How to choose a chardonnay for everyday or a special occasion.
Choosing a chardonnay for a weekend barbecue or a special birthday can be equally daunting. The most popular white wine in the world, it comes in a wide range of styles – from buttery and full bodied to bright and citrus flavored.
“Chardonnay is one of the most crafted wines of all,” says Bob Bertheau, head winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, Washington. “There are a lot of styling decisions made – from oak vs. stainless steel and the type of barrel, to the style of yeast, and length of aging – all of which affect the taste of the wine.”
Bertheau puts as much consideration and time into styling everyday chardonnays as the higher-tier varieties. Consequently, price alone isn’t a great indicator of how much you’ll enjoy a particular bottle. “Tasting and discovering new wines should be an adventure,” Bertheau says. “It’s an experience you share with friends and family. Then, you get to decide what you enjoy. There’s really no right and wrong.”
Here’s your guide to choosing a chardonnay for everyday or a special occasion.
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According to Bertheau, an everyday wine should be soft and accessible. It should be easy to drink with a variety of foods, and offer subtle notes that make it interesting. Full or partial stainless-steel fermentation (as opposed to oak barrels), along with the yeast added during fermentation, creates the bright, fruit-forward flavors typical of everyday chardonnays. The warm climate in which the grapes are grown results in soft, tropical flavors.
The bright apple and sweet citrus fruit character of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s 2015 Columbia Valley chardonnay ($12) is a prime example of a wine to enjoy on the patio on a summer night, along with chicken or burgers fresh off the grill. “This wine is highly drinkable with any food,” Bertheau says. “At the same time, subtle spice and oak nuances set it apart from other chardonnays.”
What makes this wine less expensive than some of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s other chardonnay offerings comes down to the style in which it’s crafted. “We treat the grapes used in all of our wines identically,” Bertheau says. “The grapes we use in our Columbia Valley blend come from many different regions, creating a more balanced, harmonious wine. They’re made in larger, more economical batches so we can price them lower.”
The higher-tier chardonnays are characterized by more depth and complexity. Less-plentiful grapes are used, which accounts in part for the steeper price tag. There’s also an artistry to this small-batch blending that takes more time and finesse – from choosing the grapes to tasting hundreds of individual barrels.
Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Ethos chardonnay 2015 ($35) combines “Old Vines” fruit from the Cold Creek Vineyard along with a younger emerging site at Lawrence vineyard and a higher-elevation site in the Ancient Lakes region. The wine has depth and richness from the warm vintage while adding a touch of Old World complexity for style and grace.
“We devote an entire week of tastings to style Ethos,” Bertheau says. “We might taste 500 barrels. Each barrel can be totally different, and we’re looking for a blend that’s unique. We want a wine that’s cerebral, that gives wine lovers a lot to talk about while drinking it.”
Ethos and other higher-tier chardonnays can be paired with foods that are rich and textured, like lobster risotto or fresh oysters.
On the other hand, they also go well served with an opposite: grilled salmon or lean beef tenderloin.
Oak barrels and low- or no-yeast fermentation produce rich, full-bodied wines typified by a toasty character, as well as complex minerality. Depending on the style, you may also taste hints of vanilla, caramel or apricot jam. There may be a touch of opulence, but the finish is dry – perfect for any occasion.
- “It takes time and patience to discover all of the different styles of chardonnays and find the one that fits your tastes. Enjoy the process!” Bertheau says.
- Chardonnay should be served at 50-56 degrees, slightly warmer than fridge temperature. Let the bottle sit out on a counter for 15 minutes, or warm the glass with your hands before drinking.
- Chardonnay has a wide array of aromas, including a fruity nose, with bright citrus or a sweeter, more tropical character. The wine should never smell sour, or taste overly tart.
- “Serve the wine you love with the food you love, and you can’t go wrong,” Bertheau says.