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Know Your Chardonnay Styles

Chardonnay has an incredibly long and rich history in the world of wine. It has long been, after all, one of France’s great white wines. Originally hailing from the Burgundy region, where it is the power behind White Burgundy, it arrived in Australia with the James Busby collection but didn’t really take off until the 1950s.

Naturally vigorous, Chardonnay thrives pretty much everywhere in the world, and spearheaded a huge growth in the popularity of wine during the 1980s and early 90s.

Such success was a double-edged sword, however, leading to a huge backlash from connoisseurs who denounced the oily, overly-oaked style that dominated at the time. ‘ABC’ became a common cry – ‘Anything But Chardonnay!’ – and many came to associate Chardonnay with unsophisticated suburban tastes, as famously skewered in Kath & Kim… Kardonnay, anyone?

Despite this, Chardonnay has endured and evolved, and continues to command the tastebuds of wine lovers the world over. Indeed, it’s Australia’s most-planted variety, and accounts for over 40% of all white wine purchases in Australia. Better yet, winemakers now have a lot more insight into the versatility this lovely grape is capable of, resulting in a plethora of distinctive styles to please almost any palate.

THE MANY CHARACTERS OF CHARDONNAY

What many might not realise is that Chardonnay is, in and of itself, quite a neutral grape, with many of its flavours arising as a result of the region it's grown in, and the winemaking art via the use of oak and different approaches to fermentation.

In fact, the grape is capable of such diversity of expression that there is no single, universal ‘style’ of Chardonnay. Let’s explore some of the most popular Chardonnay styles that have wowed wine lovers here in Australia.

  • SPARKLING BLANC DE BLANCS –

Chardonnay is hugely popular in the production of French-style Sparkling wines, much-desired for its citrussy, minerally characters.

  • LIGHT TO MEDIUM-WEIGHT, LIGHTLY-OAKED – 

Lightly-oaked Chardonnay is relished for its lighter, somewhat fruity profile, crisper texture and floral, citrus-tinged aromatics.

  • MEDIUM TO FULLER-WEIGHT, MORE HEAVILY-OAKED – 

Closer to the ‘classic’ style, such Chardonnay uses oak to elicit notes of confectionery and vanilla in the wine, and help deliver a mouth-filling, buttery-like texture.

WANT TO KNOW MORE? OAKY-DOKEY!

So, what leads to such diversity in Chardonnay style? It all comes down to the winemaker. The two most significant decisions made in the winery that shape the final wine in the bottle is the presence (or absence) of oak, and the approach to fermentation taken by the winemaker, malolactic fermentation in particular.

And while the bigger, heavily-oaked styles of years gone by have given way to more nuanced Chardonnays that are more expressive of the vineyard, region and season, oak continues to play an important role in Chardonnay production.

Ageing by oak introduces distinctive characters that are often mistaken for attributes of the grape itself. It’s where many wines get those delicious notes of baked apple or pie crust – common in using oak barrels – or the light vanilla and struck match notes that arise from using toasted new oak or oak chips in the fermenting process. The newer and smaller the barrel, the less nuanced and more forward these characters will be in the final wine.

In malolactic fermentation, the malic acid which is naturally present in grape must is converted to softer-tasting lactic acid through a process of inoculation with a desirable bacterium, usually O. onei and other strains from the lactic acid bacteria family. One of the by-products of chemical reactions produced by this process is diacetyl, which contributes to the buttery flavour associated with oaked styles of Chardonnay. 

A WORLD OF FOOD AND WINE MATCHING POTENTIAL

Whichever style you prefer, Chardonnay is a truly delicious wine to pair with food. While classic pairings include roast chicken and other white meats, these are best reserved for the fuller-bodied Chardonnay wines, so the rich flavours of the meat don’t overpower the wine. The lighter styles and Sparkling wines that use Chardonnay as their base, however, open up even more intriguing possibilities for your palate.

Here are some of our favourite food matches for each style!

Sparkling Blanc de Blancs

The earthy flavours of mushroom and the saline characters of oysters really come alive when paired with the beautiful, crisp acidity and texture of a Sparkling Blanc de Blanc. Do your palate a favour with Lyndey Milan’s Mushroom Pâté, or Mark Olive’s Asian-inspired Oysters ­– yum!

Light to medium-weight, lightly-oaked Chardonnay

The more restrained use of oak in this style of Chardonnay allows more room for delicacy in your food selections, and really lets dishes with zesty flavours shine. Our tip? A serve of delicious fish tacos, or a prawn and pineapple salad with lime dressing. Divine!

Medium to fuller-weight, more heavily-oaked Chardonnay

Bring on the flavour! Fuller-bodied Chardonnays have the heft and flavour to stand up to creamier, richer dishes, making meals like Anjum Anand’s Mangalorean chicken curry a must-try meal. Or, go all out with a king salmon with warm romesco salad, for an utterly indulgent dinner delight!

Want to plunge deeper in your love for all things Chardonnay? Learn more about its origins and top Australian producers in our Know Your Variety guide, discover how Australian winemakers brought a shine back to Chardonnay, or explore our diverse range of Chardonnay styles and find a new favourite!

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