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The “Queen of Whites,” Still Reigns

By Liza B. Zimmerman

Chardonnay was one of the first wines people used to order by the glass. It was once seen more a consistent commodity, like gemstones or detergent, than a hugely diverse grape varietal. Of course the bulk of consumers who were sipping it by the carafe probably weren’t aware of its pedigree and history.

Its homeland is Burgundy, where is the sole grape behind some of the world’s best, and most expensive wines. The grape is a leading player in California and Washington and is grown everywhere from Long Island to Northern Italy and South America.

The California trend in Chardonnay was all about the oak in the 1980s and 1990s. U.S. consumers couldn’t get enough of it for years so there was a shortage in the 1990s. As New World producers regrouped, revaluated the grape and did research on its Burgundian roots the styles of Chardonnay produced started to evolve.

Many completely unoaked or very subtly oaked Chardonnays are produced all over the world today, most notably in New World regions such Argentina and South Africa. Some wineries have even gone to the advance extremes of not using any oak at all as element in its production so many of the more modern versions can seem unstructured and potentially unbalanced.

It is grape than can be grown in many climates and diverse growing conditions. It generally produces good yields and is not a terribly finicky grape to harvest. It has also long been a winemaker’s favorite to use as a component in traditional blends—such as White Bordeaux—and all kinds of unusual ones. It is also one of the key three grapes used to make Champagne and traditionally produced sparkling wines. Blanc de Blancs are sparkling wines made only from the Champagne grape.

Styles and Pairings
Depending on where Chardonnay is grown and how it harvested and aged, the final product it produces can vary enormously. The less oak-influenced versions tend to be the food friendliest. Some of the toastier versions are constant companions for porch sipping and easier to enjoy without food and as they may appear to be, or be, less acidic.

The great white Burgundies can stand up to intensely butter- and cream-infused sauces. Their acidity can get them through vineyard-dressed salads and even step up to a ceviche pairing. Champagne and dry sparkling Blanc de Blancs can take you through an entire meal, even wrapping up with a dish like pork or rabbit (as long as it’s not cooked in a tomato- or red wine-based sauce). The only thing they probably can’t tackle is big dishes of red meat from steak to venison.

The oakier versions have to be carefully played to work to the dishes with which they are paired. They can match the acidity of a salad or play the opposites-attract game with dishes like ceviche. However they are often best sipped as a before-dinner aperitif or with simple dishes like a grilled cheese sandwich.