Chardonnay is the world's most recognisable white-wine grape and, despite the current popularity of sauvignon blanc, it's still the most widely drunk white wine. In the United States, it amounts to 15 per cent of all wines consumed, surpassed only by cabernet sauvignon, which accounts for 16 per cent.
Chardonnay is an immensely malleable grape that shows many flavour profiles - a reflection of where the vines are planted and the talents of the winemaker, who nurtures it from vineyard to bottle. There's a style to suit every palate.
Having been fortunate enough to get five bottles of chardonnay made by the same winemaker, but in different styles, some friends and I held a tasting.
Crisp, lean and clean: this chardonnay was a pale straw colour with zesty acidity - lots of citrus and green apple with a bit of wet stone, which is a sign that it was made without oak. The best examples of this style are from Chablis and Petit Chablis, where the wines are usually vinified in stainless-steel tanks. A delicious aperitif wine, it goes well with oysters, as well as any other type of shellfish that is simply prepared. Other great examples can be found in Friuli, Italy; Willamette Valley, in Oregon, in the United States; and Yarra Valley, in Australia. This is a recent trend in Australia, where there are a number of winemakers who label their chardonnays "unoaked", to show consumers that it is a distinct style of wine.
A little bit of creaminess: a chardonnay with a bit of buttery character is one that has gone through malolactic fermentation. What's that? It is a secondary fermentation using a healthy bacteria called Lactobacillus (also found in milk, butter, cheese and yogurt), which converts the naturally occurring malic acids (think Granny Smith apples) in the wine to a softer lactic acid. This gives the chardonnay a buttery richness, which (to use geeky winespeak) is a diacetyl derivative of lactic acid. Another good description for this style of wine is "creamy". Where is it made? Look for bottles from Pouilly-Fuisse in Burgundy, France, Sonoma, in California, and Tasmania, in Australia. These wines are generally produced in stainless-steel tanks.
Neutral oak, barrel fermented: this style of chardonnay has subtle hints of vanilla. The fruit shows more complexity - there are stone fruits such as peach and nectarine, along with a bit of buttery toast (that's the diacetyl coming through). The best samples of this style are made in Meursault, Burgundy; Russian River, Sonoma; and the Margaret River region in Australia. A good pairing with this style of wine would be very ripe brie.
French oak, barrel fermented: a chardonnay that undergoes fermentation in oak will take on a rich golden hue. More intense flavours abound - there are riper stone fruits, along with a bit of mango and pineapple. A long finish, with lingering almond and toasty, buttery vanilla on the palate. Who makes this? Look no further than the Napa Valley, in California; the Hunter Valley, in Australia; and Puligny-Montrachet, in Burgundy (if you're splashing out). French oak barrels are expensive - prices start at US$1,200 and more depending on the forest that the trees are from and the tonnellier (the person who makes the barrel).
American oak, barrel fermented: this is a no-holds-barred, full-on chardonnay. It has strong flavours of vanilla over the fruit; there are ripe tropical flavours of coconut, pineapple, papaya and guava at the front with toasty hazelnuts and a bit of butterscotch on the finish. Who makes it? Sonoma-based Kendall Jackson's Grand Reserve or La Crema, from Monterey, are both good bets for this flavour profile.
How the chardonnay is fermented gives vastly different results. Fermenting in stainless steel creates fresh fruit characters - think citrus. Using a barrel gives the wine softer fruits and a bit of creaminess, and the wood from the barrel will also impart its own character to the wine.
Barrels are a huge investment for any winemaker. French oak is expensive compared with American oak, which costs, on average, US$500 per barrel. The degree to which a barrel is toasted has a lot of influence on a wine - a light toast imparts vanilla flavours, medium gives more roasted nut flavours and a heavy toast will add smoky notes. A new barrel will give the wine the most intense flavours and, as it is gently recycled, it will have less of an effect. Once a barrel is five years old, it is considered "neutral". The French treat their oak trees as a crop - the trees are usually 80 to 125 years old before they are felled to make barrels, whereas American oak trees average 25 years when they are cut. French oak has a finer grain than American, and the trees were originally used in shipbuilding. American oak has more vanillin compounds, is more astringent (which means it enhances the acids in wine) than French oak and, over time, is more watertight.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers.