Chardonnay is the most popular wine in America. It’s 20 percent of all the wine we buy in shops and supermarkets, according to a Nielsen survey.
It’s that popular because it can be all things to all people, from lean and crisp, scented with green apples and minerals to lush, buttery, oaky wines that taste like tropical fruit.
Why do different chardonnays taste so different from each other? There are many reasons, which, taken together, demonstrate the fuss and bother to which grape growers and winemakers go in making their wines.
For starters, chardonnay is a rather neutral grape, a malleable wine, a blank slate on which growers and winemakers can demonstrate their genius or lack thereof.
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Here are examples of chardonnay’s varied styles and some hints on how they are achieved.
▪ 2013 Ponzi Wines Reserve Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, Ore.: tropical fruit aromas, lush and fruity, with flavors of oranges, bananas and caramel, opulent, full-bodied, long finish; $35.
Ponzi ferments its chard in French oak barrels, uses a secondary “malolactic” fermentation that turns the wine’s sharp malic acids to softer lactic acids similar to those in milk, also stirring the “lees” of grape skins in the bottom of the bottle, all seeking that opulence.
▪ 2014 Wente Vineyards Eric’s “Small Lot” Chardonnay, Livermore Valley, Calif.: lean, lively and crisp, with aromas and flavors of lemons and green apples; $28.
Wente’s chardonnay is fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks, with no oak barrel aging, seeking that crispness.
▪ 2014 Alamos Chardonnay, Mendoza, Argentina: lush yet crisp, with aromas and flavors of mangos, ripe pears and spice; $13.
Alamos’ Chard is grown 5,000 feet up the Andes Mountains, where intense sun ripens the grapes and hot days and chilly nights preserve its crisp acids.
▪ 2015 “Tall Sage” Chardonnay, by Goose Ridge Vineyard, Columbia Valley, Wash. (92 percent chardonnay, 5 percent roussanne, 2 percent sauvignon blanc, 1 percent viognier): floral, spicy aromas, complex flavors of ripe pears, apricots and mangos; $10.
This chard shows how greatly flavors can be enriched adding even small amounts of other grapes.
▪ 2014 Joseph Drouhin Macon-Villages, France (100 percent chardonnay): floral aromas, flavors of wet stones, vanilla and ripe peaches, crisp and lean; $14.
Macon-Villages, in the France’s Burgundy region, has chalky soil that imparts the wet stone flavor.
▪ 2014 Kendall-Jackson “Vintner’s Reserve” Chardonnay, Calif.: aromas of vanilla, flavors of pineapples and other tropical fruits plus lemons and limes, rich and hearty; $17.
KJ seeks complex flavors by sourcing grapes from Monterey, Santa Barbara, Mendocino and Sonoma counties.
▪ 2014 Adelaida Chardonnay, “HMR Vineyard,” Adelaida District, Paso Robles, Calif.: aromas of camellias, flavors of freshly baked bread, baked apples and spice, crisp; $40.
HMR is a “single vineyard” wine with all grapes from one vineyard near the Pacific Ocean with limestone soils and 50-degree daily temperature swings.
▪ 2014 Kunde Family Winery Chardonnay, Sonoma Valley, Calif.: hint of oak, aromas and flavors of ripe oranges and yellow apples, crisp acids and a rich, creamy body; $18.
The grapes come from Sonoma Valley, one of the world’s greatest wine regions with its long, cool growing season. A Sonoma chardonnay beat French white Burgundies in the famous 1976 blind tasting called “Judgment in Paris.”
▪ 2014 J Vineyards & Winery Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma: hint of oak, complex and lively blend of ripe pineapples, creamy body and tart green pear finish.
Russian River Valley may be Sonoma’s top growing area, with cool weather for crisp acids. J Vineyards adds complexity with oak-barrel fermentation for richness.
▪ 2014 Franciscan Estate Chardonnay, Napa Valley, Calif.: rich and heady, with flavors of ripe apples, vanilla and chalk, long, intense finish; $18
Napa is another world-class grape growing region.
▪ 2014 Robert Oatley “Signature Series” Chardonnay, Margaret River, Australia: hint of oak, aromas and flavors of peaches and apricots and lemons, lean and crisp; $17.
Australia’s Margaret River region is said to have a climate similar to that of France’s Burgundy region, with a consistent, moderate climate with many rain-free days during the growing season and gravelly soils.