Who among us has never tried a Chardonnay? I would imagine that anyone with even a minor interest in wine has sipped on this rich white varietal at some time or another.
In the '80s Chardonnay reached the pinnacle of its popularity. Plantings in California had far surpassed France in acreage and the quality of California Chardonnay reached a level that could rival some of France's finest Burgundies.
So what's the difference? For me, French Chardonnays are usually steely and acidic, without overpowering fruit flavors. These wines are very good food wines. California Chardonnays seem less "grown up," very often creamy and buttery, with fairly pronounced fruit. A secondary fermentation process called malolactic fermentation, which results in creamy, buttery wines, is used in both France and California, but more so in California.
The different areas of Burgundy offer different Chardonnay experiences. Three of the most popular districts are Chablis, Pouilly-Fuisse and Montrachet. The wines of Chablis tend to be quite dry and crisp, showing lots of mineral character. Jean Marc Brocard is one of my favorite producers. His Chablis Vielles Vignes ("old vines") is worth every penny at around $30. Pouilly-Fuisse wines are quite popular and producers there have very high yields. Louis Jadot Pouilly-Fuisse (around $23) is fairly oaky, with soft vanilla notes and ripe apple fruit flavors. Wines from Montrachet are among the most expensive white wines in the world.
Joseph Drouhin Puligny-Montrachet is actually quite a bargain (around $36). This wine is rich and luscious with peach fruit flavor and a strikingly dry finish. If you like complexity, you'll certainly get it here.
The famous Champagne district of France uses Chardonnay to make many of its fantastic sparkling wines. Most of the wines of Champagne are made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and sometimes Pinot Meunieur. The term Blanc de Blancs on a Champagne label indicates the use of 100 percent Chardonnay in the wine. Schramsberg makes a great one for about $35.
In California, the best areas for Chardonnay are Sonoma, Napa and Central Coast. In Sonoma, the cool nights and warm days produce wines whose elegance is reminiscent of the wines of Burgundy. Landmark Overlook (around $25) is slightly creamy with apple and tropical fruit character.
Napa Valley Chardonnay tends to be a bit more oaky and buttery than Sonoma Chardonnay. Merryvale "Starmont" (around $19) shows ripe pear and melon flavors, with enough creamy, buttery goodness to satisfy even the most stubborn Kendall-Jackson drinker. In the Santa Cruz Mountains section of the Central Coast, the warmer climate results in extra ripe, juicy grapes.
Thomas Fogarty, the doctor famous for inventing the Fogarty heart catheter, is also really good at making wine. His Chardonnay (about $23) is very full-bodied, with hints of dill, from American oak aging, and fresh ripe apple and peach flavors.