Chardonnay is to white wine what Cabernet Sauvignon is to red: the undisputed ruler over its many cousins. Used widely in many of France’s most popular white wines, this type of grape has enjoyed international acceptance due to its versatility both in growing and in wine production. This varietal is, for many casual drinkers, the quintessential white wine. It was one of the wines that sparked a renaissance in the United States, with its wide variety of fairly simple tastes and consistent quality ranging from decent to truly exceptional.
This type of wine is, in many ways, the ideal slate to demonstrate the distinctive character of a vineyard’s physical environment and weather, as well as the particular style of a winemaker. In general, it is a dry white, and while it may sometimes have traces of sweetness, it is virtually never as sweet as wines such as Riesling. It also possesses a much broader flavor than many other whites, particularly in contrast to the much more direct flavors of that other white wine powerhouse, Sauvignon Blanc. Wines made from the Chardonnay grape tend to be very full, and the flavor sensation grows once in the mouth, leaving a long, complex finish on a par with some red wines.
A great deal of the flavor in these wines is imparted by the oak barrels they are aged in, another perk of the wine's relatively unobtrusive natural flavor. Consumers may want to watch out for wines that mention they are oaked, without saying they are aged in oak barrels — such wines usually get their oaky flavors from the addition of wood chips or another source of direct oak. These wines hold up fine if consumed while young, but over time, this cheaper source of oak can lead to some horrendous results.
In France, Chardonnay is used to produce wines such as the famous whites of Burgundy, as a key ingredient in Champagne, and in a number of other regions. It is also used on its own in the Champagne variety known as blanc de blancs. In the United States, it's widely grown as a single-varietal wine and is one of the most popular white wines. The grape is also grown throughout New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Italy, Chile, and nearly every other wine-producing country. Each country has its own distinct take on this varietal, and wines can vary widely from region to region.
Unlike many other white wines, a good Chardonnay is built to age well and have more complex, subtle flavors over the years. In this regard, it in often held up as a collector’s white, and some quite pricey older vintages can be found. The wine is also full-bodied enough to be eaten with some very rich foods, leading many people to comment that it is like a red wine masquerading as a white.