With an explosion of interest over the last few decades, chardonnay is now the world’s most planted white grape. With its ability to grow in varied conditions and make everything from sparkling wine, to lean and mineral whites, to full-bodied textural expressions, it is perhaps no surprise to see Burgundy’s key white grape become so dominant.
Also known as
Given its ubiquity, chardonnay has acquired many labels over the centuries, but its most famous name has overwhelmingly triumphed, with confusing synonyms unlikely to trouble wine drinkers.
What chardonnay tastes like
Depending on ripeness, chardonnay’s flavour palette can vary from green apple and tart citrus right up to melon, pineapple, guava and other tropical fruits, with peach and nectarine, both yellow and white, again depending on ripeness, pink and yellow grapefruit, fig and lime featuring along the spectrum. Chardonnay can also convey site well, so some wines are described by very mineral notes, like flintiness or chalkiness, with Chablis probably the clearest example of minerality in chardonnay. Oak fermenting/ageing can add flavour and textural elements, which can add subtle complexity or become quite creamy, buttery and toasty if emphasised more.
In the vineyard
Unsurprisingly, chardonnay is typically grown with pinot noir in vineyards. The pair have evolved together and adapt to similar conditions, but there are some differences. Both perform best in cooler climates, but chardonnay can cope with warmer conditions much better than pinot noir. Too warm and the wines will become tropical and softly structured, but if managed in the vineyard with low yields, it is a very adaptable variety, hence it is planted in many different types of conditions. In very cool to cold conditions, chardonnay is more likely to be used to make sparkling wine, where full flavour development is not desirable.
In terms of winemaking, chardonnay is not an aromatic variety and can take to winemaking inputs of oak and lees influence or be presented stripped back with simple making, allowing the fruit and any transmission of terroir to shine through. New oak, fermentation in barrel and lees contact can add other characters, with words like nutty, caramel, toasty, vanilla and buttery not uncommon descriptors for barrel-fermented and aged wines. Modern chardonnay, both here and in France, will tend to the less opulent end of the ripeness scale, with winemaking inputs complementary rather than dominant. Chardonnay’s other major role is in making sparkling wine, either in concert with pinots noir and meunier or solo in blanc des blancs bottlings. Typically, the grapes are picked lean, with plenty of acidity and can be made into a base wine in oak or stainless steel, depending on the style.
Where is chardonnay grown?
Chardonnay is grown widely both in the New and Old Worlds, but it is emphatically a French variety. A cornerstone variety of Burgundy and Champagne, chardonnay holds the sole responsibility for the wines of Chablis and is France’s second most widely planted grape. The crown for the most planted goes to the lowly ugni blanc (trebbiano). Chardonnay, however, is a ‘noble’ grape, making the great white Burgundies of the Côte-d’Or (the “golden slope”), the relatively small sliver that is Burgundy’s beating heart. Further north, with vineyards mainly on soil littered with maritime fossils, Chablis is all about minerality, while further north still, chardonnay is the sole grape in blanc des blancs Champagne or is blended. Chardonnay also features in Beaujolais, and heavily in the Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais in southern Burgundy, where the wines are typically sunnier and richer. Further south still, the Languedoc has quite a bit of chardonnay, but it is in the Jura, across in the east, bordering Switzerland, that chardonnay also reaches great heights.
Chardonnay around the world
Grown widely, chardonnay has found significant homes right across the New World, with Australia and the United States, principally in California, the most celebrated examples. New Zealand is also making an increasingly compelling claim to making some of the best New World examples, both from the North and South Islands. In the Old World, Italy has grown chardonnay for centuries. It is planted across the country but performs best in the north, where the regions of Alto Adige and Valle d’Aosta provide the most favourable conditions, but there are also more and more examples coming out of some of Piedmont’s cooler sites. Piedmont also has a DOCG – Alta Langa – for Champagne-like sparkling wine made mainly from chardonnay and a little pinot noir, while Lombardy’s Franciacorta is the most famous rival to Champagne, employing chardonnay and pinot noir in equal measure.
Chardonnay in Australia
Although arriving in Australia in the 1830s Busby collection of vine cuttings, chardonnay really didn’t take off until the 1970s. The most famous early wine was made by Tyrrell’s in 1971, their inaugural ‘Vat 47’. That wine was purportedly propagated from a vine cutting gathered at night and by stealth from a Penfolds trial block in the 1960s. Why that was, when Tyrrell’s HVD chardonnay block was planted in 1908 is not clear. While nearby Mudgee – where old chardonnay vines were identified in the 1960s – led the charge for chardonnay for a time, it was in cooler zones around the country that chardonnay was finding the most traction. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the Victorian regions of The Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Macedon, Geelong and Beechworth led the way. In South Australia, the Adelaide Hills was the quality driver, while regions like Padthaway helped build a loyal following for the rich and fruity styles favoured in those times. While the Hunter and Mudgee still pushed on with chardonnay (it is surprisingly the Hunter’s most planted variety today, for both red and white), cooler zones in New South Wales, mainly Orange and Tumbarumba, were also creating plenty of excitement. In Western Australia, the Great Southern was very promising, but Margaret River was capturing the imagination of drinkers the most, and it still does, with the Mendoza clone (or the local variant known as Gingin) giving the wines a unique blend of racy drive and fruitful power. Today, Tasmania has shot to prominence as profound territory for the grape, both for still and sparkling wine. It’s important to note, though, that 80 per cent of Australian chardonnay is grown in the hot irrigated zones that flank the Murray River, a testament to both how durable the grape is and how popular it is at all ends of the market.
Some of the best Australian chardonnay
Some of the icons
Some of the new wave
Dilworth & Allain
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