A Guide to Pairing: California-styled Chardonnay

When we started this series last year, we never thought it’d take us this long to get to the bread and butter of white wines (pun intended), Chardonnay.  Why might you ask?  Well, it’s tough to say exactly, but what it ultimately came down to is the vast array of stylings you can find globally for this grape, so where to begin?

There are so many regions, nay, countries that produce this grape, and you can find it in a wide array of styles; from the stainless steel new and old world expressions more akin to a Sauvignon Blanc, to partially oaked variations that have become very fashionable of late (70% stainless steel blended with 30% oaked), to sparkling representations such as Blanc de Blanc Champagne, New World Sparkling, or Crémant de Bourgogne, to the very trendy natural “Orange wines” (unfiltered Chardonnay with skin contact), to the fully oaked, rich viscous definitive “California-styled” wines of legend that exhibit caramel and buttered popcorn profiles.

For clarity, and largely due to the vast market presence, we will be discussing the latter here for this edition of A Guide to Pairing; fully oaked California-styled Chardonnay (we’ll cover the others stylings through other posts in the series in the near future).

A bit about California-styled Chardonnay:

  • American (or French in some cases) Oak influence is one major defining quality of California Chardonnay, lending caramel, butterscotch, vanilla, and spice flavors to the wine as it ages in barrel.  Depending on the type of oak and age of the barrels, different qualities will be amplified
  • Malolactic fermentation is key to this style of wine.  The sharper malic acid is turned to softer lactic acid, adding the nuttier aspects to this wine style’s flavor profile
  • The California-styled Chardonnay that all others are judged against is simply enough called The Judge and is produced from a vineyard site (also named The Judge) in southern Napa by Kongsgaard – price of entry is only about $200, and older vintages can get you in the $2k territory (per bottle) pretty quickly
  • A 1941 census showed California had less than 100 acres of Chardonnay planted at the time, today, it’s somewhere north of 100,000 acres – and recognized globally (thanks to a little presser event that wound up being one of the greatest upsets in the wine world: the Judgement of Paris)

That said, let’s talk food (think like a chef):

Well, we’ve already mentioned flavors like vanilla, almond, butterscotch, and caramel, but even an excellent California-styled Chardonnay exhibits varietally correct characteristics of apples, pears, lemon blossoms, orange blossoms, and minerality, alongside the classic toast/brioche and fresh-churned butter that defines this wine’s style.

So there is a fair amount of versatility to be found in a California-styled Chardonnay, and like many others in this series, we’ll always caution you to try a bottle for yourself first before trying to impress the in-laws with it over dinner as a pairing.  Even inside of this framework, some are more viscous on the palate, while others are brighter with sharper acidity – it all comes down to regional influence, growing season, ripening time for that vintage, then of course the winemaker’s hand and oak program.

Generally speaking, you are working with all the flavors in the first paragraph of this section, it’s just a question of how much of one flavor over another from Chard to Chard.

It’s also worthy of note, a California-styled Chardonnay doesn’t necessarily come just from California, it can be from anywhere (generally Washington State, some producers in Oregon too) and adheres only to the fully oaked nature of the wine, something Burgundy (particularly Chablis) actually shies away from in favor of the other side of the grape’s spectrum – a leaner, crisper wine (that may or may not still see some form of oak).

Compare AND contrast:

California-styled Chardonnay is one of the few wines where comparable pairings are a shining point (most wines shine in contrast profiles).  If your dish has citrus, this is your wine to pair.  If your dish has butter in it, this is the wine to pair.  Bread as a component in your dish, again, this is your best friend.  Salads utilizing apples or pears as a component?  This will be your wine.  White wine and butter sauce?  Well, that’s literally the most stripped down description of this wine itself.  Cream sauce?  Definitely go with a California-styled Chardonnay.  Classically fancy whipped potatoes and caviar will generally be paired with Champagne, but you can safely change it up with a California-styled Chard and watch your guests eyes light up at how well they compliment each other.  Again, Chardonnay is at its best when you’re utilizing comparative flavors.  Seafood in butter sauces (drawn butter and either Crab or Lobster), shellfish in white wine or butter sauces – with or without pasta.  Anything in a brown butter and sage sauce will shine with a Cali-styled Chard, and any dish with toasted nuts, pastry crust, or any other toasty flavor will go great with a fully oaked Chard.

Now, that’s not to say that contrasts aren’t fun and exciting to play with when dealing with this style of wine.  Grilled pork chops, grilled chicken, grilled sausages, all go very well alongside Cali-styled Chard.  Other seafood not mentioned above also goes quite well alongside this style of Chard when contrasting flavor profiles: grilled or roasted Salmon comes to mind, grilled shrimp too.  Fried chicken is a real treat alongside any Chardonnay, but this style of Chard shines the brightest alongside some fried bird in our opinion.  Italian polenta in a red sauce, and even southern grits with cheddar, all pair incredibly well with a Cali-styled Chard. Smoked meats are a great contrast to this style of Chard too.

Get weird:

Bacon.  Chardonnay and bacon.  Acidity to cut the fat, oak influence to play with the smokiness.  Don’t forget Chardonnay is half Pinot Noir, so some of the parent grape’s qualities for being the perfect pork pairing are still intact, and nowhere does it become more apparent than with Chardonnay and Bacon.  Give it a go – but make sure it is not some lightweight example of an oaked Chard, you want the full Cali-styled richly oaked experience.

So there you have it, our guide for pairing California-styled Chardonnay.

How about you though? For our other guests, please feel free to share your pairing suggestions for California-styled Chardonnay in the comments below.

Cheers!

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