Chardonnay is not just a grape variety, but also a brand. It is one of the most recognizable and best-selling grapes in the world. Even those who know nothing about wine can confidently order Chardonnay.
The grape can produce a good everyday drinking white for $10 a bottle, derided by the "Anything But Chardonnay" crowd, or make the idolized white Burgundy, Montrachet, which is Chardonnay at its most complex -- expressive, concentrated and expensive, often going for $2,000 a bottle.
As a grape variety Chardonnay is a winemakers dream, as it can be fairly easily grown and vinified. Chardonnay is successfully grown almost everywhere, including Australia, Chile, even Italy and the more unlikely England. However, the two primary regions it thrives in are California and the French region of Burgundy. The French traditionally do not put the grape variety on the bottle, so when one sees Chablis, Saint-Véran or Puligny-Montrachet on a label, know these are areas, towns or vineyards producing wines made with Chardonnay, the white grape of Burgundy.
There are two distinct styles of Chardonnay: the oak influenced and the un-oaked. Wines aged in oak barrels impart toast, vanilla and butterscotch flavors to the apple, pear and sometimes tropical fruit tastes of Chardonnay. Un-oaked Chardonnays are lighter with less syrup and more citrus, often making them a better complement to food.
Try the Stone Valley 2007 from California. This is a simple, light, quaffing Chardonnay that is all green apple and pear aromas and flavors. Pair it with steamed mussels or Chinese take-out. At $6.99 a bottle it is ridiculously inexpensive, a great everyday choice and excellent for bringing to parties.
Another good California Chardonnay is the Palette Ridge 2006 for $11.99. As an un-oaked wine its flavors are purely fruit driven, centered around lemon, green apple and peach. This wine is fantastic with shrimp or grilled salmon with lemon sauce.
An affordable French Chardonnay is Michel Lelu Pouilly-Fuissé ($21.99). It retains the apple and pear flavors of Chardonnay but is made more complex and supple by the addition of a bit of oak aging. Have this with roasted chicken.
For a splurge, try the iconic Napa Chardonnay Chateau Montelena 2007 ($49.99). In 1976 this Chardonnay bested top end Burgundies in a Paris tasting to put California on the wine-making map, the story featured in the movie Bottleshock. Have it with lobster with drawn butter for a stunning date-night dinner.
Chardonnay can be the wine equivalent of crème brûlée, all caramel, treacle, vanilla bean and cream. Chameleon like, it also manifests as crisp and citrusy with mouthwatering acidity that leaves your mouth tingling. I happen to like both.
Paige Donahoo is a certified wine specialist with Stew Leonard's Wines, where she is a salesperson, buyer and wine educator.