Chardonnay is the world’s most popular grape for crafting white wine, as well as Champagne, sparkling wines and dessert wines. In fact, Chardonnay is the 5th most widely planted grape varietal in the world. One taste of a great Chardonnay and it is easy to see why.
Today around the world, there are some 30+ different clones of Chardonnay producing wine. Chardonnay the varietal is the result of a cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. Researchers are still not exactly sure when this cross-breeding took place. Though it happened centuries ago, as it is likely the Romans planted Gouais Blanc on French soils in areas where Pinot Noir was also planted - and from there, nature took its course. While France is the grape’s spiritual home, especially in the numerous Burgundy appellations.
It also produces high quality wine in Australia, America, New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, Chile and many other wine producing countries. In Burgundy-France, there are too many great producers to list. The best White Burgundy comes from the Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault and the hill of Corton-Charlemagne appellations.
Chardonnay grows in almost every wine-production country in the world, because of its adaptability to a wide range of climates. It has a full-bodied taste and medium to high acidity, along with expressions which vary from dry or off- dry wines, through to sweet.
While Chardonnay can produce quality fruit in a variety of terroirs, soils and climates, the best expression for Chardonnay grapes comes from soils with high concentrations of chalk, clay and limestone. All three of those soil types dominate the best terroir of Burgundy. Most of the time, Chardonnay grapes are used to produce 100% Chardonnay wines. However, as the grape is versatile, it is used as a blending grape from time to time.
When it comes to making wine from Chardonnay, this varietal is rather neutral in dominant characters, which makes for a malleable varietal for a wine. A blank canvas on which a winemaker can express as much or as little as they feel, balanced for its final purpose.
It is this versatility that makes it so popular - because it can be all things to all people, from lean and crisp, scented with green apples and minerals to lush, buttery, oaky wines that taste like tropical fruits. Chardonnay responds in such a generous way to winemaking techniques. For example when the wine goes through malolactic fermentation (the softening of harsh acids to softer notes) - the initial natural crisp green fruit flavours turn towards soft, buttery even creamy flavours and palate textures.
Chardonnay though obviously a white varietal - responds in so many positive ways to oak barrel ageing and barrel fermentation. Fermentation and aging in oak barrels gives levels of toasty flavours, a creaminess, vanilla and other spice notes, and the resulting wine becomes fuller in style, mouth feel and length. And overall a lot more complex and typically not at the cost or loss of fruit flavours, but in most cases, resulting in more generous flavours.
Those of you over 40 years of age will remember the 1990’s - when Chardonnay got a bad reputation - chiefly for the aggressive use of oak and over worked fruit. But this was not the fault of the grape - remember oak is a winemakers’ problem and choice, this is not a fault of or grape problem. Wineries were putting Chardonnay into new, heavily oaked barrels (even stirring them with added oak chips, oak staves or even oak powder) to mask unripe flaws or simply to add overt caramel, woody notes oak can impart, which had become rampant in several wine-producing countries (e.g. Australia, USA).
At the end of the 1990’s just at the turn of the new millennium - winemakers went completely the other way, and started to focus and promote ‘Naked’ Chardonnay style wines. This simply means ‘un-oaked’ from start to finish the fruit and finished wine spent all its time in stainless steel tanks. Chardonnay which has never been in an oak barrel, retains the crispy green apple character it naturally has.
Chardonnay as a wine ages well. Not all white varietals and white wines can age well for a long period, but Chardonnay can. As you age Chardonnay in a cellar for several years, watch as the colour turns golden and gives your mouth a rounded, generous, voluptuous, and long lasting experience.
Chardonnay is also an easy style for wine and food pairings, which is ideal both at home and in licenced premises. Because Chardonnay comes in a wide variety of styles, mouth feel, different textures, levels of sweetness, levels of oak and acidity, there is an equally diverse array of wine and food pairings that work with Chardonnay. From oysters, through to roast pork with apple sauce and aged creamy cheeses.
Chardonnay is a relatively easy varietal to cultivate. It adapts and ripens in a myriad of different terroirs. Another reasons the grape has gained such popularity is its ease in reflecting the area from where it is grown - ‘sense of place’. Decisions made by grape-growers and winemaker easily express their influence, which allows for a wide variety of different styles crafted. These decisions range from cropping levels, when to pick, the level of natural sugar in the fruit (final alcohol), the length of time and temperature used during fermentation, the use of malolactic fermentation and how much oak used, (if any) to ageing and maturing the wine. These are only a few of the many decisions a winemaker makes during vintage.
This wide range of choices allows for countless styles of wine produced from Chardonnay ranging from flavours of green apples, pears, citrus, mineral, through to tropical fruits in nature. The range of wine styles for Chardonnay comes first and foremost from the terroir the grape is planted in. But it’s more complicated than that. The type of vessel used for vinification and aging plays a major role in the development of the character and style of Chardonnay. For example, rich, buttery styles come from grapes aged and fermented in French oak barrels. Chardonnay with vanilla notes were aged in a large percentage of new, French oak barrels. Lifted, bright, crisp styles of wine usually come from grapes that were vinified and aged for a short period in stainless steel tanks.
Every year the options and choices open to a winemaker are only limited by the market (what will sell) - not the winemaker. Though you will always find a winery and winemaker making small volumes of something special - which expresses how wondrous Chardonnay can be. It is impossible to make the same wine twice - each vintage brings something new and exciting to taste and share with good food and friends. Enjoy the journey.