Rather interestingly, you’ll often here Chardonnay as a complete no-go for some wine lovers. However, it is the most widely planted white grape variety in the world and used in some of the most revered and expensive wines on the planet.
What makes the ‘No Way Chardonnay’ opinion more interesting is that Chardonnay is one of the most versatile, if not the most versatile, grape variety. From the rich, buttery oaked offerings of California and Australia, to the lean and racier Chablis of Burgundy.
So, if you’re just looking to learn more about your favourite grape variety, or you stay well clear of Chardonnay, be sure to read this article. We’ll take you through the structure and different flavour profiles that this grape variety can display. We’ll also take you to wine regions across the world and show you Chardonnay from around the globe.
You will be leaving here keen to pick up a bottle of Chardonnay – we guarantee it! Let’s get going.
Chardonnay Grape Variety – Structure, flavour and winemaking practices
Chardonnay can be planted in almost any location. Its versatility is its biggest asset. The natural factors and climate of the vineyard can have a huge impact on the style of Chardonnay you will get. Cool climate Chardonnay is worlds apart from warm climate Chardonnay.
For example, in a cool climate you’ll find a racy, biting acidity and green and citrus fruit flavours. Think green apple, pear, lemon and lime.
As you move into more moderate climates, then acidity will drop and the fruit flavours will move onto fleshy stone fruits, like peach, apricot and nectarine. You may also get touches of melon.
Then, when you get into the hotter regions, there will be even less acidity. You will also note that the grape variety has taken on tropical fruit flavours. Look out for pineapple, passion fruit and banana.
You’d have to dislike a whole lot of fruit flavours to dislike all forms of this grape variety.
While it is indeed versatile, it is not without its challenges. It can be hurt by spring frosts as it buds early. The delicate buds can be frozen and killed on the vine. This is a particular problem in Burgundy.
Another issue is that the acidity can drop off very quickly after ripening. This means that the timing of the harvest is essential. If you leave the grapes on the vine for too long, then the wine will be left unbalanced and unappealing.
It is also an ideal blank canvas for winemakers to impart their own style. Winemaking techniques such as MLF, lees and oak ageing can all be employed to alter the flavour profile, structure and finish of the Chardonnay grape variety. Let’s take a look at what each of these mean.
First, MLF. This stands for Malolactic Fermentation. Grapes are made up of tart malic acid. MLF converts this into lactic acid, (which you’ll find in milk). Due to this you’ll get notes of cream, butter, cheese and other such dairy products. When these are well integrated, the end result can be delicious. This process also has the benefit of adding a creamy texture and microbiological stability. If a wine is described as ‘buttery’, then MLF likely has something to do with it.
Then, we have lees ageing. Lees are dead yeast cells which are a natural byproduct of the winemaking process. It may sound a tad unappealing, but when a wine has extended contact with lees, you’ll generally notes biscuit and bread aromas. It will also add body and texture to the wine. This is a regular practice in traditional method sparkling wine such as Champagne and Crémant, (both of which regularly use Chardonnay grapes).
Finally, we have oak ageing. This practice is widely employed in non-aromatic grape varieties, for both red and white wine. Chardonnay is commonly aged in oak. The end goal of doing this is to allow the wine to access a small amount of oxygen which can get through the porous wood vessels.
Winemakers can choose to either use small, or new oak barrels. These will both have a greater effect on the wine. However, larger old barrels will have a far less pronounced effect. Oak ageing is a great way of adding texture and complexity. It can impart notes of vanilla, nutmeg, coconut, butterscotch, cedar, charred wood and many more. Many of the new world Chardonnay wines will go through oak ageing, as will a number of appellations in Burgundy, (particularly the premium wines).
Old World Chardonnay
As it is the most widely planted white grape variety, it is unsurprising that it has a few homes in the old world. We’ll take you through some of our favourite places to pick up Chardonnay in the old world.
France is where so much wine begins and nowhere is more of a home to Chardonnay than Burgundy. Even within this single region you can see the versatility in Chardonnay. We’ll begin with Chablis. This region produced wines which were a hit in Parisian cafes of the 1800s, but it encountered issues with phylloxera and the accompanying financial instability. Then, improvement in transport meant that cheaper wines took their place in the cafe.
However, Chablis can provide a unique experience. This, (paired with excellent quality), has meant that the popularity of Chablis grew. Today, world class Chablis is readily available and great examples can be found at reasonable prices. You can expect a flinty edge, with a defined minerality that melds with subtle notes of nuts and a powerful acidity. Notes of apple, lemon and lime will often be the dominant flavours here.
Now, if we move south to the Côte d’Or region of Burgundy, the wines will be far different. Places like Puligny-Montrachet are responsible for some of the best Chardonnay in the world. Ideal conditions for this grape vareity are employed in the vineyard. The ‘thermal belt’ of south facing slopes allow for a long and slow ripening period.
This imparts a deep flavour intensity, which means they’re able to withstand the winemaking practices referenced above. It’s not unusual for the best wines to undergo MLF, lees and oak ageing. You can expect deeply complex and powerful wines, which retain fresh fruit flavours. They are delicious, but they are not cheap.
Outside of Burgundy, an honourable mention must go to the sparkling wines of France. Chardonnay is one of the three grape varieties which is permitted in Champagne, (along with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). It provide citrus and stone fruit flavours, as well as structural acidity. If you want a sparkling wine that is just Chardonnay, then look for Blanc de Blancs Champagne.
Similarly, with Crémant, Chardonnay is frequently used. Each region will use their own grape varieties. For example, Crémant d’Alsace will use Pinot Blanc and Riesling as they are key varieties of the Alsace region. Yet, winemakers will often blend in Chardonnay. This can be to emulate the flavour profile of Champagne, but it will also be used because it is such a good fit for sparkling wine.
Next on our list of old world nations, which are known for Chardonnay, is Germany. You’ll often find Chardonnay cropping up alongside other so called ‘Burgundy grapes‘. In Germany, these are called Gräuburgunder, Weißerburgunder and Spätburgunder, (which you’ll know as Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir respectively).
Next to the grapes, in regions such as the Rheinhessen and Palatinate you’ll find Chardonnay displaying a variety of aromas. Germany can often be cool, so you’ll find the more acidic styles of wine with notes of apple, gooseberry and citrus fruits. However, in more moderate climates you’ll get notes of melon and stone fruit.
German Chardonnay can be a really excellent mix of quality and value. We highly recommend you seek some out!
OTher Old World NAtions
Outside of these two countries, Chardonnay does crop up repeatedly. Almost every wine-making country will have some form of this grape variety. You can find it in high-yielding wines of Veneto in Italy. Then, you’ll also see it pop up in Austria, often in similar styles to that of Germany.
Furthermore, in the Catalonia region of Spain, it is frequently used in the production of Cava. It is employed in the same way that French winemakers will use this grape in the production of Crémant.
New World Chardonnay
Now, we move onto the new world wine nations. Many of these have taken Chardonnay and ran with it. They’ll have crafted their own styles which are quite different to the old world ways, as they aren’t bound by the same strict regulations. However, they retain similar characteristics. You get biting acidic wines, to luscious tropical offerings.
Once again, Chardonnay will be produced in all of the wine regions in the USA. However, there are two which stand out in terms of quality. One is obvious – California. That’s where we’ll begin.
Chardonnay is the leading grape variety in the whole of California accounting for 16% of all the wine produced, (MacNeil 681). However, it’s often far from good. Over-oaked, intensely buttery examples which are lacking any nuance or subtlety can be found throughout the region.
Yet, when it is good, it is great. This takes care and attention though. It is not easy to create a balanced and complex Chardonnay, with an intensity of flavour to stand up to the big winemaking practices. Although, it is out there.
Once more, the versatility is evident. Cooler areas like the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast provide the lean, acidic Chardonnay that Chablis lovers will seek out. Then, you can delve into the top wineries in Napa if you’re after those buttery and big, bold styles of Chardonnay.
Outside of California, we have to mention Oregon. Oregon, in many respects, is the Burgundy of America. It has established a reputation for lean, yet complex and delicious Pinot Noir. Chardonnay lags behind Pinot Noir in this region, but many winemakers have hopes that this will become the premier white grape of the region.
Recently, clones of the Chardonnay grape from Dijon have been introduced into Oregon. This has seen a notable jump in quality. These new styles of wine are not dissimilar to Chablis. They are citrus heavy, with touches of quince, nut and a defined minerality. This is certainly a region to watch for any lovers of this white grape variety.
Australia is another nation where Chardonnay has found a great amount of success. We’ll start with the Barossa Valley region in South Australia. While much of South Australia has found more recognition for their Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay has established a reputation here. Particularly, for the bigger, oaked examples of this grape.
Outside of the Barossa Valley, great Chardonnay can be found in Victoria. The Yarra Valley, Geelong and Mornington Peninsula sub-regions produce excellent racy Chardonnay. The areas benefit from cooling sea breezes to lock in acidity. This means that sparkling wine also thrives here. In fact, Champagne house Moët & Chandon actually founded Chandon Australia in the Yarra Valley.
On the topic of sparkling wine, Tasmania has also built up a reputation for high quality sparkling wine. This is thanks to the cool maritime climate. Unsurprisingly, this means that Chardonnay has found a loving home on this island off the coast of mainland Australia.
We hope that we’ve given you some new areas of Chardonnay to discover, or maybe we’ve convinced you try a grape variety that you swore you never would! If you like white wine, then it is almost a guarantee that there is a style of Chardonnay out there for you. Don’t dismiss this, sometimes controversial, grape variety. There’s a reason that so many winemakers choose to grow this grape!
MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., Workman Publishing, 2015.
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