The Right (and Wrong) Chardonnay With Food
Perhaps chardonnay is the world’s most popular fine white wine grape because its wine just tastes so delicious all by itself. For years, shorthand for “a glass of white wine, please” has been the word “chardonnay.”
But, to be frank, some styles of chardonnay are good only by themselves. They’re difficult partners at table; they less enhance food than compete with it. They’re loud. Too much oak, too much alcohol, too much buttery “sweetness.”
On the other hand, other styles of chardonnay are some of the most food-friendly white wines made. And there are chardonnays — and correlative food matches — in between.
Here’s a rundown of what kinds of eats pair successfully with differing styles of chardonnay made around the globe. Some are classic, tried-and-true matches that are the best tastes that a mouth can have, with a couple of recommended wines. I’ll even begin with the elephant in the (dining) room.
Liberally Oaked, High-Octane Chardonnay
These chardonnays sometimes earn the nickname “200 percent chardonnay” because they are both fermented in new oak barrels and aged in them. The oak is often toasted, sometimes heavily. Its tastes can be summed up as buttered popcorn.
By and large, these chardonnays come from warmer climates of the New World such as California and Australia. They can taste “sweet” from true residual sugar in the wine or from the sheer concentration of tropical and ripe stone fruit flavors. They also tend to weigh in between 14 to 15 percent alcohol by volume and have relatively low acidity (because the fruit has so fully ripened).
But low acidity, high alcohol, noticeable sweetness and lingering bitterness (from wood) are about as complete a list of food pairing no-nos as a wine could have. For example, saltiness, which is pretty ubiquitous in food, may well make such a chardonnay taste cloyingly sweet and “hot” with alcohol. Any acidity in food (say, in a vinaigrette) may flatten out such a wine, making it taste dull and lifeless.
This is the chardonnay that is satisfying as a complete meal in a glass.
However, this style of chardonnay is surprisingly delicious as a sort of “sauce” — all that butter, richness and slight caramel note — with seared or sauteed scallops and other mollusks or crustaceans such as lobster or crab; the plainer the preparation, the better.
Youthful, Unoaked, Cool-Climate Chardonnay
At chardonnay’s far other end of the stylistic spectrum are wines such as recent vintage Chablis or other non- or very low-wooded white Burgundies, or chardonnay from cool climates such as Arbois, France, northern Italy or pockets of California, Oregon, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, even South Africa.
What these chardonnays have going for them with food is everything the “200 percent” sort do not: lots of tingling acidity, moderate alcohol, lean incisive fruit and sometimes a sort of saline minerality — about as complete a list of food pairing high-fives as a wine could have.
Perfect food pairings include oysters and other simple presentations of shellfish, many grilled or quick-saute fish or white meat dishes, fish chowders and creamy or fattier sauces on pasta such as carbonara.
They’ll do with many finger or nibble foods such as raw vegetables, olives, cured meats, cheeses and the like, although other dry white wines such as albarino, fino sherry and German or Austrian riesling do better.
One truly mind-blowing mouthful with dry, unoaked chardonnay is a well-aged Alpine-style cheese such as Comte, Gruyere or Vacherin Fribourgeois. It’s delicious bad math, one plus one equals three: exploding flavors of butterscotch, nuts and sauce anglaise that are in neither the wine nor the cheese alone, only when together.
∎ 2012 Crossbarn Winery Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California: This well-priced chardonnay from vineyards a toe’s dip off the Pacific, by blue-ribbon winemaker Paul Hobbs, gets about 20 percent old oak ferment (negligible, in a Macon-Villages way), the remainder in tank, so you get a pure line of bright white peach and Honeycrisp apple fruit sparked by a twist of lemon. $20-$25.
Fruity, Slightly Oaked Chardonnay
This version of chardonnay, from gazillions of vineyards all over the globe, is right in between the two former. It’s a kind of Goldilocks chardonnay: not too much oak, not too little acidity, not too much alcohol, not too little fruit.
And, so, it is delicious with a wide range of foods, all along the fish- and meat-eating buffet, as well as with vegetable-only preparations of most any sort. Other white wines taste better with things such as smoked salmon (riesling), oily fish (cool pinot noir), goat’s milk cheese (sauvignon blanc) and tomato-heavy dishes (sangiovese).
But there’s not much better than this kind of chardonnay with its perfect table mate: roast chicken. It’s the roast chicken of white wine, just enough oak to add spice and complexity, fine acidity for cleanup, moderate alcohol for persistence of flavor.
And the best place to get it from is Burgundy.
∎ 2010 Domaine Christophe Cordier Saint-Veran “En Faux,” Macon, Burgundy: Liquid Creamsicle, hints of both creme fraiche and orange blossom, overlaid with minerals; acidity to the nines, whisper of wood. $30.
∎ 2010 Domaine Marc Morey et Fils Rully Blanc 1er Cru “En Rabource,” Burgundy, France: The guy spends most of his time making Chassagne-Montrachet out his backdoor, and this nearby appellation shows it, with more heft than a typical Rully, a bit more wood, but waves of citrus, green apple, minerals and whiff of honey. $30-$35.
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St. John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.