Chardonnay

Originally from Burgundy, this extremely versatile variety is arguably the most widely planted white wine variety in the world. (Spain's airén might cover more acreage, but much of its production goes into brandy.) Originally from eastern France, chardonnay came to international prominence as the main white wine grape of Burgundy and Chablis and as an important constituent of champagne. Because it has proven adaptable to a wide range of soil and climate conditions — and because its very name has become a touchstone for many millions of wine drinkers — chardonnay is now planted almost everywhere that wine grapes are grown, including at least 30 U.S. states, Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria, Bulgaria and Romania, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina. The most famous chardonnays outside France are those of California, where the grape has flourished and produced some of the state's finest (and priciest) wines. Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Barbara counties are particularly known for their chardonnays. Because of the wide range of terroirs in which chardonnay is grown, it is difficult to describe the wines it yields, but the aromas and flavors of tropical fruit and green apples are often invoked, as is a "buttery" character. Those from California in particular are often very high in alcohol. Because it has a natural affinity for oak, much chardonnay is aged (and often fermented) in new oak barrels, usually French or American in origin. When used with intelligence and restraint, the vanilla-like character oak lends to the wines gives them added complexity; used with a heavy hand, it obliterates varietal character, like garlic overwhelming a delicate sauce.