Pennsylvania Wine School: What is a Chardonnay?

Chambour-huh? Vidal who? Need some help demystifying some of Pennsylvania’s most essential wine words? The PA Wine Land Post is at your service, schooling you on the grapes you need to know.

Varietal: Chardonnay (pronounced shar-dun-nay)

Grown: Across Pennsylvania

Similar to: Viognier

It’s ironic that Chardonnay is the most popular white wine grape in the world, yet so misunderstood. For many, the varietal conjures over-the-top flavors of butter and oak — for good or for ill — but that owes everything to the winemaking process and not the grape itself.

Now grown all over the world, Chardonnay was born in Burgundy, the iconic French wine region. Soon winemakers in the Champagne region became fond of the grape, using it to make sparkling wines. Grown in different regions, the wines demonstrated distinct characteristics. It was the first sign that this grape is very special, able to adapt to and amplify the terroir where it is grown.

The grape’s popularity continued to grow, and winemakers discovered more about how climate and soil impact the wines. Warm weather produces Chardonnay that showcases tropical fruit, peach, and melon notes, while colder climates create a flavor profile popping with citrus, apple, and earthy mushroom aromas.

Chardonnay was one of the first vinifera varietals grown commercially on the East Coast, starting in the Finger Lakes in the 1950s. It has become popular in Pennsylvania due to its adaptability and success in cooler climates.

Meanwhile, somewhere along the line, the inherent versatility of Chardonnay became obscured. The grape is incredibly responsive to aging in oak and when this is done in a considered way, the result is a hint of vanilla and a rounded flavor. But during the ’80s and ’90s, many big-market California winemakers went into oak overload. The resulting wines — rich, buttery, toasty — became synonymous with Chardonnay, at least in the United States. Fortunately, this trend has started to reverse itself and the flexibility of Chardonnay is once again coming through. If you’ve always been averse to the grape, make sure you try an unoaked iteration for its crisp, bright, clean profile.

Though the varietal is a chameleon, there are some through-lines. Chardonnay is generally a dry, medium-to-full-bodied wine with moderate acidity and alcohol. There are certain flavors you can expect including apple, lemon zest, papaya, pineapple, flower blossoms, raw almond, toasted nuts, parmesan cheese, mushroom, honey, and white stone. Those are called primary flavors (flavors derived from the fruit itself). Secondary flavors are introduced during the winemaking process. Malolactic fermentation — a secondary fermentation — leads to buttery aromas and the aforementioned oak-aging adds vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg notes.

When it comes to pairing Chardonnay, there is a wine for any occasion. Unoaked Chardonnay is wonderful alongside fresh cheeses like chèvre, oysters, shellfish, or delicate fish. Richer, oaky styles with higher alcohol can handle bigger flavors, including cream sauces, grilled meats, and wild game.

Below is a sampling of award-winning Pennsylvania Chardonnay wines from the recent 2019 Pennsylvania Wines Competition and the 2019 Farm Show Wine Competition.

Arrowhead Wine Cellars, 2017 Chardonnay
2019 Farm Show Wine Competition (Bronze)

Black Dog Wine Company, 2017 Chardonnay
2019 PWA Wine Competition (Silver)
2019 Farm Show Wine Competition (Bronze)

Blue Mountain Vineyards, 2016 Chardonnay
2019 Farm Show Wine Competition (Bronze)

Bucks Valley Vineyards & Winery, 2017 Chardonnay
2019 Farm Show Wine Competition (Silver)

Greendance Winery, 2017 Chardonnay
2019 PWA Wine Competition (Bronze)
2019 Farm Show Wine Competition (Silver)

Shade Mountain Winery, 2017 Chardonnay
2019 PWA Wine Competition (Silver)

Waltz Vineyards & Winery, 2016 Old Line Chardonnay, 2016 Reserve Chardonnay
2019 Farm Show Wine Competition (Silver, Bronze)

Whispering Oaks Vineyards, 2016 Chardonnay
2019 Farm Show Wine Competition (Silver)

To learn more about other varietals grown across PA Wine Land, visit our Wine School library.

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