It's quite tricky to define the character of Chardonnay because the wines vary so much in flavour and style. Chardonnay is a really interesting grape that comes in a multitude of guises. If it were an actress, it would be a character actress, someone who can lend herself to any role and really bring it to life. Winemakers love playing with Chardonnay because it lends itself to a bit of meddling; it has the sort of flavour and structure that assimilates other flavours really well and they complement rather than detract from the unique flavour of the grapes.
When grown in a cool climate with limestone soils Chardonnay will become a crisp, fresh light style of wine (Chablis being a perfect example). If it's grown in a warm climate it develops a beautiful tropical fruit flavour. Somewhere in between you get a ripe, stone fruit character. In addition to these fruit flavours, you may find a vanilla/toasty flavour if the winemaker chooses to age the wine for some time in oak barrels. If they put the wine through a process called malolactic fermentation you might get some buttery, creamy flavours. Add in a bit of lees stirring and you get a more textural wine. There's plenty to get your teeth stuck into with Chardonnay!
There are a few really top quality Chardonnay wines that will age gracefully for a few years, but on the whole it's not a serious keeper.
Some of the best Chardonnay in the world comes from Burgundy (Bourgogne) in France, but you won't see Chardonnay on the label. Meursault, Chassagne Montrachet, Puligny Montrachet, Corton Charlemagne and St Aubin are some of the glittering names along the Cote d'Or. Immediately south of the Cote d'Or you have the Cote Chalonnaise where you will find Givry, Rully and Montagny whites. Further south, in the Maconnais the quality perhaps doesn't reach such dizzying heights but your pennies go a lot further. St. Veran, Pouilly Fuisse, Macon Lugny, Macon Blanc or Macon Villages are all well worth looking out for, but as everywhere, the name only guarantees a certain level of quality. If you love Burgundian wines it's worth investing a bit of time and energy finding producers whose style of winemaking you love.
Outside of France you will find Chardonnay all over the world, with quality varying wildly. Much of the world has the full range of excellent to distinctly underwhelming Chardonnay wines. Because Chardonnay is one of the major international grapes, there are huge brands churning out millions of bottles of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon the world over. Chardonnay's image in particular suffered in these hands years ago because they tended to be too sweet with heavy handed oak treatment. Thankfully, the style is changing to something more palatable but to fully appreciate how utterly delicious a good Chardonnay is, find a small quality conscious producer making wines from a specific area which will express their uniqueness and provenance.
Chardonnay is often the sole variety in a wine, but sometimes it will be blended with Colombard (usually for a fairly basic, but good value, fruity white wine).
Champagne is a blend of 3 varieties; of which 1 is Chardonnay and the other 2 are red grapes. If you see 'Blanc de Blancs' on a champagne label that means it is made purely from Chardonnay.
Matching Chardonnay to food will totally depend on the style of the wine. Crisp, fresh, Chablis is absolutely perfect with all manner of seafood. Richer styles of Chardonnay go brilliantly with roast chicken or roast pork. A creamy style of Chardonnay will go with a creamy or cheesy dish.
Bois d’Yver Chablis
Bois d’Yver Chablis premier cru
Remoissenet Chablis Fourchaume
Light and fresh styles:
Domaine St Denis Macon Lugny
Patrick Javillier Bourgogne Blanc Cuvée des Forgets
Remoissenet Givry Blanc
Beauregard Pouilly Fuissé
Patrick Javillier Bourgogne Blanc Les Oligocènes
Manciat Macon Marizottes
South of France:
Rives Blanques Odyssee Chardonnay
Domaine St Rose Sirocco Chardonnay (unoaked)
Rustenberg Chardonnay, South Africa
Cefiro Chardonnay, Chile
Rochioli Chardonnay, California
Dog Point Chardonnay, New Zealand