Chardonnay is the most popular white wine in the world. The grape thrives in an array of climates and winemakers can manipulate its flavor and texture, resulting in a range of styles that appeal to many palates. What’s not to love about a grape whose wines can be either energetic or sultry, crisp or creamy, citrusy or tropical.
The manner that Chardonnay expresses itself depends on origin, climate and maturation vessel, so the best way to understand it is through comparative tasting. A side-by-side analysis is how pros recognize distinguishing characteristics.
Rather than searching for flavors when tasting, think about texture. Does the acidity feel sharp or round? Does the wine feel clean, like polished stainless steel? Or is it creamy, like milk?
Set up your tasting from three key categories: Old World versus New World; cool climate versus warm climate; and stainless-steel vessels versus oak maturation. Of course, you’ll need to pick up a few bottles, so we’ve included tips on what to pick up at your wine shop. Always feel free to ask your retailer for exact bottle recommendations.
Old World versus New World
Though this distinction is disappearing, a fundamental dividing line between Old World and New World wines still exists. When professionals conduct a blind tasting of Chardonnay, they often first determine whether it’s an Old World or New World wine.
The Old World encompasses Europe and the Caucasus, the origin of classic varieties where winemaking tradition and culture extends thousands of years. The classic Old World region for Chardonnay is Burgundy, France.
The New World entails pretty much everything else. Wine has been made in South Africa since the 15th century. In the Americas, it been produced for more than 500 years. But in comparison to Europe, they’re considered “new.” They have a more recent wine history and culture, imported European grape varieties and feature modern winemaking styles and climatic differences. A classic New World region for Chardonnay is California.
Old World vs. New World Chardonnay Flight
Wine 1: A classic Old World example of Chardonnay is Pouilly-Fuissé from Burgundy.
Wine 2: Chardonnays from Napa and Sonoma typically exhibit flashy New World flare.
Both distinctions offer clues. Old World wines tend to be leaner, more savory and carry a strong line of minerality. New World wines lean softer, riper and more fruit-forward. Old World wines often have lower alcohol and higher acidity. New World wines can have a polished, plump feel.
Pros often link words like “restraint” and “elegance” to Old World wines, but as styles change, these differences have diminished.
Nevertheless, with those qualities in mind, an easy flight to compare Old World and New World Chardonnay is pairing a Pouilly-Fuissé from Burgundy with a Chardonnay from Napa and Sonoma.
Cool Climate vs. Warm Climate
The comparison of Old World versus New World can be one of style, but styles are linked to climate. You couldn’t make a rich, fat Chardonnay in many regions of Europe because the sunshine, warmth and long dry season necessary aren’t there.
In the past, Old World regions typically had cooler, rainier climates than New World regions. Today, producers blur the lines. New World producers can mimic Burgundy through use of cooler sites, earlier harvests and less new oak. Cool-climate and warm-climate wines are no longer a distinction simply Europe the rest of the world.
Cool Climate vs. Warm Climate Chardonnay Flight
Wine 1: For a warm-climate Chardonnay, seek out examples from Stellenbosch in South Africa.
Wine 2: The coastal influence of Leyda Valley Chardonnays from Chile make them a prime example of a cool-climate expression.
What makes a cool climate wine distinct from a warmer climate bottling? It has higher acidity, more tart fruit and lower alcohol. In a warmer climate, wines lose acid faster and develop ripe, tropical fruit flavors along with higher alcohol and a fuller body. A cool climate can also be caused by elevation as well as latitude. That’s why regions with rising temperatures have begun to plant further up mountains where available.
The distinction between cool climate and warm climate wine is especially relevant to Chardonnay, since the grape’s texture and flavor profile mirrors its environment.
Stainless Steel vs. Oak Aging
Fermentation and maturation vessels play a big role in the final expression of a wine. Before stainless steel was invented, almost all producers matured in oak due to its wide availability, though some used cement tanks for fermentation. In France, oak came from forests like Limousin and Vosges. In America, white oak was hewn from East Coast forests.
In the 1950s, the advent of temperature-controlled, stainless-steel tanks changed white winemaking forever. Stainless steel retains fresh fruit flavors and prevents oxidation. Temperature control stops malolactic fermentation, the process that turns tart malic acid into softer lactic acid, and makes wines taste less sharp and more rounded. Malolactic fermentation produces the buttery flavor synonymous with some California Chardonnay. Thus, wines that only see stainless steel are often crisp, clean and youthful.
Stainless Steel vs. Oak Aging Chardonnay Flight
Wine 1: Look for bottles labeled “unoaked” from California or Australia.
Wine 2: Ask your wine retailer to match an oaked version from the same region.
Oak barrels, on the other hand, do three things. First, they impart flavors like baking spice and vanilla, with amounts dependent on the newness of the barrel and toast level of the wood. Second, wines in barrel are not temperature controlled and usually undergo malolactic fermentation. Third, through micro-oxygenation and stirring its lees (the dead yeast particles in the barrel) wines take on a richer, fuller, creamier texture.
To best understand vessel influence, seek out both an unoaked and oaked Chardonnay from the same region in California or Australia.