Along with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay is one of the best known of all white grape varieties. It became very fashionable in the 1980s, when Australian producers created accessible fruit-laden wines based loosely on white Burgundy. The Australian producers took the French method of casking in oak to extremes by adding oak chips in ‘teabags’. By the 1990s, a backlash was taking place. Oz Clarke said at the time that Chardonnay was… ‘the ruthless coloniser and destroyer of the world’s vineyards and the world’s palates’.
Today, Chardonnay is experiencing a revival as the heavily oaked Australian Chardonnays of the 1980s are cold-shouldered in exchange for a new breed of crisp and vibrant, unoaked Chardonnay.
Countries of Production
The Chardonnay ‘vogue’ resulted in the grape being planted all over the world. Although its modern origins lie in Burgundy, where it forms the basis for truly great white wines such as Chablis, Meursault, and the Grand Cru of Montrachet. Its ancient origins were considered obscure with many Middle East growers claiming Lebanon or Syria to be its birthplace. However, DNA fingerprinting has established Chardonnay to be a cross between the Pinot Blanc and Gouais Blanc grape varieties. These were widely grown in the vineyards of eastern France in the Middle Ages, giving ample opportunity for interbreeding.
Of course, it is also the main component in Champagne, mixed with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, or simply bottled as pure varietal sparkling Blanc De Blanc.
Chardonnay is planted extensively in the United States and Canada. In 2001, plantings in California, at 44,509 ha, outnumbered those in France (35,252 ha). Although, in the past, Californian growers frequently produced a wine that was too alcoholic and unbalanced. More recently, producers have been using specialised techniques to bring alcohol levels down to between 12% and 14%.
The other big producer is Australia where, by the 1990s, it was the most common grapevine in the country. Around this time Semillon and Colombard were introduced as blending partners. Today, New Zealand, understanding the demand for unoaked Chardonnay, is making some very good varietal wines.
Chardonnay does best on chalk, clay and limestone. Limestone terroir in particular seems to add minerality to the end product. That said, common characteristics of Chardonnay can be hard to define as the grape is quite neutral and takes on its individuality from the terroir, the production methods employed, and whether or not oak is used. Normally though, it can be identified by a rich, buttery, peachy aroma. On the palate, it tends not to be too acidic and can achieve quite high alcohol levels.
French Chardonnays like Chablis tend to be elegant, flinty and a little more acidic, yet mellow with age to produce a honeyed bouquet. The introduction of oak gives a caramel or vanilla edge. This is evident in white Burgundies, but generally, heavy oaking, as employed in the New World, is frowned upon in France.
By comparison, New World Chardonnays possess plenty of tropical fruit, most notably in Chile. Australia has been known for oaky sweet Chardonnays in the past, but now produces Chardonnay of more defined character dependent on the terroir; from wine full of citrus in the Cowra region, to wines more reminiscent of Chablis in Western Australia. Overall, there has been a definite shift from the golden, oaky Chardonnays of the 1980s to lighter, crisper variants with hints of nectarines and peaches.
In Italy, Chardonnay is mostly seen as a blending grape to be added to almost all of Italy’s local grapes. More recently, varietal wines seem to be on the increase.
Matching with Food
Chardonnay is commonly paired with chicken and turkey and is a common choice for the Christmas table. White Burgundy in particular is a good choice here. Oaked varieties do not go well with fish, unless smoked. However, shellfish is a different matter. Scallops and lobster both go brilliantly with Chardonnay.
Starter — Snails in Parsley and Garlic
Main — Ham in Chablis and Mustard Sauce
Dessert — Grilled Peaches with Cinnamon Cream
French Chardonnay is the obvious choice for the starter and main course here. Chardonnay and dessert is a little trickier, but some wineries in California have taken to harvesting the grape as late as December resulting in a sweeter wine, with overtones of honey and of oak.
Did you know?
In the past, Chardonnay and the Pinot Blanc grape varieties were often mistaken for one another, particularly in Italy.
Some French Chardonnay’s are made ‘sur lie’, literally ‘on the lees’ mixed with the leftovers from the fermentation. This can produce a more complex wine with a hint of yeast.