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Chardonnay: (char-don-nay)

Although chardonnay has been grown in France for centuries, many people are unaware that chardonnay gained its legendary reputation thousands of miles from Napa, Sonoma, or Santa Barbara. California has taken chardonnay to an extreme that only California can do. Domestic winemakers have utilized the subtle processes employed for centuries in Europe and created a style of chardonnay that is big, rich, and extreme in comparison to its elegant French sisters.

Domestic chardonnay is almost always aged in French oak. The newer the oak barrels the better; California chardonnay is the nutty notes, rich vanilla, and lush tropical fruit flavors that only small, toasted, new French oak barrels can impart. California style chardonnay has also undergone malolactic fermentation. Malolactic fermentation is a secondary fermentation, taking place after the fruit juice has been converted to alcohol. 'Malo' replaces the mouth-watering, zesty flavors of the natural fruit acid, malic acid, with the creamy, buttery flavors of lactic acid. Although it imparts a richer facet to the wine, it can diminish a wine's distinctive fruit flavors.

California chardonnay is unmistakably American, yet the sparkling wine producers from the very same areas of California, are more interested in following the traditional script of one of chardonnays most legendary roles, that of Champagne. True Champagne hails from an area of France of the same name. It is the only sparkling wine that can rightfully be called Champagne and its growing conditions are so unique that no other sparkling wine can compare. The region of Champagne has very white, chalky soil, which imparts a distinctly mineral-like flavor to the wine. Another unique factor is the lack of sun, which forces the grapes to be harvested a touch under-ripe. These under-ripe grapes are extremely high in acidity, which offers the perfect recipe for these bright, lively sparkling wines. There are only three permitted grape varietals in this region, chardonnay is the only white varietal and two red varietals being pinot noir, and pinot meunier. When a sparkling wine is made from 100% chardonnay, it is referred to as Blanc de Blancs, a convention that is accurately followed by winemakers globally.

While the chalky soil of Champagne creates a distinguished mineral-like flavor in its sparkling wine, Chablis offers another 100% chardonnay with markedly mineral notes. Chablis is yet another grape growing region of France whose name has been grossly misused. Chablis is still synonymous with cheap jug wine, whose grapes are not chardonnay, but rather uninteresting, workhorse varietals, which are usually fermented into a sweet white wine. Genuine Chablis is usually fermented and aged in stainless steel vats to preserve its vivid apple, apricot, and lime zest flavors and tangy acidity. Chardonnay is a fairly hearty varietal that can produce abundant clusters of grapes, but when it comes to producing flavorful wines, chardonnay prefers a cooler growing region, such as Champagne, Chablis, or Carneros.

Chablis is a sub-region of Burgundy and not surprisingly, the reining white grape of Burgundy is chardonnay. Chardonnay, regardless of where it is from, is usually bottled in a Burgundy style bottle. The tradition of Burgundy dates back thousands of years and in the tenth century, dutiful monks created detailed maps of the area that are the basis of Burgundy as we know it today.

These maps parceled off the land according to every nuance of the sun, wind, rain, temperature, change in soil type, and topography. The details of each one of these unique parcels was preserved, categorized, named, and assigned stature. This is one of the reasons Burgundies are so daunting to the average wine drinker. Add to this excruciating endeavor in geography, the Napoleonic law, which states that all vineyards must be inherited equally among its owner's children and only their children. As generations divide the vineyards, you can literally have a bottle of Burgundy with such a small presence according to place and reputation that there may be nothing to reference in regard to its quality or value. With this said, white Burgundies are a joyful, elegant, complex, layered, mouthwatering expression of chardonnay. They are the original model for California style chardonnays. Those who have attempted to tackle Burgundy puzzle, proclaim its chardonnay as the finest white wine in the world.

Chardonnay is known by many names and is made in many styles. Old World styles are elegant, zesty, and refreshing, while New World versions are rich, opulent, and plump. The tried and true versions of France are steady examples of this impressive grape. Domestic growing regions and those of the Southern Hemisphere have embraced the California style, but true to the New World form are always open to the next evolution. Australia has recently coined the term "unwood," referring to their unoaked, stainless steel fermented chardonnay. Exploring the faces of chardonnay can be a delightful trip around the world leaving you with many impressions of the how versatile this grape can be.

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