Chardonnay is one of the most well known, and one of the most consumed, wines in the world. Chardonnay is incredibly flexible and while the styles can vary it can produce great wine in both warm and cool climates. Though most of the best wines are grown in temperate to cool climates. Chardonnay is the most popular white grape sold in the US and is one of the highest produced grapes in California. But its true home is Burgundy, France where the term white Burgundy is virtually synonymous with Chardonnay. It accounts for almost all of the white wine produced in the region; the exception is Aligote a minor grape with very little acreage planted. In fact, there is an entire sub-region of Burgundy, Chablis, famous for the only grape it produces: Chardonnay.
While it is hard to imagine now, until the modern wine revolution of the 1950s and 1960s Chardonnay was virtually unheard of outside of France. Today though it is grown and produced all over the world including Argentina, Australia, California, Chile, France, Italy, New Zealand, Oregon and South Africa. In addition to still wines, Chardonnay can also be used to produce sparkling wines and in fact it is the only white grape that can be legally grown in Champagne.
In many of these regions Chardonnay is both fermented and at least partially aged in oak barrels. Barrel fermentation and aging can transform Chardonnay, which left on its own can be a rather bland grape. In wood though it takes on rich notes can develops a creamy texture, and potentially gains more complexity. However, if left too long in the barrel it can go overboard very easily, producing a flabby wine that more or less tastes like chewing on a piece of wood. But done right this oak aging can produce a wide range of flavors in what could have been an otherwise dull wine. From flavors like vanilla, butterscotch, toast, and custard to crisp fruit like green apple, lemon, pineapple and other tropical fruits. These flavors are matched by a creamy texture, a lush finish, and a big full body.
However, Chardonnay can be one of the least flexible wines when it comes to pairing with food. Especially California Chardonnays, which often have a lot of toast oak and a high alcohol content. When trying to match this wine with food you can utilize certain bridge ingredients that can help marry the flavors but more successful pairings come when you match the texture of the wine and food. The full, round, and often silky character of the wine is best matched with foods like pasta, risotto, and other starches that can provide a textural backdrop to the wine. Various shellfish, including lobster, scallops, prawns and shrimp are classic pairings, especially when accompanied with a rich sauce. Oak aged Chardonnays are great with lightly smoked or grilled dishes while less oaky wines show better with simple clean flavors like roasted chicken or sautéed fish with lemon. Bottom line, because there is such a wide range of style in Chardonnay you really need to know the region and style of the wine you are drinking before you can decide what pairs best with it.