Known for the unfair term ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) this is a variety with a mixed reputation. At its best, the wines can be highly complex, with a great ageing ability and show great winemaking skill. At its worst, it can be dull, flabby and forgettable.
Chardonnay was one of the key varieties to start the new world revolution. As the star of white Burgundy, it gained a high reputation as one of the worlds finest white grape varieties. Its fame peaked in the 1980s when it was the most fashionable wine to drink. However, mass plantings and poor quality high quantity production has threatened to ruin its success.
Chardonnay is a diverse grape. The wines can range from neutral, boring and flabby with unbalanced alcohol and acidity to outstanding, complex and incredibly interesting. In cool climates, the wines can be lean and crisp. They have the ability to reflect the soil with flinty, mineral notes. In warmer climates, the wines can have lush tropical flavours and floral aromas. Chardonnay has a great affinity with oak and takes on the toasty, vanilla notes. Over oaked Chardonnay was one of the big problems that ruined the reputation. Wines would taste of nothing but oak and there are still many wines being produced this way, particularly in America.
Malolactic fermentation (MLF) and Bâtonnage (lees stirring) are also popular winemaking techniques. MLF adds creamy, buttery notes and Bâtonnage can give flavours of bread dough and pastry.
As well as still white wines Chardonnay is one of the most important varieties for sparkling wine, including Champagne. When picked early in cool climate Chardonnay can have high levels of acidity and relatively low levels of sugar. This is important for sparkling wine production as a neutral base wine is required to take on the flavours from the winemaking. High acid levels are needed to keep the sparkling wine fresh and give it the ability to age well.
Chardonnay is grown all around the World, in both New and Old world countries. Burgundy is the historical home of Chardonnay and has the greatest reputation. The vineyard location makes a huge difference to the flavour profile and quality of the wines. Chalk and limestone soils are particularly popular. On soils with a higher lime content (for example Chablis), the wines can have a more mineral character.
Known to produce some of the best and most expensive Chardonnays in the world. When you see a bottle of ‘White Burgundy’ that will almost always be 100% Chardonnay and the producers rarely the name of the grape on the label (Aligoté is also permitted but this is very rarely used). It is very widely planted in the Côte de Beaune whereas Pinot Noir dominates the Côte de Nuits. Within the Côte de Beaune there are some standout Grand Cru sites; Montrachet in the village of Puligny-Montrachet is known for its savoury flavours and steely structure whereas Corton Charlemagne is more flinty.
Chablis is one of the most famous appellations for Chardonnay. This area is known for its mineral austere white wines. The area is often damaged by spring frosts and summer hail so prices can be very high to combat the low yields.
One of the three most important grape varieties. The other two (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) are both red. Therefore, any wine labelled blanc de blanc is likely to be 100% Chardonnay. Chardonnay adds structure, finesse and ageing ability to Champagne. It can add a dried apple and lemon character to the sparkling wine.
Throughout the rest of Europe Chardonnay is a popular variety grown in Spain, Italy and Portugal. In Spain, it is also now permitted in the production of Cava. In Eastern Europe plantings are greatly increasing. In the UK plantings of Chardonnay have skyrocketed for both still and sparkling wine production.
The USA- California
In California Chardonnay is the most planted and one of the most important varieties. In the Napa Valley, Sonoma and the region of Santa Barbara it is widely grown. The Russian River and Anderson Valley produce high-quality sparkling wines from Chardonnay, often with some Pinot Noir. Heavy oak use was common practice but now many producers are moving towards for elegant wines with better flavour integration.
Washington and Oregon
The more northerly states of Washington and Oregon are also making excellent wines. Better clonal selection and careful winemaking mean the wines have floral and fruit flavours.
Australia makes a range of Chardonnay wines, from simple and mass market to seriously elegant and complex. Stricter controls on water use mean that Chardonnay is less attractive financially than it once was. The Hunter Valley, Margaret River, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Eden Valley are top areas for Chardonnay.
This is an excellent country for Chardonnay production however, many producers are still concentrating on the currently more fashionable Sauvignon Blanc. Here Chardonnay generally, has a great balance of acidity and body with fresh stone fruit flavours.
Produces some excellent and some poor examples of Chardonnay. The area of Elgin generally produces some elegant and delicate wines due to the cooler climate. Stellenbosch and Roberston can make some heavy, full-bodied white wines.