What can you say about Chardonnay that has not already been said? Chardonnay is grown all over the world and is the most written about of all grapes. It is planted in more than 40 countries. With almost 500,000 acres, it is in second place among white grapes in the world, after Airen, a grape that is as unknown as Chardonnay is well-known.
Such a popular grape can have a hard time staying trendy. To some extent, this is true of Chardonnay. Inexpensive, everyday Chardonnay threatens the glamour. The fatigue after the over-oaked New World chardonnays lingers. Besides, the wine geeks of today are looking for unusual grape varieties, preferably on the verge of extinction.
But all this does not really affect Chardonnay after all. There are good reasons why the grape is present everywhere. One is that it is the white grape of Burgundy and Champagne. It doesn’t say so on the label most of the time. But the wine lover knows. These two prestige regions have influenced and inspired many other countries.
Chardonnay comes from the area around Champagne and southern Burgundy. It was first mentioned in the 18th century, and there was a tendency to confuse it with Pinot Blanc until the end of the 19th century.
Chardonnay can handle a variety of growing conditions, but that does not mean that the quality is always high. It is said to be easy to grow, but making a great Chardonnay wine is not for everyone.
Chardonnay offers everything from easy-drinking everyday wines to sophisticated and high-quality wines. You would often find citrus and exotic fruit on the nose. However, Chardonnay is more commonly recognized by the taste than by the nose. The taste is full-bodied and round, often with good acidity, but it varies with the climate. The aromas tend to be citrus, melon and peach, sometimes tropical fruit. There is always a certain richness and texture. More acidity and crunchiness can be found in Chardonnay wines from cooler climates. Elegance is a word often used to describe a Chardonnay.
France has 126,000 acres, i.e. 25% of all Chardonnay in the world. There are 37,000 acres in Burgundy, from Chablis in the north to Beaujolais in the south. The most exclusive and expensive come from the Côte de Beaune and villages such as Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault. But excellent and affordable white Burgundy is found everywhere in the region. Most years, Chardonnay in Burgundy gets the perfect balance between freshness and fullness. Chardonnay buds early and in Chablis, at the northern edge of Burgundy, the risk of frost is omnipresent. On the other hand, it ripens early, which is useful in Burgundy where autumn can come early.
There are just over 24,700 acres in Champagne, about a third of the region. This is France’s northernmost wine region, and also here Chardonnay is at risk for frost. The advantage is the high acidity that the cool climate gives. Wine producers all over the world use Chardonnay for their sparkling wines.
In Languedoc, Chardonnay is the most widely planted white grape with 34,600 acres. Jura in eastern France is a small region, but you will find some very interesting Chardonnay here. It is used either alone or blended with the local grape Savagnin. The style is usually slightly oxidized and full of character. Anyone tired of Chardonnay should try a Jura.
The United States is the second-largest Chardonnay country in the world with 106,000 acres. Especially in the slightly cooler regions, California’s Napa and Sonoma or Oregon, you will find an abundance of high-quality Chardonnay. Warmer vineyards in California make inexpensive Chardonnay with often too low acidity to make them attractive. The range of styles is, of course, vast.
With 51,900 acres, Chardonnay is Australia’s most cultivated white grape. As in California, they have learnt to use less new oak, and the balance in the wines have improved tremendously. The best ones have a lovely intensity and concentration.
Oak barrels and Chardonnay are intimately connected. In Burgundy, the tradition is to ferment and age the grape in oak barrels of 228 litres. Many other countries have followed suit. Sometimes the barrels are larger. 400 and 600 litres now also appear in Burgundy. The fermentation will sometimes be slower in oak barrels than in steel tanks. It gives extra fullness, creaminess and fatness to the wines.
Many Chardonnay wines are oak-aged, especially if they are expensive and prestige wines. If you want unoaked Burgundy, you can buy Chablis or Petit Chablis. Chablis Grand Cru is mostly oaked and also many Premier Cru. In Mâcon, in southern Burgundy, there are excellent examples of unoaked Chardonnay. In the New World, “Unoaked Chardonnay” is sometimes seen on the label.
Chardonnay is showing a small global rise in acreage.
Total worldwide surface: 500,000 acres (210,000 hectares)
Main countries: France, USA, Australia, Italy, Chile, South Africa, Argentina
Characteristics: Citrus, tropical fruit, melon, peach. Full-bodied, round in taste, often rich. Elegant. If oak-aged, softer, creamy and buttery. If unoaked, crispy and fresh.