Chardonnay is the most planted white grape variety on Earth. For that, it shares the same position as Cabernet Sauvignon. However, that's where the similarities end. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay is not as distinctive in taste and therefore can often be confused with another grape. It is so malleable, that it's varietal character can disappear with the use of oak and other treatments.
In its classic style, Chardonnay is a medium to full-bodied white wine that often suggests hints of green apples, pears and, sometimes, spice. It can go from a simple cocktail wine to one of the most complex, long-lived dry white wines made. Recently, the debate on Chardonnay has centered almost exclusively on the use of oak. To oak, or not to oak seems to be the question. Oak adds flavors of spice and vanilla to the wine that many gravitate toward. Others think it obtrusive and distracting, but the time in and type of oak used along with the age of the barrels can impact the final wine quite differently. It's the winemaker's judgment call.
Unfortunately there is no way to tell when you look at the label how the wine is going to taste even knowing where the grapes were grown. You really have to rely on the producer and more importantly, your own experience with different producers. From dull and lifeless to oak and extract to light and delicate to tart and piquant, Chardonnay will fool more than it will be favored.
The principle factors determining the outcome of the finished wine are: the ripeness at harvest (riper grapes have less acid and are thus softer tasting); Malolactic Fermentation, the converting of the harsh malic acid (found in green apples) to the softer, creamer lactic acid (found in milk) thus the terms "creamy" and "buttery" are used to describe the wine; and finally oak. Whether used during or after fermentation, the age of the barrels and the length of time held, oak could either enhance or obliterate the flavors of the finished wine.
the low end, the wines have some similarity to Chile; light, simple
and refreshing. The upper end tends toward the California style
of big, buxom and oaky offerings that often intensify the oak by
using American wood.
styles are made in a bigger, riper style with appreciable oak. Some
wines from the cooler areas like Santa Barbara, Carneros and Mendocino,
make a leaner, crisper style, but the linchpin is always the presence
or absence of oak. Malolactic fermentation also plays a large role
as well. It gives the soft, buttery components that seem to be a
favorite of most consumers.
is the top of the world for Chardonnay. From the simplest, yet appealing
Macon to the gigantic and imposing Montrachets, no area offers the
presence and power of this grape like the Côtes de Beaune. Price
here, however, is not a guarantee of quality, although generally
the expensive wines are better than the less expensive wines.
of the Chardonnay is grown in the northeast, specifically Trentino,
Friuli and the Veneto. Those producers tend to make a lighter, less
oak influenced wine as has been the style for over a century. Small
pockets in Tuscany, Sicily and Piedmont produce handsome, large
scale wines that have rivaled the best in the world in both quality
cool climate here forces a predisposition to cleaner, crisper wines
with higher acids than most areas. But again, the style is still
up to the desire of the winemaker and, while plantings are increasing
here, there isn't enough around to form a consistent opinion regarding
the gamut from Australia's big, oak driven style to New Zealand's
crisper style. Still evolving, but promising
price point doesn't allow for much oak maturation or fermentation.
Thusly, most of their wines are of the lighter style with some oak
influence, but generally not a lot. Argentina has produced several
larger scale wines that mimic their California counterparts but
are not priced as high. Of course, that can always change.
comes from the northeast around Catalonia. They tend to be California
in style, but there's not enough with which to make a style judgment.
York's climate can create a wine with cleaner, crisper components.
Once again, the amount of oak will determine the outcome, especially
when combined with malolactic fermentation. Washington tends to
follow California's style. Oregon tends toward a leaner, less oak
calls it "Morillion" and makes some very unique and exciting offerings.
Mexico has had a few standouts on the Ensenada plateau.