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Chardonnay: a humble yet noble grape

Words by Victoria Kwok, Commercial Strategy Lead, DipWSET student


Before I started delving properly into the study of wine a few years ago, I always found Chardonnay to be a bit of a banal variety – the penne pasta equivalent in wine, if you will. In honour of International Chardonnay Day [1], I thought it fitting to cast a spotlight on this humble yet noble variety.

With the recent explosion in popularity of white and rosé wines that fit a similar consumption occasion, it is easy to overlook Chardonnay in lieu of something perhaps a bit more “interesting.” A refreshing Albariño, for example, or an aromatic Gewürztraminer, are some of what I’ve been reaching for recently on spring days al fresco, rare as these warm days may be. Yet what is it that makes Chardonnay the second most planted white wine grape varieties (211,000 hectares in 2017, just behind Airén) – popular to the extent that there is a day dedicated to its celebration?


A brief history of Chardonnay

Chardonnay most likely originated in the 14th century in Mâconnais, an area of Burgundy in France. Recent DNA profiling has found connections between Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and the nearly extinct variety Gouias Blanc, suggesting that the first Chardonnay vine was borne from a cross-pollination of the aforementioned. It was then developed by Cistercian monks who spread the planting of Chardonnay more widely in Burgundy and across France including to Champagne. 

This historical noble grape variety [2] then spread further to the new world in the mid-1900s, starting with Australia, USA, South Africa, and onto many others. Since 1990, it has more than tripled its total growing area, firmly cementing its position as the world’s favourite international white wine grape.


Wide range of wine styles

Besides being one of the most planted white grape varieties in volume and area, Chardonnay is also arguably the most widely planted geographically across Europe, North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australasia. Chardonnay’s adaptability to a range of warm to cool Continental, Mediterranean, and Maritime climates results in the variety of attractive styles we see available commercially from cool Burgundy and Tasmania to warm Mendoza and Stellenbosch. In cooler climates, you can expect to find aromas and flavours of lemon, citrus zest, green apple, potentially some minerality. Whereas in warmer climates, riper fruit notes such as melon, peach, and pineapple can dominate. It is thought that the best expression of the variety is from grapes grown in clay, limestone, and chalky soils.

Chardonnay is a neutral rather than an aromatic grape variety. Despite being a traditional noble grape variety, it is humble in standalone varietal expressiveness. Its neutrality lends itself well to a wide range of styles – a reliable canvas for the art of winemaking. This can include winemaking techniques such as bâtonnage (lees stirring, which gives toast, bread, pastry notes), malolactic fermentation (buttery, creamy notes). Some producers will choose to age their wine in new/old oak or sur lie, which adds additional texture and complexity. The usage of oak in particular can add vanilla, coconut, spicy, and smoky notes depending on the type and age of oak used, all the way from accessible to ultra-premium, including this easy drinking example by Banrock Station in the Garçon Wines sustainable bottle. 

This results in a variety of styles, from the rich, buttery, unctuous styles characteristic of premium new-oak-aged Burgundy Chardonnay, to lighter, more refreshing, fruit-forward and mineral styles in other areas including some parts of the new world.


Sloping Chablis vineyards in Burgundy, France. Photo credits Getty, WineMag
Notable appellations across the globe

Chardonnay is one of the types of grapes where you are less likely to know that the wine is made from Chardonnay from the label unless you know that the appellation produces Chardonnay. Varietal-labelling was made popular by new world wines in the 20th century, but much of the old world continues to label wines by their well-known appellations. These include the historical and protected appellations in France such as Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault, Mâconnais, Chablis, Petit Chablis. 

Highlighting one of the most well-known in the UK, Chablis is home to distinctive Chardonnays, grown in a cool region that can face ripening challenges. The wines are noted for their notes of fresh citrus, honeysuckle, and hay. In some Grand Cru sites, the soils are known to contain fossilized shells which lend a beautiful minerality, flint notes, infusing the wines with a sense of terroir. Petit Chablis, contrary to popular misconception, is not necessarily a lesser Chablis, but is distinguished from Chablis in its soil type and sun exposure, typically producing more youthful, fruity styles.

Of course, the most popular application of Chardonnay will be in Champagne. Most Champagnes are made from a blend between Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier; or in the case of Blanc de Blancs, 100% Chardonnay. Again, the neutrality of the grape and its refreshing acidity in cool climates creates the perfect base for effervescence, winemaking and ageing choices that are the hallmark of excellent Champagnes.

Outside of France, Sonoma County in the US has a number of AVA (American Viticultural Area, equivalent to an appellation) producing high quality Chardonnays, counting Carneros and the Russian River Valley among its most famous. Some heavily oaked Chardonnays rival the rich styles of Burgundy Cru wines, while others bring a refreshing, fruit-led, mineral character, not to mention excellent sparkling wines including by the likes of Roederer that can occasionally be confused for Champagne even to a trained palate. 


Whether at a trade celebratory event or simply enjoying a glass if you’re able to make it out for newly opened indoor dining here in the UK, I hope you’re able to raise a glass to this humble yet noble grape – I certainly plan to. 

[1] Chardonnay Day does indeed exist. It dates back to 2010 when instigated by Californian sommelier and wine marketer Rick Bakas as the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, often used as a landmark to celebrate the beginning of the summer.

[2] While there is no official definition for noble grape varieties, these have historically referred to grapes associated with high quality wine and will retain desirable characteristics no matter where they are planted - Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir.

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