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Chardonnay guide

Chardonnay, the white grape of Burgundy, is the most planted white grape in the world. With its oaked and unoaked varieties there really is something for everybody.


What type of wine is Chardonnay?

Chardonnay is a dry white wine grown almost everywhere that wine is produced.It  is also often blended with other grapes such as Pinot Noir (in Champagne and other sparkling wines), and occasionally with Semillon and Chenin Blanc. 

Chardonnay is almost two different wines: oak-aged Chardonnay offers a creamy and rich taste while un-oaked Chardonnay provides a lean and dry, mineral-rich flavour.

Chardonnay history

Chardonnay is believed to have been introduced into France by the Romans and created as a result of a cross between the grape varietals of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. 

In the late 1970’s and 1980’s the USA market fell in love with Chardonnay and the Californian production of big buttery oak driven wines. This was partly driven by an historic tasting that took place in Paris, France in 1976 where a range of Californian and French wines were blind tasted by a group of France’s preeminent wine judges led by English Wine Merchant Steven Spurrier. The result for the white wines showed the Californian Chardonnay Chateau Montelena was judged as being a better quality wine than its french counterparts. This extraordinary outcome was labeled the Judgement of Paris and was the turning point for when Californian wines were seen as world class wines.

Chardonnay in New Zealand

New Zealand Chardonnay is now the third most planted variety in New Zealand. It was first planted at the Te Kauwhata Viticultural Research Station in 1951 by viticulturist Denis Kasza. 

Chardonnay was found to produce very good concentrated white wine, Chardonnay grapes were eventually planted widely, one of the early adoptees was Mate Brajkovich of San Marino Wines, now run by his sons and renamed Kumeu River Wines

Chardonnay is now widely planted in all New Zealand grape growing areas with the biggest plantings in Marlborough, Hawkes Bay, Gisborne, Nelson and Auckland, although every wine region is producing Chardonnay wine.

What does Chardonnay wine taste like?

Chardonnay is a still dry white wine that we would describe as non-aromatic. This is because in its wine making process the flavours and aromas are often added to and modified by the winemaker.

In New Zealand we have a range of growing conditions which affect the flavour of the wine.

In the cooler regions of Central Otago, Canterbury and even parts of Marlborough, the wines will be lean, crisp medium bodied with aromas and flavours of green plum, apple, pear and citrus.


"The overriding component in good Chardonnay is the desire to have another glass."


In the warmer Marlborough, Nelson and Wairarapa regions, look for aromas and flavours of citrus, white peach, nectarine and melon.

Hawkes Bay and Gisborne as well as northern Auckland will have pink Grapefruit, yellow peach, melon and sometimes fig.

Very hot regions of the world where Chardonnay is grown will have aromas of fig, tropical fruits, banana and mango.


Oaked or unoaked


Unoaked Chardonnay

This is where the natural flavours of the grape are championed and no oak contact in the wine is present. These wines will display the flavours of apple, apricot, grapefruit, melon, nectarine, pineapple or tropical fruits.

The flavours from cooler climates will be of grapefruit and apple and from a warmer climate, pineapple and tropical fruits (or a combination somewhere in the middle).

There are some very good unoaked Chardonnay, but it is often the addition of oak flavour and how that is achieved that takes the wine from the good to the great.


Oaked Chardonnay

The Chardonnay grape has a lovely affinity with oak flavours. Unlike red wines where the nearly finished wine is stored in oak barrels to age and develop, the Chardonnay grape juice (without the skins) is fermented in oak barrels, which imparts a range of flavours including caramel cream, smoke, spice, coconut, cinnamon, cloves and vanilla.

As the fermenting yeast die they form a sediment called yeast lees in the bottom of the barrel. By stirring the sediment routinely during the fermentation, a rich textural creaminess is imparted into the wine.

Where does Chardonnay get its buttery flavour?

Malolactic Fermentation (MLF) is where the harder Malic acid is converted into the softer Lactic acid and diacetyl which gives the wine a buttery flavour.

Traditionally wine merchants in the United Kingdom when purchasing wine in France would bite into a tart apple like Granny Smith containing high malic acid before tasting the wine. By increasing the level of malic acid in their mouth, they would highlight balance faults in the wine allowing better negotiation on price. 

When it came time to sell the wine, sample tastings would be served with cheese to increase the level of lactic acid, making the wine taste softer and smoother. Hence the saying, ”buy on apples and sell on cheese” in the wine trade. 

This is effectively what MLF achieves, making the wine softer and increasing the fruit flavours adding a buttery mouthfeel and often Hazelnut notes. As the development of more complex elegant wines continues, MLF levels are often restricted to only allowing a portion of the wine to go through the MLF process.

Chardonnay colour

  • Unoaked wines
    : When these wines are young, they will be lighter coloured, pale yellow with a green edge. As they age, the colour will become deeper and more yellow.
  • Oaked wines
    : the oak tends to add colour to the wine. When young, these wines will be an oily golden-yellow, with a greenish tint and a deeper colour than the equivalent unoaked with the same vintage. As the wine ages, it will increase in colour, loose the greenish hue and deepen in colour.

Tasting Chardonnay

Chardonnay wines should be bright and clear with a yellow hue. Aromas of fruit and vanilla oak should be layered and complex with a balance of aroma between the fruit and oak. The palate should emphasize the aromas and have a depth of flavour and mouth texture. When tasting Chardonnay we often refer to the four T’s;

  • Typicity - it should taste and smell like Chardonnay 
  • Texture - the mouth feel and weight of Chardonnay is very important, often there will be a rich creaminess to balance the acidity.
  • Tannins - as a white wine, Chardonnay will have some tannin content from the phenolics of the grape skin and the oak. These tannins should be in balance and add complexity to the wine.
  • Tension - a character relating to the interplay between acidity and and flavour intensity and tannin balance.
    But the overriding component in good Chardonnay is the desire to have another glass.
  • Choosing the right Chardonnay

    We are extremely fortunate that we can access very good Chardonnay at reasonable prices in New Zealand compared to other regions in the world. But, of course, not all wines are made equal.

    How much does Chardonnay cost? 

    Chardonnay is not an inexpensive wine to make. To achieve quality of fruit and flavour, the cropping levels of the vines are kept low, resulting in grapes which cost half as much again as say Sauvignon Blanc. 

    Add to that the cost of barrels, the intense hands-on winemaking process and the much longer production time and you have a wine that is probably costing twice as much to produce as Sauvignon Blanc.

    This is definitely a variety where in New Zealand you get what you pay for. There are a big group of really well made wines, which are great value in the $15 to $25 range. 

    Above this amount, particularly in the $25 to $35 range is real quality and great value. Some of our best wines are between $35 and $60 which is expensive but still great value when you compare equivalent French or California Chardonnays will be at least twice that price. So whatever you pay will be great value for the money spent.

    Chardonnay compared to other white wines

    • Chardonnay vs Sauvignon Blanc

      Sauvignon Blanc is an aromatic wine with pungent fruit and vegetal character along with fresh exhilarating acidity.

      Chardonnay, on the other hand, is a blank canvas for the winemaker to create from, so will have fruit notes with vanillin oak, softer acidity and layers of flavour and complexity. Chardonnay is great with food and Sauvignon Blanc is a great aperitif.

    • New Zealand Chardonnay vs Chablis

      Chablis is a region of North eastern France ⎌that is famous for its Chardonnay-based wines. Grown in chalk soils and made with minimal oak influence, these are wines that express apple green plum and flinty mineral flavours. 

      Our chardonnays tend to be richer with great depth of flavour and the fruit profile of citrus, peach, stone fruit and melon with softer acidity and vanilla oak notes. 

      It is well worth trying both these styles together to show the depth of flavour and difference that Chardonnay can display.

    • Chardonnay vs Riesling

      Riesling is another aromatic varietal with great acidity and citrus and floral notes. It can be made to be completely bone dry or lusciously sweet and almost anything in between. 

      The dryer styles show lemon and lime notes and are often quite delicately perfumed with aromas of white blossom. 

      Chardonnay is usually very dry with stone fruit and citrus notes and of course often has oak and much softer acidity. They also tend to be very full bodied when compared to Riesling.

    • New Zealand Sparkling Chardonnay vs Champagne

      In Champagne, 100% Chardonnay wines are labelled Blanc de Blanc (meaning white of white or white from white), although most champagne is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

      In New Zealand we tend to use similar blends and the same process so the flavour difference is more about where and how the grapes were produced than the process. 

      Champagne tends to display a chalky acidity, yeasty bread characters and a creamy textured fine bubble (mousse). New Zealand examples aren’t that different. The acidity tends to be a little fresher and more intense and the fruit a bit more apparent in younger wines. 

      Both styles are great drinking although the New Zealand wines will normally be less expensive.

    • Chardonnay vs Prosecco

      Processor is the sparkling wine of the Northern region of Veneto in Italy near Venice and is made from a grape variety Glera. It has aromas of green apple, honey dew melon and pear. Normally drunk as an aperitif, it can be produced from lightly sparkling through to a very fizzy wine. 

      A range of levels denote quality and price accordingly and the wine can be dry through to medium in sweetness. 

      Chardonnay, a still wine, will not have the level of acidity of Prosecco but will have much greater depth of flavour and complexity. Chardonnay tends to be a much better range of food matching.

    Chardonnay nutritional information


    Calories Carbohydrates
    120 calories in a standard glass 3.8 grams in a standard glass
    Alcohol Sugar
    On 13% Alc bottle 1.25 standard drinks per serving Less than 1 gram per glass

    Storing Chardonnay


    Unopened:

    Chardonnay will age for 4 to 8 years if kept away from direct sunlight in a stable cool temperature. Top quality Chardonnay will improve if kept for 2 to 3 years before drinking. 



    Once opened:

    An open bottle of Chardonnay will keep refrigerated for at least 2 days with little noticeable effect. This is based on the bottle being at least half full or more as it is the volume of wine to the surface area of air exposure that determines the speed of oxidation.

    There is little difference between oaked and unoaked Chardonnay although, as oxidation takes place, it is the fruit flavour which fades so it may be a little more noticeable in unoaked wines.

    White wines including Chardonnay are susceptible to spoilage from air getting through the top, usually from a faulty cork or damaged screw cap. The colour will tend towards yellow brown and deepen and the wine will smell odd, with little or no fruit character. If you encounter this, return it to your supplier for a replacement.

    How to serve Chardonnay

    wine serving

    Do not keep Chardonnay in the refrigerator for extended lengths of time but chill it to between 7 and 12 degrees C before serving. Often we serve Chardonnay too cold and inhibit the lovely aromas of the wine.

    Handy tip: Chill Chardonnay in the refrigerator for 30 mins before serving and remove from the refrigerator 10 mins before serving.

    Always serve in a clear glass and, if possible, with a stem and where the bowl of the glass is larger than the opening to concentrate the aromas of the wine.

    Always fill the glass to between one third and half full. Good wine glasses from companies like Spiegelau and Riedel are always worth buying as they are designed to enhance the flavours and enjoyment of the wine. 

    Chardonnay food pairing

    Chardonnay is one of the most food-friendly wines and is incredibly versatile. It will match most dishes we would pair with Pinot Noir, such as lamb and poultry as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have very similar weight, acidity and tannin flavours. 

    “Remember the golden rule. Whatever you like drinking Chardonnay with is always a great match!“

    Young Chardonnay is a perfect match with most seafood dishes; Kaimoana like scallops, crab, crayfish, lobster, white fleshed fish and salmon are a match boarding on perfection!

    Mature Chardonnay with its complexity, richness and more gentle palate will suit richer dishes with savoury flavours like chicken, veal and rabbit and dishes that include cream, cheese and garlic. 

    Chardonnay is also good with savoury desserts like poached fruit, but not with Chocolate.

    Avoid serving Chardonnay with spicy chilli or bitter dishes, so care must be taken when matching with Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern dishes.

    Read our guide to wine pairing

     



    Chardonnay cheese pairing

    When matching cheese with Chardonnay you need to be mindful of the level of oak in the wine. For unoaked wines match with soft white mould cheese such as Camembert or a soft fresh goats cheese. 

    Oaked Chardonnay suits fuller flavoured cheeses such as hard cow's milk cheeses, old and tasty Cheddars, soft creamy blue cheeses such as Gorgonzola and harder blue cheeses such as Shropshire Blue.

    Read our guide to matching wine and cheese

    Cooking with Chardonnay

    Unoaked Chardonnay is a great wine for richer foods providing richness and acidity in the cooking process. It is particularly suited to Italian, French and German cuisines - fish, chicken, spring vegetables, pasta and risotto. 

    Cooking with oaked Chardonnay is more difficult as the oak can dominate the flavour and contribute towards bitterness. This makes it better suit toastie flavours like pastry, and smoked and grilled dishes along with corn, butternut, potato, kumara and oven roasted vegetables. So American, Canadian, English and Spanish cuisines work well.

     

    A wine for all occasions

    Chardonnay has made itself at home in every grape growing country and displays the style, climate and character of wherever it's planted. 

    This is a grape that demonstrates diversity.

    From the most beautiful elegant sparkling wines, to lightly oaked floral, mineral wines with fresh crisp crunchy acidity. And, of course, the rich concentrated oaked wines with stone fruit, melon and fig adding to the creamy texture and long silky finish.

    Jim Harré - about the author

    After studying viticulture and winemaking at Hawkes Bay’s Eastern Institute of Technology, Jim worked several vintages, both in New Zealand and Internationally as a winemaker. 

    Identified as having a very good palate for quality assessment of wine, Jim has been a major part of New Zealand’s Wine Judging competitions for over 25 years. Now a well respected International Judge, he works as a Chair of Judges in Wine Competitions in USA, Japan, China, Australia and, of course, New Zealand. 

    He is also regarded as a world authority on the effect of how wine perception changes in aircraft, a panel chair at the world’s largest competition; the International Wine Challenge, held each year in London; as well as Wine Consultant to Air New Zealand.

    It is Jim’s love of education and teaching people about wine that makes him one of New Zealand’s most recognised Wine professionals.