The Chardonnay grape originated in the Burgundy wine region of eastern France but is now grown wherever wine is produced, from England to New Zealand. The green-skinned grape varietal is very neutral, with many of the flavors commonly associated with the grape being derived from such influences as terroir and oak.
Chardonnay lends itself to just about any style of wine making, from dry still wines, to sparkling wines, to sweet late harvest wines. The two wine-making decisions that most widely affect the end result of a Chardonnay wine is whether or not to use malolactic fermentation and the degree of oak influence used for the wine. [With malolactic fermentation (or MLF), the harder malic acid gets converted into the softer lactic acid which creates the "butteriness" that is associated with some styles of Chardonnay.] The wines that do not go through MLF will have more green apple-like flavors. Introduction of oak during fermentation or during barrel aging can introduce a "toastiness" and flavors that may include caramel, cream, smoke, spice, coconut, cinnamon, cloves and vanilla.
In France, Chardonnay is the second most widely planted white grape varietal, just behind Ugni Blanc and ahead of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. The grape first rose to prominence in the Chablis and Burgundy regions. In the Champagne region, it is often blended with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier but is also used to produce single-varietal Blanc de Blanc styles of sparkling wine. Chardonnay is the varietal in numerous other Burgundian wines, including Pouilly-Fuisse and Beaujolais Blanc.
The California wine regions that seem to favor premium quality Chardonnay are the ones that are most influenced, climatically, by coastal fogs that can slow the ripening of the grape and give it more time to develop its flavors. The regions of Alexander Valley, Carneros, Russian River Valley and other parts of Sonoma County have shown much success in producing wines that reflect more Burgundian styles.
Chardonnay is most commonly paired with roast chicken and other white meats. Heavily oak-influenced Chardonnays tend to go better with smoked fish, spicy Asian cuisine, garlic and guacamole dips. Acidic Chardonnays tend to pair well with tomato-based dishes, while more mellow Chardonnays are often paired with more "earthy" dishes like mushroom soup and aged cheese.
Cheeses that go well with unoaked Chardonnays include herbed Boursin, Bucheron, Dry Jack, sheep-milk Feta, Gouda, Havarti, Mahon, Neufchatel, Pave Affinois and Raclette. Cheeses that pair well with oaked Chardonnays include Brie and Camembert (with or without rinds), mild Cheddar, Gouda (including smoked), Manchego, Monterey Jack and St. Andre.