Tersina Shieh is a wine expert who promotes wine culture in Greater China. She is a wine consultant, marketer, event organiser, winemaker, food/wine pairing adviser, wine judge and writer, based in Hong Kong. She makes wine, judges and writes about wine, organises wine events and is passionate about wine. She has made wine in England, Portugal, South Africa, China and New Zealand.
Rewriting Wine 101 is a fortnightly Foodie article where we take wine knowledge one step beyond the basics with Tersina, who explains wine in a no-nonsense way and eliminates the barriers that make wine difficult to understand.
Unlike aromatic varieties such as Riesling or Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay belongs to the neutral grape category with medium acidity. It is versatile, and its aroma expression and style vary according to climate and winemaker techniques, hence it is often called the winemaker’s grapes. Generally speaking, Chardonnays from cooler regions usually have more delicate green apple and citrus aromas with fresh acidity and relatively lower alcohol; while those from warmer regions will express the heavier stone fruits, such as apricot and nectarine, aromas with lower acidity and higher alcohol.
Because of its neutral character, Chardonnay is more flexible during winemaking. When Chardonnay from warm areas is fermented in low temperature, it will exhibit more tropical fruits (think mango and pineapple) flavours. It has an affinity with wood, which can add complexity to wine. Barrel fermented Chardonnay offers spices and smoke aromas with a pale colour, while Chardonnay aged in barrel has a deeper yellow hue, vanilla or even coconut flavours. Winemakers could also use malo-lactic fermentation to soften acidity producing a round and even creamy mouthfeel.
Burgundy is the birthplace of Chardonnay and it's white wine is made with 100% Chardonnay. Classic Burgundian white is fermented in barrels. It is elegant with citrus, peach spices and sometimes dried fruits aromas without the heaviness. The higher quality Premier and Grand Crus can age for 10 years and beyond. Chablis is an appellation in the north of Burgundy. The cooler climate there results in light-bodied and delicate wine and often with a mineral note not dissimilar to dried seafood.
Most New World wine regions including California and South Australia are warmer so Chardonnay there naturally has riper fruit aromas. In addition, winemakers used to like ageing Chardonnay in new wood, to produce rich and robust wine. However, too much wood could overpower the fruits, making the wine too heavy and oily. Consumers who don’t prefer this style of Chardonnay would often say ‘ABC – anything but Chardonnay’. New World winemakers are using less new wood with Chardonnay to make more balanced wine. The better one could rival the elegance of Burgundy white.
Chardonnay at entry level is fruity and easy-drinking, usually with no wood influence.
Chardonnay is also one of the permitted grapes used to produce Champagne. Blanc de Blanc, champagne made with 100% Chardonnay is elegant supported by precise acidity and has crisp green apple aroma. A lot of sparkling wine made outside Champagne region include Chardonnay as one of the key components.
With so many styles, Chardonnay is versatile with food. A light bodied Chardonnay with no or little oak influence would go well with the light Cantonese cuisine while the more flavourful and robust Chardonnay would stand up to the heavier northern Chinese dishes. If you don’t like a bottle of Chardonnay, don’t dismiss it entirely. Perhaps it is just that style of Chardonnay you don’t like. Just try a different one from a different country.