Chardonnay is a real workhorse grape; It's the most planted white grape in the world, and so malleable to both the hand of the winemaker and mother nature that just the word Chardonnay can cause raptures of joy or a sinking heart in many different people, with each imagining a completely different wine. It's plasticity is both Chardonnay's best trait, and often its downfall: during the 90's it endured a long trend of being over oaked and over ripe from big producers (often in Australia), and the reputation has stuck! Suggest a Chardo to your family of different generations and there's likely to be at least one ABC response - Anything But Chardonnay, but to resign yourself to ABC would be a gastronomic travesty of ginormous proportions. Chardonnay creates some of, if not the, best wines in the world in an array of styles from Complex and intense Blanc De Blanc Champagne, steely chalky Chablis or a Puligny-Montrachet in Burgundy, to richer versions that speak of stoe and exotic fruits in the warmer climates of Australia or South Africa, and vanilla and coconut when new oak barrels are used, like in California. Chardonnay is literally grown everywhere in the world that grows vines, so this could be a very long winded introduction to the grape, but I'll try to keep things brief and give you a gentle summary on the important areas and what to look out for when choosing a style that suits your palate. Alternatively, we've put together an "Expressions of Chardonnay" tasting case that takes the effort out of things, and added little discount for you,
Before the 70's Chardonnay was rarely seen outside of it's homeland in Burgundy France, but once jetsetting winemakers realised its merits could be applied across the world it soon enjoyed a rise to popularity starting in the 80's, and really earning its financial crust when it started being grown "down under". The grape is a winemakers dream - it produces good yields in most climates, it's pretty easy to grow and not particularly susceptible to disease like some can be, and in the winery the juice is produces is pretty neutral in flavour meaning it can provide mass appeal to a very subjective market. Where it went awry and gained its bad reputation is when winemakers squeezed their vineyards for the highest yields possible (more grapes = less concentrated), started growing using huge amounts of chemicals, in worse vineyard sites, and cut corners in the winery using oak chip teabags for example to add a harsh but very much there flavour of oak.
As with everything, a bad reputation often comes from a small sample of what's actually happening, and that's very much the case here. So what about quality wine you say? Well Chardonnay is very good at showcasing 'terroir' - the French term meaning a sense of place - and can change the flavours markedly depending on the soil and climate. So much so that the same vines in Burgundy for example, grown 100m apart can produce entirely different tasting wines due to the differences in terroir.
It is also particularly good at being improved by the gentle hand of a good winemaker. When Chardonnay is oaked correctly it can add a huge complexity and a little richness to the wine - adding to its flavour and not masking it. It's like adding salt to a dish, it enhances the actual food but should never be front and centre. When most people comment that they don't like oaked wines, I often try to steer them to a good quality bottling with a judicious amount of oak ageing - it's bad quality wine people don't like, not necessarily oak!
So what areas should we look at then? Let's get started in France, the birthplace of the grape.
Essentially at the northernmost limit of grape growing, we're pretty cool in terms of climate, and this means the Chardonnay grown here is lean and austere, promoting intense acidity and citrussy orchard like fruit flavours to the base wine (before secondary fermentation adding the fizz and bready notes). It can be used in a blend with Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier in Champagne, or on its own which will be labelled "Blanc de Blancs". The acidity here works so well in a sparkling wine that needs the structure and freshness, and as such Chardonnay only bottlings generally make delicate and elegant expressions that meld in with the richer toastier notes when aged on the yeast in bottle. I should also do a quick shout out to England here. We're making some unbelievable sparklers that are getting better and better each year, with Chardonnay being able to show the Champagne like elegance in bottles such as this from Nyetimber.
This is it - the peak of Chardonnay for most people. White Burgundy by law means Chardonnay (or Aligote if you're in the village of Bouzeron, but let's ignore that for now), and as such any white wine bottling reading Bourgogne, or any of the villages / areas such as Saint-Veran, Chablis, Cotes de Beaune or Macon for example must be made from 100% Chardo. As I explained before, Chardonnay is susceptible to showing its terroir, and no more so than in Burgundy, and that's why it's so loved by wine nerds across the world - you can have a breadth of wine styles in a small geographic area. The Cote d'Or in the north is the most famous, with the southern half - the Cotes de Beaune - being the most important for white wine. The bottles are usually elegant yet powerful and hauntingly complex. They can show flavours of pear and quince, or peach and apricot in warmer years with a trademark lightning bolt of acidity coming from the chalky limestone soils. Traditionally they'll be aged or vinified at least somewhat in oak, but often older used oak that allows the wines to breathe, but not be suffocated from oaky flavour. If you prefer a fresher expression then wines labelled as Bourgogne or Cotes de Beaune will often be lighter, or those from further south in the Macon like this natural Macon-Bray or Saint-Veran. If you're a fan of the big buttery boys, then the village of Mersault is traditionally the most opulent, buttery and oak led, just be aware you do pay for it!
It's not the most popular region on the market, but it's the absolute sweetheart of industry people. Chardonnay from these mountains close to the alps make nutty and sometimes immensely powerful wines. They can be full of walnuts, hazelnuts, preserved lemons and usually have a characteristic sour cream note. They're made in tiny amounts, and my current favourite comes from Domaine Macle.
South America & South Africa.
I feel like i'm cheating the many many nationalities here really by lumping them in together, but their styles are often similar. The best bottles are usually grown in the coastal areas, with the strong sun creating delicious flavours and the coastal breezes retaining acidity. These coastal versions tend to be more acid led and it's rare they're heavily oaked. In Argentina, Mendoza can create excellent wines when they're in high altitude cooler vineyards, like this in Vista Flores. In Chile, areas like Casablanca on the Western coast near Santiago creates fresh grassy yet unctuous wines. The regions north of Cape Town in South Africa such as Robertson provide a similar climate to the coastally cooled South American areas. When handled properly, they can produce plump and luscious wines with a great lick of cream and butter while still keeping fresh just like this from the De Wetshof family.
Where some would say Chardonnay got led astray. Australia is home to huge mass produced Chardonnay by the likes of yellow tail, Hardy's etc etc, but it also produces some magnificent bottles too when treated well. Expressions from quality producers in Margaret River and McClaren Vale tend to be rich and exotic / stone fruited, and the Adelaide hills can produce more ethereal versions based on their cooler climate in the Hinterlands.
So that's my round up on Chardonnay! As I said before, I could easily fluff this out til the cows come home and i've left a lot out here, but Chardo is grown everywhere and can create wines of almost every flavour and style. Along this idea, we've put together a little 4 bottle wine pack with some discount for you all, that covers some of the important expressions - you can find it HERE.
Anyway, I've given you some tools for what to look for, but if you take away one thing from this piece, it's that you need to give Chardonnay a chance. It's absolutely fucking delicious.