Chardonnay is the most planted grape in the world, and for good reason. It’s the backbone of many sparkling wines, and in a glass of chardonnay itself, you can find great diversity.
Everything from the soil, to the barreling, to the climate of the region can impact its taste. And while it hasn’t been at the top of everyone’s wine list of late, we have been noticing a resurgence.
While the definitive origin of chardonnay still remains a mystery, most wine historians agree that the grape was first produced by Cistercian monks in the Burgundy region of France – sometime around 1330.
Other theories hold that the grape comes from the Middle East and was brought to Europe only a few centuries ago. But while we can’t clarify this one way or another, we can say with all certainty that chardonnay peaked in popularity in the 1980s, yet rather unfairly, soon became much maligned, possibly because of oversaturation.
You may remember that in 1995, wine columnist for the New York Times, Frank Prial, even identified the term A.B.C or “Anything But Chardonnay” among wine drinkers. Yet, there’s more to this wine than meets the eye.
A wonderful characteristic of chardonnay is that it doesn’t have a singular flavour profile. The dimension of flavour varies greatly from region to region, and also depends on whether it’s been aged in oak barrels or not amongst a host of winemaking techniques that allow a winemaker almost unlimited scope to craft the wine they want.
Typically, regions with cooler climates produce leaner, crisper styles of chardonnay. In these you’ll taste apple, citrus and melon and find relatively high acidity, great elegance and minerality. In warmer climates, it introduces sweeter, deeper, tropical fruit flavours such as peach, pineapple, mango and stone fruit.
And of course, wines produced in either type of climate can be influenced by the maker’s choice to use, or not use, oak barrels to age the wine. Oak ageing a chardonnay brings tasty, vanilla notes to the palate and can elicit notes of coconut and dill. Chardonnay gets its buttery-ness from a process called malolactic fermentation. Bacteria is added to the wine that turns malic acid into smoother, creamier lactic acid. Winemakers can elect to allow this process to happen at all or not, and can even stop the process if they only want nuances.
Today, chardonnay is grown wherever wine is produced. It’s highly adaptable, hardy and able to flourish in both warm and cold climates. Here’s a rundown of some of our favourite chardonnay regions.
• Australia: When we think of Australian chardonnay, we tend to imagine the crisp flavours of the Yarra Valley or Adelaide Hills. But since chardonnay was introduced to our soils nearly 80 years ago, it’s pretty much thrived wherever it’s planted – from the warm climate of Hunter Valley to the maritime region of Margaret River.
• France: Look out for ‘White Burgundy’ or ‘Chablis’ when searching for a chardonnay from France. Chablis, in the northern regions of Burgundy, is the home of chardonnay and one you can’t go past on your chardonnay journey. The wines of Chablis tend to have a flinty note due to their stainless steel vinification.
• New Zealand: Do not overlook New Zealand on your search for amazing chardonnays. From Marlborough on the South Island to Hawke’s Bay on the north, these wines tend to be beautifully mouth filling with concentrated citrus as well as bright tropical fruits. The forgotten gem of white wines due to the phenomenon that is sauvignon blanc.
• United States of America: Not as well known in Australia, the American, or more specifically, Californian chardonnay is an absolute must-try. Originally planted just east of San Francisco, the grape has become a mainstay in their wine production.
Chardonnay is so tantalisingly versatile that you can pair it with a huge variety of foods, making it the perfect all-round dinner party wine.
A young chardonnay or one that has seen minimal oak, has crisper, more acidic flavours, so it pairs well with fresh shellfish, grilled fish, vegetable-based soups, risottos and light chicken dishes. The fruity and floral notes of a young chardonnay cut through the delicate flavours of these light meals.
A full-bodied oak aged chardonnay has a more muted acidity and an increased richness, which means it can stand up to richer dishes, with a protein-rich meatiness and strong creaminess. These strong flavours will complement the sweeter and creamier notes of a chardonnay with some oak. Roast chicken is the immediate pairing that springs to mind when thinking of a fuller bodied chardonnay. Rich fish, roasted vegetables, strong cheeses and raviolis are also an excellent choice.