Chardonnay.
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Rich is the word that best both describes Chardonnay and explains its popularity. Its aroma is distinct, yet delicate, difficult to characterize, easier to recognize. It often smells like apples, lemons, peaches or tropical fruits. Its delicacy is such that even a small percentage of another varietal blended into a Chardonnay will often completely dominate its aroma and flavor. Oak commonly takes over Chardonnay if the wine is fermented or aged in new barrels.

This delicacy also allows Chardonnay to absorb the influences of both vinification technique and appellation of origin. In the Chablis region of France, it is the only grape permitted and it renders a "crisp, flinty" wine. In the Meursault appellation, Chardonnay takes on a lush, ripe, "fleshy", "buttery" quality. Even in quality sparkling wines and French Champagne, it is the major varietal used.

Vineyards in France are commonly planted with an intermingling of chardonnay and pinot blanc vines, so that "pinot" has often been attached to Chardonnay, incorrectly. In spite of its heritage, Chardonnay is not considered a member of the "pinot" grape family (pinot noir, pinot blanc, pinot gris, etc.).

Unfortunately, Chardonnay vines are shy-bearing and susceptible to a myriad of maladies. Chardonnay berries are relatively small, thin-skinned, fragile, and oxidize easily. This makes chardonnay somewhat more sensitive to winemaking techniques and more difficult to handle from harvest to bottling than most other grape types.

Different wine making techniques also produce wide variances in the Chardonnay flavor profile. Such techniques as barrel fermentation, proportion of new to old cooperage, lees stirring, and partial, complete, or prevention of malolactic fermentation generate controversy and lively discussion among winemakers.

Chardonnay's intrinsic blank canvas quality also allows its flavors to be dramatically affected by differences in soil, climate, and vineyard practices. Not uncommon among wine grapes, the Chardonnay vine also has a tendency to mutate and research has identified over 400 clonal variants. Each clone has Chardonnay family traits, but displays individually specific tendencies in such characteristics as length of ripening cycle, crop load, berry and cluster size, acid retention, etc., therefore producing wines with various flavor differences.

Two popular trends keep California Chardonnays from reaching the level of respect given to those from France: one is to satisfy consumer lust for any wine labeled "Chardonnay" with bland but inexpensive "cookie-cutter" wines; the other is to overwhelm any varietal personality or microclimatic subtlety with lavish amounts of oak barrel fermentation and aging.

 
 


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