What Food to Pair with Chardonnay
Chardonnay is the Meryl Streep of white wines. That is, Chardonnay is a marvelously versatile white grape variety that can play a diverse array of roles very well. Just like Meryl, this adaptability is one of the reasons that Chardonnay wines are so loved. In fact, it turns out that there is a Meryl Streep of Chardonnay - that is, a favorite player on the Chardonnay stage - in the USA: it's Kendall-Jackson's Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay!
THE TASTE OF CHARDONNAY
What does Chardonnay taste like? What to pair with Chardonnay? Chardonnay wines taste different based on where the grapes are grown and how their winemakers craft them. Here is a basic, progressive style chart, from lightest to richest.
Pure Chardonnay fruit: apples, pears, citrus fruits. Sometimes there are also minerally tones, which can smell like wet rocks or crushed slate.
Lightly Oaked Chardonnay
Enhances the above fruit and mineral characters with light nuances of non-fruit tones such as hay, straw, nuts and fireplace smoke.
Barrel fermented and/or aged Chardonnay
Combines the above fruit characters with toasty, buttery and baking spice tones. Sometimes the fruit flavors also stretch into the tropical realm with mango and passion fruit.
CHARDONNAY IS A WINEMAKER'S BEST FRIEND
This unique versatility allows for a wide array of Chardonnay styles and a broad variety of food-friendly Chardonnay pairings. Moreover, Chardonnay doesn't just make still wines. Chardonnay can be crafted into sparkling wines and sweet wines, too. In effect, Chardonnay is a winemaker's best friend.
There are several characteristics that make the Chardonnay grape so malleable:
First, Chardonnay’s inherent aroma and flavor characters are not pronounced. This neutrality is one of the reasons we age this variety in oak, leave it on the lees and do battonage (or lees stirring). Chardonnay’s neutrality allows it to absorb and integrate these winemaking techniques very well.
Second, Chardonnay is naturally high in acidity. That is why it is used in sparkling wines and is one of the reasons Chardonnay can age so well.
Third, as a still table wine, Chardonnay has a pliable mid-palate. When unoaked, it can be somewhat narrow and lean, seemingly sitting right in the center of the tongue. However, when oaked, it paints a horizontal swath right across the middle of the mouth. Some Chardonnays that are matured in oak barrels and go through a process called lees stirring (which is stirring the expired yeast lees to give flavor and texture, also have an oatmeal-like mouthfeel. Also, many California chardonnays have a smooth, oily and mouthcoating texture that is typical of Chardonnay from sunny, New World (that is, not European) climates.
CHARDONNAY PAIRING BASICS
What does Chardonnay pair with? No doubt that a glass of Chardonnay pairs well with nothing more than good company or a good book. However, most imbibers are looking for a food pairing for Chardonnay or a way to cook with Chardonnay.
Good rules of thumb for food pairings with wine take into account:
- watching for tricky wine pairings
- considering food colors
- thinking about cooking temperatures
- being thoughtful about accompaniments
Smart tip: Most advice on Chardonnay wine pairing focuses on oaked Chardonnay. However, unoaked Chardonnay, like the K-J Avant Chardonnay, becomes trendier by the day. So, unoaked Chardonnay food pairing ideas are highlighted separately here.
Another smart tip: If you want to learn more about how oak aging affects Chardonnay taste, this flashback will help you understand the differences between age, origin, barrel size and length of oak aging change Chardonnay flavor.)
Pairing Chardonnay with Appetizers
White wines usually begin a gathering, whether or not a meal is to follow. So pairing Chardonnay with appetizers is very natural.
Light and bright appetizers encourage the appetite, and unoaked Chardonnay shines here. The vibrancy of fresh tomatoes makes an excellent appetizer pairing for unoaked Chardonnay, especially during the prime-time summer season. If you're in the mood for something richer, oaked Chardonnays pair nicely with appetizers that have been cooked, like Pumpkin, Ricotta & Arugula Bruschetta or Caramelized Onion, Apple & Brie Flatbread.
Check out the "Rules of Thumb to Follow" in this wine pairing piece to learn how a cooking principle called the Maillard Reaction changes foods. It's incredibly helpful for pairing foods with different styles of Chardonnay!
Pairing Chardonnay with Cheese and Nuts
Cheese pairing with Chardonnay should start with the principle of pairing white colors with other white colors, à la chicken and fish with white wine. This may seem surprising in the US, where the tendancy leans to red wine and cheese. As with most pairings, the Chardonnay cheese pairing answer isn't so straightforward. Yet the color principle does tend to work here. Pale yellow, unoaked Chardonnays work with the lightest cheeses, especially goat cheeses.
Oaked Chardonnays work better with creamy cow and sheep milk cheeses. However, the longer the cheese is aged (causing the cheese to darken in color), the more likely it will pair better with a red wine. Along these lines, cheddar and blue cheeses are often best paired with red wines.
While a Chardonnay snack pairing with cheese often begins meals in the US, cheese typically finishes the savory portion of a meal just before dessert in other parts of the world, especially in Europe. Whenever the cheese comes, however, the multi-faceted Chardonnay is always a trusty companion, whether oaked or unoaked.
Pairing Chardonnay with Seafood
Chardonnay pairs beautifully with fish and seafood. Unoaked Chardonnay pairs well with sushi and shellfish, like langoustines, clams and mussels. It is also ideal with flaky white fish.
The richness of oaked Chardonnay pairs brilliantly with the succulent fattiness of salmon. The crunchy skin of pan-seared salmon gives a lovely, contrasting texture to this otherwise smooth, satin-textured pairing.
Pairing Chardonnay with Fruits and Vegetables
Chardonnay pairs well with fruits and vegetables throughout the year. Unoaked Chardonnay pairs well with the lightness of spring fruits and vegetables, like lemons and white asparagus.
The Season Cookbook has many excellent suggestions for oaked Chardonnay. I can almost taste the K-J Cloud Landing Chardonnay from the Petaluma Gap with Farmer T's Baby Vegetables with Green Goddess Dressing. Similarly, the Corn, Fregula and Sun Gold Tomato Salad sounds perfect for a glass of the K-J Grand Reserve Chardonnay. The Roasted Kabocha Squash with Pepitas and Rosemary Brown is a perfect fall or winter foil for any single Jackson Estate Chardonnay.
Pairing Chardonnay with Meat & Fowl
What protein goes well with Chardonnay? It may be counter intuitive color-wise, but a meat dish does go with Chardonnay! Oaked Chardonnay food pairings work particularly well with meat. My favorite surprise wine pairing with meat is oaked Chardonnay with steak. A buttery Chardonnay, like the Secco Highlands Chardonnay, pairs nicely with sirloin, rib-eye and New York strip, just like a dollop of butter does right on top of these cuts!
Fowl pairs nicely with both unoaked and oaked Chardonnay. There are dozens of types of chicken dishes to pair with Chardonnay, and Chardonnay pairs perfectly with turkey for holiday meals.
Pairing Chardonnay with Herb and Spices
Chardonnay marries well with herbs and can be very accommodating toward spices, unless the spices are hot. In these cases, the spices over-emphasize the oak character and alcohol perception of the wine and become unpleasant.
Still, herbs and spices can pair well with Chardonnay. For herbs, subtlety is the key, and herbs tend to work better with unoaked rather than oaked Chardonnay. For spices, savory additions work best with unoaked Chardonnay while baking spices work best with oaked Chardonnay.
Pairing Chardonnay with Sauces
As adaptable as Chardonnay is, sauces can turn pairings on their heads. Tomato sauces are tricky. The reverberating acidity of tomatoes is best suited to an unoaked K-J Avant Chardonnay. However, butter, oil and cream-based sauces tend to work beautifully when paired with oaked Chardonnay wines.
Pairing Chardonnay with Desserts
Chardonnay's vibrant acidity gives it excellent bandwidth in the dessert wine category because its racy acidity nicley balances the wine's sweetness. There aren't a lot of sweet Chardonnay wines on the market, but the K-J Grand Reserve Late Harvest Chardonnay is a brilliant partner to fall and late year holiday desserts. The Jackson Family Wines Culinary Team's Season Cookbook has a delicious pairing: Pumpkin Pie with Spiced Pecans and Cinnamon Whipped Cream. Embracing this example, Chardonnay dessert pairings work best with creamy textures and baking spice flavors. While this conjures up tastes of whipped cream, cream cheese and other naughty yumminess, a healthier angle can be taken, too. A Chardonnay fruit pairing of a pudding with tropical fruits or a clafouti works very nicely, too.
THE CHARDONNAY GENIE IS OUT OF THE BOTTLE
What food goes well with Chardonnay depends on whether it is oaked Chardonnay (and just how oaky the Chardonnay is) or unoaked Chardonnay. With the many different styles of Chardonnay, it's incredibly easy to find Chardonnay pairings with food. For food pairings with Chardonnay, the nominations and wins keep coming, just like for Meryl Streep.
Christy Canterbury is a Master of Wine, journalist, speaker and judge based in New York City. In 2014, she was short-listed for the Roederer Online Wine Communicator of the Year Award. Her work has been published in Decanter, Wine Enthusiast, Edible Green Mountains, Wine Searcher, Food Arts, Snooth, Beverage Media, TimAtkin.com, Civiltà del Bere, Wine Business Monthly, TASTED, Selectus Wines and in other outlets.