Grape school: Chardonnay

Grape school: Chardonnay

by Westgarth Wines May 23, 2024

Chardonnay is one of the most versatile and widely planted white wine grape varieties in the world. From its Burgundian homeland, it has since found a second home in almost every wine-producing country thanks to its adaptability and the broad range of styles and flavors it can exhibit.

Origins and history

Chardonnay is believed to have originated in the Burgundy region of France, where it still produces some of the world’s most acclaimed white wines. The grape’s name is derived from the village of Chardonnay in the Mâconnais region. Historical records indicate that the grape has been in cultivation since at least the 12th century.

Some theorize that it was brought to Burgundy by returning Crusaders from the Middle East. In contrast, modern DNA fingerprinting research now suggests that it is a result of a cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc, which could link it back to Roman intervention. The international spread of Chardonnay began in earnest in the 18th and 19th centuries, as viticulturists recognized its ability to adapt to different climates and terroirs.

Appearance and growing conditions

Chardonnay grapes are medium-sized with a green-skinned appearance that belies the potential complexity and richness of its wine. It is a relatively hardy vine, adaptable to both cooler climates and warmer areas, although it thrives particularly well in chalky soils that resemble its native Burgundy. It benefits from a cooler growing season to maintain its acidity, which is a key component in its structure and taste.

Flavor profile

The flavor profile of Chardonnay can vary dramatically based on where it is grown and how it is made. In cooler climates, it tends to exhibit crisp flavors of green apple, pear, and citrus, while in warmer areas, it shows richer notes of melon, peach, and tropical fruits. However, thanks to its broad structure, its true strength lies in being a “blank canvas”, rather than any one wholly distinguishing character.

The use of oak aging can introduce additional layers of complexity with hints of vanilla, coconut, and spice. Notably, Chardonnay has a natural affinity for oak, which can complement its innate flavors without overpowering them. Nevertheless, Chardonnay which undergoes excessive oak maturation or infusion has something of a reputation that once coined the unfortunate acronym ABC, “anything but Chardonnay”. As such, the key to Chardonnay and oak is moderation.

Food pairings

Chardonnay's broad palette of styles makes it an extremely versatile wine for pairing with food. Lighter, unoaked Chardonnays pair well with seafood, salads, and lightly seasoned poultry dishes, while the richer, oak-aged versions can stand up to heartier fare like grilled meats, creamy sauces, and strong cheeses. Furthermore, Chardonnay’s sparkling form, Champagne, pairs beautifully with sushi, fried and deep-fried foods, egg dishes, and creamy cheeses. Its versatility extends to a wide range of culinary traditions, making it a favorite choice for many dishes.

Notable producers

France remains the standard-bearer for high-quality Chardonnay, particularly in regions like Chablis and the broader Burgundy area, where producers like Domaine Leflaive and Coche Dury are prominent. In Champagne, Salon is particularly renowned for its mineral expression of Chardonnay.

Beyond France, the grape has also excelled in California, Australia, and New Zealand. In California, producers like Kongsgaard and Au Bon Climat have gained fame for their refined Chardonnays. Meanwhile, in Australia, wineries such as Leeuwin Estate demonstrate the grape’s potential in the Margaret River region, and New Zealand’s Kumeu River has triumphed over Burgundian expressions during blind tastings

Conclusion

Chardonnay’s ability to adapt to a wide range of climates and winemaking techniques has made it a global favorite. From the flinty, crisp Chardonnays of Chablis to the lush, rounded versions from California, the grape offers an impressive diversity that caters to a myriad of palates. Its widespread cultivation and the multitude of styles it can present ensure that Chardonnay remains a cornerstone of the wine world. Whether enjoyed on its own or as a companion to food, Chardonnay continues to captivate and delight wine drinkers around the globe.


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