‘Anything but’ or ‘Nothing but’ – Which Team Are You On?
Known for decades for producing some of the world’s best white wines in France’s famed Burgundy region, it was the boom in New World winemaking in the 1980s and 1990s that put the word “Chardonnay” front and centre on wine labels.
The vine’s versatility meant that every wine producing country in the world could plant Chardonnay and test themselves against more established growers elsewhere.
As with everything in life, too much success inevitably leads to backlash. In the 2000s the cool kids of the wine crowd joined the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement, rejecting the overly oaked styles of California and Australia, and the dull, tasteless, and mass marketed approaches from the big brands.
Fast forward to the modern day and Chardonnay is in a much healthier position. California, Australia, and New Zealand in particular are pushing to cooler climate regions, showing off what this grape can do with longer hang times and plush terroir. Add that to a newly mobilized Old World push for quality, value, and relevance, and Chardonnay is firmly back on the wine menu!
It’s almost impossible to generalize about the flavours of Chardonnay without referencing where it’s grown.
Cool climates give aromas of green apples, pears and lemony citrus, and can often show off the minerality of the soils they grow in, or the salinity of the seas they grow by. Moderate climates can show apricots, peaches and nectarines. Finally, warm climates lend themselves to tropical fruits and floral aromas.
Flavours are also subject to how the wine is handled in the cellar. It has a natural affinity with oak which can add smokey, toasty and vanilla aromas which, if well judged, complement the fruit profile incredibly well.
Some winemakers lower the acidity and add flavour by encouraging Malolactic Fermentation, which is the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid. This can leave distinct buttery notes.
In order to add to the mouthfeel of the final wine, winemakers can also leave the wine on the lees for an extended period and occasionally stir them in. This will make it feel bigger bodied, and often add yeasty flavours of malt and dough.
As a still white wine, Chardonnay can be big, bold, and buttery, to tropical fruit bombs, and all the way to tight and refreshingly citrusy.
Cooler climate Chardonnays, such as those from Chablis and Tasmania, are known for their mineral profile and aromatic restraint.
Chardonnay is often used in the production of traditional method sparkling wine.
Chardonnay styles allow for a wide range of food pairing options. Lighter styles are wonderful with seafood, whilst textured styles work brilliantly with creamy pasta dishes and roast white meats.
A smokey, buttery Californian chardonnay and a butter and garlic roast chicken with all the trimmings is a very happy combination for a Sunday afternoon.
FRANCE – Burgundy
Chardonnay’s fine wine heartland is the Burgundy region in the east of France. Although you’ll never see the name of the grape on the label (the Burgundians believe you should just know that white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay) it is the heartbeat of the famous vineyards of Montrachet, Corton, and Beaune, with prices to match.
Chablis is a small region at the north end of Burgundy. It’s here that Chardonnay is grown in a much cooler climate on thick clay soils. Chablis are sharper and display more minerality, often showcasing a distinct chalky and struck match edge.
FRANCE – Champagne
Although more grapes are allowed, the Champagne region revolves around three major grape varieties. Two of which are red: Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay is the major white variety. Even at the coolest extremities it can ripen. The ability to produce strong flavours with high acidity make it a perfect sparkling wine grape. It also allows the best champagnes to age for decades.
Australia is one of the countries that polarised opinions of Chardonnay in the wine world. Although top producers created wonderful wines from Margaret River in the west, to Hunter Valley in the east, the major brands planted it en masse in river regions cropping high yields of average fruit and destroying hundreds of square kilometres of land in the process. New plantings in cool climate regions like Tasmania are taking Aussie Chardonnay back to the top.
Although most people would associate New Zealand wine with the eponymous kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay is now it’s second most planted white variety. Some of the best New World examples are in regions such as Gisborne and Central Otago.
Once again, the dichotomy of the wine trade in South Africa, between brand producers and premium wines, revolves around grapes such as Chardonnay. The best examples come from Elgin and Stellenbosch.
USA – California
Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay was the wine that shook the world. This Napa Valley wine beat off the competition in the blind tasting challenge known as the Judgement of Paris to be named the best white wine on show, ahead of the famed names of France. This firmly put American wine on the map.
Today, Chardonnay is grown across the regions of Napa Valley, the cooler coastal Sonoma County, and the more southerly Santa Barbara. American Chardonnay can be a wonderful experience, especially if you can get someone else to pay!
Winemakers grow Chardonnay all over the world. From Brazil to Canada, from the UK to Lebanon, the styles and flavours Chardonnay can produce make it a wonderful variety for winemakers and wine drinkers alike.