Chardonnay and food
I love chardonnay. When it's good, it rocks my world. I love it for the same reason that I love food - for its massive and diverse range of smells, its broad scope of texture and flavour, but most of all because, when it's at its stratospheric best, it demands attention.
Ah yes, I can hear the scoffs from the 'too-cool for chardonnay' posse. (Ironically, the very same mob that made the unwooded version of this variety so hip just a few years back).
The unrivalled popularity of chardonnay has ensured that it remains the most widely planted and consumed grape variety on earth, and with good reason. Apart from being incredibly gluggable in its own right, chardonnay is without doubt one of the most food friendly varieties around.
Lets start with the sea. Fresh, young, vibrant examples of chardonnay from cooler regions around the globe make killer matches with fresh oysters, king prawns, scallops - especially scallops - grilled calamari and nearly the whole fish family.
The very best examples of this style hail from France's Holy Grail of wine, Burgundy, where handcrafted examples rely more on texture, finesse, structure and ageability rather than simple 'drink now' upfront fruit flavour.
As a rule, the flavour spectrum of chardonnay from this part of the world, along with a handful of wines from cooler pockets in our neck of the woods, often leans toward citrussy restrained fruit and mildly savoury smells supported by tightly-wound, focused acidity.
The combination of all these components proves a big winner with delicate styles of food, such as Japanese, where texture also plays a hugely important role in the overall success of the food and wine experience.
Then we head for dry land. Wooded chardonnay, chardonnay from warmer climates, and a handful of well-kept older vintages all lend themselves as worthy partners to richer foods such as chicken and game dishes, right through to pork and veal.
The New world produces examples of chardonnay that are richer in primary fruit, often with tropical smells and flavours, lower natural acidity and higher alcohol, and matching these wines with a specific range of food styles becomes more difficult.
Richer dishes such as oven roasted chicken or baked snapper seem to work pretty well as the richness and sweetness in the meat brought out by roasting is matched well by the up front and fruit driven nature of the wines.
The natural acidity in the wine also works well to cut through any of the grease or fat contained in the dish.
The winemaker's hand
A common misconception is that all chardonnays bear the same characteristics. Not true. The climate in which the grapes are grown and how the wine is hammered together in the winery are big factors in determining what characteristics a chardonnay will eventually possess - its personality if you like.
Wines produced in stainless steel rely on primary fruit flavour, texture and structure.
The best of these tend to come from cooler areas where the wines display tightly woven and restrained fruit flavours, coupled with higher levels of acidity.
As mentioned above, these wines make excellent partners to many seafood dishes, as they support rather than dominate delicate foods.
Another common approach to chardonnay production sees all or part of the wine spend time in large oak barrels.
Oak maturation can impart smells of cedar, spice and toast while generally giving the win more weight and richness. Although still great with things from the sea, these wines tend to cope better with slightly richer dishes, which match the richness of the wine.
Aged chardonnay can also make really interesting food and wine matches. As chardonnay ages it takes on a much deeper colour, and shows less of those primary fruit smells and more secondary smells, such as toast creme brulee, marzipan, mineral and bacon.
In many cases, the palate will become lighter and more minerally in texture. Well-kept examples should work well with the richer dishes mentioned above.
The Adam Gilchrist-like 'all round' versatility of chardonnay makes for seemingly endless food and wine matching possibilities. However as a rule of thumb, avoid heavy meat-based dishes, which require wines with more body and tannin, and avoid foods with lots of spice or vinegar.
At the end of the day experiment with these things in mind and don't take it so seriously that you forget to enjoy what you're doing, because really, you're just eating and drinking.
Written by Matt Skinner and first published in Wine X Magazine. Reproduced with permission from Winepros Archive.
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