The Grape & The Jigsaw
Among white grape varieties, Chardonnay is arguably the most popular in the world and surely the most famous overall. A common feature in highly popular grape, its wines are known to be very easily enjoyable and low in acidity. However, winemakers tend to like the flexibility of Chardonnay and its adaptability when used to produce either dry or sparkling wines.
Chardonnay can express different styles and those are a direct consequence of two elements: winemaking and climate. Depending on those, Chardonnay wines can be lean and crispy mineral, display tropical favours, or highlight clear traces of oak. In cool climates they tend to be lighter in body and high in acidity, in warmer areas aromas and flavours becomes fruitier.
Because of its strong dependence from terroir, it is not a surprise that Chardonnay is historically associated with Burgundy, a wine region thriving through the many different shades of wine expressed by local producers. But it’s not a surprise either Chardonnay has an affinity for oak, either French or American…
Chardonnay is considered to be a “neutral” grape, with much of the diversity in flavour dependant on the soil it is grown in, the region where it is grown and, of course, how the wine is produced. This is often dependent on whether the wine is aged in oak or stainless steel.
A Burgundy Essential
Finest white Burgundy wines are historically made from Chardonnay, which imparts a distinctly fresh and zesty aroma. In Burgundy this delicate variety is overpowered when blended with other grapes, but still produces a powerful and full-bodied white. Young fresh wines normally give off more fruit, while those beginning to age will show more complexity and intense flavours, such as butter, caramel and honey.
The Burgundy white wines considered “quintessential” when it comes to Chardonnay are produced in the sub-region of Chablis: in fact, it is the only grape variety allowed and has been mastered by growers in the area since its very early days. Due to the cool climate, wines in Chablis are generally characterised by more acidity and less fruity flavours when compared to Chardonnay wines from warmer regions, yet they are still quite delicate and medium-bodied. They also tend to be dry, highlighting purity in both aromas and taste. Chablis uncommonly carries flavours of butter, an indication of oak-ageing, as it is common practice for the wines to be fermented in stainless steel tanks. Pale yellow wines with hints of green are the most common expression of colour for Chablis wines, turning light gold when ageing.
Chardonnay is the dominant grape grown in the Mâconnais too: these wines are white or straw-coloured, with aromas of roses, honeysuckle, fern, lemongrass and citrus. They are known to have flavours of pine, quince and fennel.
Among the producers distinguishing themselves for Chardonnay in Burgundy, names such as William Fèvre from Chablis and Bouchard Père & Fils from Côte de Beaune might sound very familiar to wine connoisseurs, as well as Domaine Saumaize Michelin and Domaine de la Bongran from Mâconnais.
A Champagne Pioneer
Along with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and often blended with them, Chardonnay is also one of the primary grape varieties of Champagne. When not blended, Champagnes from Chardonnay only are called Blanc de Blancs, White from Whites.
In the 1980s, Chardonnay become so popular in California that the surface of planted vineyards surpassed that of France by the end of the decade and in 2005 accounted for 25% of the world total planting. California Chardonnays used to be very high in alcohol level, so much that in recent years winemakers started using processes to bring it down. An early trend was also to emulate the style of Burgundy wines, although this soon was replaced by richer, buttery and oaked styles.
In terms of premium wines, Californian areas producing quality Chardonnays are the ones exposed to cooler climates, especially with coastal fogs slowing down the ripening of the grape and allow to develop more flavours. Santa Barbara is one of the regions worth mentioning, with Au Bon Climat winery being a strong ambassador. The signature style draws from Burgundy-inspired winemaking, with its Chardonnay being lighter and fresher compared to the sweeter, more alcoholic and more powerful Californian traditional wines. The wines made by Jim “Wild Boy” Clendenen combine the mineral precision and grace of the Burgundy region with the stylishness and originality of California.
In the Southern Hemisphere
In Australia, Chardonnay is the dominant grape for whites: cooler climates provide a light-bodied and crisp wine, while warmer climates produce medium to full-bodied productions. The cool climate of Margaret River makes this region also suitable for high-quality Chardonnays.
While the style of Australian Chardonnay is mostly characterized by the mass-production in the warmer regions, it is indeed the cooler climate of the Southern areas that have been delivering crispier and less oaked wines with lime and citrus notes. In Hunter Valley we find examples of wines displaying more richness and smoky notes. Furthermore, some areas are renown to distinguish themselves for mixing Burgundian winemaking styles and New World climates.
In New Zealand, Marlborough has been said to produce some of the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world, which growers attribute to the dry maritime climate in the area. Since it is primarily a white wine region, Chardonnay has found a way to thrive in the area and Marlborough deserves a pin on the map when it comes to Chardonnay in the Southern Hemisphere. Historically, it was the Eastern coast of the Northern Island that have seen the most success with Chardonnay: the wines display noticeable acidity and leanness. But with the discovering of better clonal varieties, the overall quality of New Zealand Chardonnay has increased, dragged by the aforementioned Marlborough region, as well as Canterbury and Nelson.
Last but not least, in South Africa Chardonnay is not playing a lead role in white varieties yet. However, efforts to promote “authentic” Chardonnay helped to increase plantings and in 2004 it was the third-most widely planted white wine grape behind Chenin blanc and Colombard.
Gentle and adaptable, Chardonnay has built its reputation thriving in different ways across different terroirs. We like to think about this grape as an extended, international jigsaw where every delicious piece equally contributes to the bigger picture.
Perhaps a painting, the right imagery to pair with this masterpiece of a grape.