Guide to Chardonnay
With a long and distinguished history, Chardonnay enjoys a very versatile image thanks to modern winemakers offering a huge range of styles and structures.
From the traditional and more expected buttery, oak flavours that assert presence and power, to the unoaked Chardonnays that boast fresh flavours of apple, pear, tropical, citrus and melon, allowing the varietal character to be in the spotlight. This white wine is certainly capable of accommodating most tastes and a large array of food pairing combinations.
Born in Burgundy
The beautiful Burgundy region of France is Chardonnay's proud motherland, and in France it’s often labelled as ‘white Burgundy’ (Bourgogne blanc). The Chardonnay grape is also one of the three grapes used in producing Champagne and other sparkling wines.
It’s considered a fairly low-maintenance vine that adapts well to many climates, adding to its high yield worldwide. And as it’s so adaptable, the grape becomes a blank canvas for winemakers to paint in any style they choose.
Chardonnay dropped a little in mainstream fashion stakes, and certainly in New Zealand, a movement towards more crisp, fruitful varietals like Sauvignon Blanc took hold. But Chardonnay makers have adapted well to the market, and the image of overripe grapes and industrious oak-aging is now complemented by new flavours and brands; fresh-faced and rejuvenated.
Here in New Zealand, Chardonnay is grown in most wine regions, with the biggest and most successful yields emerging from Marlborough, Gisborne and Hawkes Bay.
Chardonnay has one of the widest ranging taste profiles of any red or white variety. That’s because the flavours of are heavily influenced by climate and terroir, ripeness at harvest and like all wine, the methods of ageing.
In general however, Chardonnay is known to be a relatively dry, medium-bodied white wine emanating fresh, crisp notes of citrus fruit. Of course, add some of that famous oak to the ageing process, the flavours will shift dramatically – offering rich accents of butter, vanilla, English pudding and even pineapple.
When it comes to any Chardonnay, it’s all about reaching a pinnacle balance between richness and acidity on the palate.
Like all wine, the climate is a defining factor in defining a regional style. Warmer climates typically yield medium bodied, round, rich flavours and softer acidity.
Cooler regions will typically produce medium to light bodied wines with greater acidity.
But most of the well-known aromas of a traditional Chardonnay are due to the fermentation process (called malo-lactic fermentation) that occurs naturally in an oak barrel that transforms sharp, malic acids into soft lactic ones. This adds the ‘big’, buttery, creamy flavours that Chardonnay is traditionally celebrated for at dinner parties.
Our premium 2016 Tohu Hemi Marlborough Chardonnay is an example of this intricate, age-old process, where premium hand-harvested grapes are moved to old French oak barriques for fermentation after pressing.
‘New oak aging’ in a steel barrel (referred to as unoaked wine) is responsible for those modern, crisper, fruitier Chardonnays – much brighter and sharper on the palate. Such a process was employed to prepare our popular Tohu Marlborough Chardonnay (Unoaked) 2016.
Sometimes grapes will be fermented in steel barrels and then transferred to oak barriques to finish, to offer just a touch of spicy, rich French oak. A range of modern winemaking techniques were used in in the crafting of our 2017 Tohu Gisborne Chardonnay, allowing richness and weight to develop alongside natural citrus notes.
Chardonnay can be stored in your cellar for two to five years, which is not a particularly distinctive guide, but unfortunately it’s very dependant on the wine itself and how it has been stored.
To maximize the shelf life of an unopened bottle of chardonnay (or any wine), store in a cool, dark area, away from direct heat or sunlight. Try your best to keep the temperature steady.
When you’re planning to serve your prized bottle, remember that an unopened white wine should not be refrigerated until 1-2 days before drinking. This is not always possible of course with many whites from supermarkets or wine stores storing some wines in the refrigerator to meet the demand for pre-chilled bottles.
Storing opened Chardonnay
We recommend drinking your open chardonnay bottle within three to five days.
Once you twist the cap your wine is exposed to oxygen and bacteria, which begins to alter its colour, aromas and flavour. It’s best to sit in the fridge, with the cap back on.
If you’re concerned that the bottle may’ve turned, look at the wine in a clear glass for changes in colour and trust your sense of smell. If you detect an ‘off’ odour, flavour or appearance, it should be discarded.
You can of course use your discarded chardonnay for cooking – it goes particularly well in cream-based seafood dishes. You can even freeze it in an ice-cube tray and use in creamy stocks, gravies and broths later. Delicious.
How to serve Chardonnay
Chardonnay is a fuller-bodied wine with less acidity than other white varietals, so it’s structure won’t change when the temperature is slightly warmer.
In a perfect world, we’d recommend serving our Tohu range of Chardonnays at 11 degrees. But, of course, we don’t all carry around thermometers. So the golden rule is to simply let the bottle sit at room temperature for a few minutes before serving.
Chardonnay is best served in a glass that has a full, circular body shape. More like a red wine glass than a slim-lined white wine vessel.
Chardonnay will vary in terms of nutritional breakdown, especially as the fermentation process differs from brand to brand, season to season, and bottle to bottle.
But experts suggest that an average glass of chardonnay will contain around 120 calories.
Because Chardonnay is fermented from grapes some of the calories will be carbohydrates in the form of sugar, but the majority of calories stem from the alcohol content itself, which is usually around 11-14%.
Mass-produced wines often from overseas are more likely to be additive-rich. We recommend always checking labels.
In New Zealand, strict food safety regulations control the use of wine protectants or preservatives and all wineries are audited on this annually.
At Tohu, the concept of caring deeply for our lands and their rich and fertile condition create wines of personality and purity. We therefore use as little additives as possible and adhere to the strictest of standards. Our vineyards and winery are certified by Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand.
Pairing Chardonnay with food
Most chardonnays will go extremely well with fish (and fish pie or fish cakes) and shellfish, cooked in buttery or cream-based sauces. Chicken or pork dishes, in particular those that include peach, mango or macadamia nuts match brilliantly, as do mild curries with a buttery base.
If you have a more full-bodied, oak aged bottle on hand you can pair it with even richer food, such as steak béarnaise, grilled veal chops with creamy mushrooms, or butternut and pumpkin dishes.
Chardonnay is not so great with Asian-style dishes, or tomato based meals.
How does Chardonnay compare to other white wines?
Sweet to dry to rich – New Zealand’s white varietals cover a large spectrum. Here are some characteristics to expect from Aotearoa’s most popular commercial varieties.
Sauvignon Blanc: Unique, vibrant fruit flavours
Pinot Gris: Mouth-filling, refreshing acidity and marked fruitiness
Riesling: From bone dry to lush and sweet
Gewurztraminer: Breadth and weight, smooth texture, subtle acidity
Sparkling: Nutty, balanced with fresh fruit.