Chardonnay is known as a classic grape. Grown in most parts of the world, it’s a grape that is praised, revered, bashed and misunderstood. It’s the white-wine darling of the American appetite, and a golden star in Burgundy. It’s a staple in the winemaker’s dream palette.
I hear many people say, I don’t like chardonnay. Often, the reference is to a big, over-oaked chardonnay that once plagued the U.S. for at least a decade. Today, American chardonnays have more moderate oak treatments and there are all styles of chardonnay from every part of the globe to please most white-wine drinkers.
Chardonnay is a fairly neutral green-skinned grape that lends itself to display either the ‘terroir’ (the soils and climate of the vineyard) and/or winemaking practices such as oak influence. It relatively is easy to grow and can be easily manipulated to meet the desired style of a winemaker.
Chardonnay is an early budding vine and can be prone to springtime frosts. It also yields to early ripening, thus can be harvested before the autumn rains set in. Harvesting the grapes when ripe is crucial as chardonnay loses acidity quickly as it ripens. A vigorous vine with high-leaf cover means aggressive pruning is necessary for Chardonnay, allowing for the nutrients and energy flow to the grapes, not the leaves.
Chardonnay’s signature thumbprint characteristic flavor is apple. But it has a wide array of flavors, from citrus to ripe tropical fruits such as pineapple and mango, as well as a buttery or clean taste. It all depends on the climate in which it is grown and the use of oak or steel barrels.
Chardonnay originated in the Burgundy region of France, where it is the primary grape along with pinot noir. Chardonnay thrives in most soil types but shows its best with chalk, clay and limestone. Its home in Chablis has all these soils from the Kimmeridgian Marl (limestone and chalk), to chalk beds in Champagne, where chardonnay is one of the three main grapes used to make Champagne. Much of the famous Cote d’Or in Burgundy is limestone-based, yielding good minerality to their wines.
Burgundy is seen as the benchmark for great chardonnay as these wines can have good minerality, acidity and fruit-balance to produce stunning wines. In Burgundy, the vineyards are designated according to quality: Grand Cru being the star, followed by Premier Cru and AOC. Quality results from knowing the vineyards, the producer and the vintage, which plays an important role as some years are more difficult for the fruit to ripen fully. Other areas of France where Chardonnay is grown include the Loire Valley, Jura, Languedoc and Alsace, as well as general Vin de Pays.
In the U.S., California, which has gained worldwide attention for its chardonnay, is blessed with ample sunshine for consistent ripe fruit. The cooler regions/pockets excel with chardonnay such as Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, Alexander Valley, Carneros, Santa Maria Valley, Monterey County and Santa Barbara. Oregon also is producing some really nice chardonnay, with New World fruit and subtle, Burgundian nuances. And Washington State usually produces a cleaner, more balanced style with crisp apple and citrus tones.
Australia, with its warm climate, has to focus on cooler regions to make balanced chardonnay. A few notable regions are Hunter Valley, Victoria, Yarra Valley and Western Australia.
New Zealand is cooler, and despite being known for sauvignon blanc, also makes some nice chardonnays, especially the Northern Island areas like Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa. Other respectable regions include Canterbury, Marlborough and Nelson.
Most of Northern Italy produces a wide variety of white grapes, including much success with chardonnay from Piedmont to Trentino/Alto Adige and Friuli to Collio. Chardonnay in Italy often is blended with local varietals to make some great, unmistakable, wines.
Argentina and Chile also produce some notable chardonnay. Chilean chardonnay usually is cleaner, with more acidity than Argentine ones, which sport more fruit-forward wines.
All around the world, chardonnay is bountiful and worthy. And yes, even in the southern part of England gets just warm enough to produce chardonnay wine. Whether you like the richness of oak and butter, acid and fruit, mineral and clean, or something in-between, there is a chardonnay for you—you just need to be willing to taste it.
TASTING TIP: Chardonnay can be criticized for being flabby, which is when the wine lacks acidity and is out of balance. Check a wine’s acidity: Taste the wine, how quickly does your mouth salivate? The faster it salivates the higher the acidity. Your mouth has a natural pH level so it is trying to reset to its normal pH level.
WINE RECOMMENDATION: Taste, taste, taste chardonnays from all over the world to find the style to suit you. White Burgundy is a favorite of mine, as well as Italian blends of chardonnay, but I appreciate well-made, balanced chardonnay from most regions.
Certified Sommelier Stanley Browne is the owner of Robust Wine Bar in Webster Groves, Downtown at the MX and in Edwardsville.