is all Chardonnay grape and this wine is distinctive because of the flinty , minerally , green apple aroma charateristic of a cool climate. The interesting thing about Chablis is it is a part of the Kimmeridgian shelf which stretches from Dover England. At one time Chablis was under water , believe it or not , so there is a lot of shells and limestone in the soil. Is it any wonder then that Chablis' Chardonnay possesses good acidity and is a natural food pairing with oysters and other shellfish. You will not see Chardonnay in new oak here as it is unsuited for aging whereas in warmer climates you will see the oak such as those oaky California whites where the oak overpowers the wine. It appears so much so that a lot of winemakers are shying away from a lot of oak influence. The Hunter Valley in Australia makes a Chardonnay that takes on butterscotch flavours due to it's warm climate. In fact , except for Chablis where little oak is used if Chardonnay has no oak it will usually say " unoaked Chardonnay."

When it is necessary in cool climates chapitalization is allowed when a little sugar is added to boost the alcohol and in warmer climate acidification is allowed usually tartaric acid to boost the acidity.

What you should look for in a Chardonnay when you are tasting one is first take a look at it's color. If it is pale yellow with a tinge of green it probably should be a wine from a cool climate like Chablis and it should have some good acidity , no oak , and be minerally , flinty , and tart fruit like apples and grapefruit on the nose.

A Chardonnay that has a yellow straw color shows the oak influence. It will have the vanilla toasty trademarks of an oaked Chardonnay with tropical fruit on the nose.

Chardonnay is grown everywhere and although Burgundy has it's birthplace on the Cotes de Beaune and Chablis it can be found everywhere.

Some other places noted for Chardonnay is the northern part of the Sonoma Valley and cool parts of the Napa Valley. Italy is making a Chardonnay now in the Alto Adige region unoaked. Oregon's premier white wine growing grape is Chardonnay and the Finger Lakes in New York produce good Chardonnays. The list goes on and on but the aforementioned are some of the best areas for Chardonnay.

Food matching wise ,

Chablis - with oysters and the Grand Cru Chablis should have enough weight to handle a richly sauced fish dish such as Turbot or salmon.

Maconnais and Chalonnais - lighter wines than the Cotes de Beaune these are good wines for fish and poultry and ham as well.

Cote de Beaune - big Chardonnays like Puligny Montrachet and Meursault goes with Lobster and big heavy fish dishes.These wines are the special occasion wines.

Vins de Pays d'Oc - these wines are light and are good with poultry and herb , garlicky fish dishes. This area of France is the Vins de Jardin ( garden ) so any dish with herbs , garlic , etc. matches well with this kind of food.

Champagne - food match is anything. When I did the Food and wine Pairing exam I was only allowed to pick Champagne once.

Californian chardonnay - because of the heavy influence of oak the wine is not a great match for a lot of food but with the smokiness of the wine it is good with smoked fish like haddock or tuna , duck or pork that has bell peppers and peppercorns to match the wine. They say popcorn is a good match as well with oaky Chardonnay.

Australian Chardonnays that are unoaked go well with spicy foods. They resemble a bit like Chablis because they grow in cooler regions such as Yarra Valley. The Hunter Valley where it is real hot make a Chardonnay which is exotically fruity and not a good food match at all unless it is drank young with a full flavoured food to match it like duck a l'orange.

I guess I can go on and on but I hope you have enjoyed this rather long post. It is a huge topic to talk of , this Chardonnay grape , but one that deserves some attention when writing of it.

Next week I will have another grape variety for you. Thanks and any comments are always welcome.


MikeTheWaiterDotCom said...

You never cease to amaze me, Steven. Do you write this stuff off of the top of your head? I Love and will find applicable in my everyday service the part about the distinctions in color for oaked or unoaked. By your climate comments, I trust that the Willamette & Washington state wines tend to be unoaked?
Happy Thanksgiving, mw

Waiter Extraordinaire said...

Mike...Cooper Mountain Chardonnay from Oregon is barrel-fermented. Outside of Chablis nearly all Chardonnays would see some oak unless they state otherwise. How much is up to the vitner , climate the grape grows in , etc. Even what clone of Chardonnay it could be.
As far as knowing this from the top of my head I know some but some I look at my notes and books. It is vast and it is a good review for me while I do this. It is a time consuming post.
I have been reading your post and sorry I haven't commented yet.I am having trouble with this Wordpress log in. Happy Thanksgiving to you.