‘ABC, anything but Chardonnay.’ As a former wine sommolier I heard this phrase a lot! To a certain degree I agree that you should drink whatever style of wine you like best. When it comes to food pairings, however, I find those who discount chardonnay due to its mass appeal might miss out on some enchanting combinations.
Oaky and ‘Buttery’ Chardonnay
Chardonnay has a variety of styles, from heavily oaked and toasty, to steel barrel fermented and flinty. With an oaked chardonnay, the flavours tend to be round and full, and silky, and the nose is full of vanilla and fruit. People tend to equate this chardonnay as buttery, as a bit of butter on your tongue has the same round and silky characteristics. This buttery nature is influenced by malolactic fermentation often used in the wine making process.
Various shellfish, such as, lobster, shrimp and scallops are an amazing partner for this style of chardonnay as these foods are not overly bold or strong and the buttery nature of the Chardonnay enhances the subtle personalities of the shellfish allowing them to become vibrant and lush. If the shellfish is in a rich cream or butter sauce, the Chardonnay only drawing out the lively flavours even further.
With baked crab cakes, a Chardonnay will offer up some buttery notes, as well as refreshment if the crab cakes are slightly dry from the baking process.
With oak, comes a nutty richness, and a rich Chardonnay is the perfect accompaniment to rich flavoured (like beans/risotto) or rich textured foods (like avocado/ squash).
I find the oakier a chardonnay, the toastier the wine becomes. When veering into this territory, it’s best to play the chardonnay to cooking methods that mirror the burnt woody flavours the of the oak. Any grilled or smoked vegetables or plank roasted white fish would be delicious in this situation.
With these ‘round’ flavoured wines, you want to stay away from pairing it with sharp ingredients, such as asparagus, broccoli, capers, olives, leeks, tomatoes.
Examples: Traditional Burgundy Wines, Bogle Chardonnay
If the Chardonnay is young, and low on the oak scale, the wine will probably be more fruit forward and easy drinking. Pair these with tropical dishes, like Roasted Pork, or Sautéed Snapper, or even cream based seafood dishes. The tropical crispness of the wines cuts through the richness of the dish, while the touch of ‘butter’ oak compliments the seafood component. Examples: Peller Estates Family Series Chardonnay, Kendall Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay.
Chablis or Steely Chardonnay
Chardonnay isn’t an overly aromatic or flavourful grape to begin with (especially when compared to Sauvignon Blanc or Gewürztraminer. Many old world wine makers (like the Chablis region) produce clean flavoured chardonnays that stress mineral and earth components, much like you would expect if you took a bite out of a granny smith apple. These wines are perfect for roast chicken, or as a counterbalance to cut through rich dishes with a higher acidity. A clean chardonnay is also spectacular with mussels and oysters.
Examples: Chablis Region wines, Mer Soleil Silver Unoaked Chardonnay
While there is a chance that Steely Chablis style wines might have had some aging in oak barrels, unoaked chardonnays have not. Full of tropical fruit, melons and apple flavours, along with butterscotch notes. These are food friendly, easy drinking, summer sipper wines, that pair great with appetizers and summer salads.
Examples: Stoney Ridge’s Charlottes Unoaked Chardonnay, Coyote’s Run Unoaked Chardonnay.
In general, Chardonnay does not pair well with sweet food, such as desserts, so stick to late harvest wines or dessert wines in this case.
Due to its nutty nature Chardonnay pairs extremely well with nuts, and recipes incorporating nuts (especially if they are toasted nuts). Nutty cheeses (as long as they aren’t pungent) show off an Oaky Chardonnay.