Blond Ambition

Chardonnay is America’s most popular white wine, and with good reason: It is easy to say, easy to drink and available on most retail shelves.

As a grape, Chardonnay is a true chameleon. Grown in almost every wine-producing country, it takes on different flavor characteristics depending on the region’s climate and the winemaker’s tools. So how do you find a Chardonnay you like?

Look at the country of origin. In warm regions such as South Africa, Chardonnay takes on tropical aromas of papaya and mango. In California’s moderate climate, stone fruits and melon dominate the wine’s flavors. And in the cool growing regions of New Zealand or Chablis, France, Chardonnay’s flavor is primarily citrus.

Understanding how climate affects the aroma profile is important for food and wine pairing (or just as a guide when perusing the seemingly overwhelming number of bottles of Chardonnay available on shelves today).

Next, look for flavor clues on the back label. Phrases such as “cool nights” or “mountain top” vineyards indicate a light-body, high-acid wine, making it a great buy for dinner. “Creamy” and “silky” tell us that the wine is fuller in body with added texture and perhaps buttery aromas. This style of Chardonnay is often paired with creamy dishes or simply sipped alone.

Any use of the word “oak barrel” on the label means the wine will be full in body with added spice and vanilla aromas. The presence of oak, especially toasted oak, in a wine makes food pairing trickier but not impossible. Try to stay clear of overly salty dishes and fish oils as they can accentuate the wood component.

If you have not found your style of Chardonnay, keep looking. Much like our taste in music, the grape’s flavor-profile keeps changing. In fact, if Chardonnay were a person instead of a grape, she would be a timeless pop icon like Madonna. The material girl of the wine industry is able to change at will, keeping generation after generation interested. Cheers.

Marianne Frantz, CWE and founder of the Cleveland Wine School, is joined by some of Northeast Ohio’s top tasters, the NEOenophiles, in selecting wine for this month’s Cellar Notes.


2004 Trevor Jones Virgin Chardonnay, South Australia ($19): Lemon-yellow with medium intensity and youthful aromas. Apple, lemon blossom, floral and unripe pear with a hint of herbal. Well balanced with a medium-long finish.


2001 Louis Latour Hautes Cotes de Beaune, Burgundy, France ($40): Yellow-gold with developing aromas of stone fruits, cooked peaches, apricots and baked yellow apple. Barrel aging adds a hint of vanilla and spice for a long, balanced finish.


2003 Domaine du Chantemerle, Chablis, France ($20): Youthful, clean aromas of unripe pear, green apple, lemon and lime-blossom are supported by firm minerality. Crisp, medium body, medium acidity results in a long finish.


2003 Rijk’s Private Cellar Chardonnay, South Africa ($25): Clean apple, citrus zest, oak, vanilla and spicy aromas with a touch of mineral. Medium-plus body with fresh acidity and a long bitter-peach finish.


2004 Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay, Marlborough, New Zealand ($19): Aromatic with creamy mouthfeel and mouthwatering acidity. Apple, lime, lemon and a hint of butterscotch offer a full, rich flavor great with seafood or on its own.


2003 Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay, Sonoma County, California ($14): Medium body with ripe peach, apple, spicy oak and summer fruits aromas. Medium acidity and alcohol provide a long, refreshing finish.  n

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