Chardonnay is not only the most popular white wine out there, but it is also made from one of the most popularly grown grape variety that can adapt to diverse climate conditions.
If you want to learn more about Chardonnay wines, here are a few quick facts:
- Chardonnay is the most widely planted white grape variety in the world, largely due to the fact that it is very easy to grow.
- The most traditional way of making Chardonnay comes from French region of Burgundy where this grape comes from. Burgundian winemakers were the pioneers of the techniques that are now associated with premium Chardonnay production around the world.
- Chardonnay can be grown and ripened without much difficulty in a wide variety of climates. In cool climates, it displays flavours of green fruit and citrus. In more moderate climates, the flavours lean more towards fleshy fruits, such as peach and melon. In warm and hot climates, typical flavours are tropical fruits such as banana and pineapple.
- Chardonnay grapes are neutral in flavour, so tend to be made into high-volume, inexpensive wines. However, restrained varietal character of Chardonnay means the wines they produce appeal to a wide range of consumers.
What Is Chardonnay?
Chardonnay is a white grape variety that has a long history, which starts in Burgundy ("Bourgogne" in French). But today you can find it in many regions across the globe. A total of 210,000 hectares of Chardonnay are planted worldwide.
The prevailing features of Chardonnay wines from a cool climate are different from those produced in a hotter climate.
The cool climate contributes to the creation of crisp and elegant Chardonnay with lower levels of alcohol, balanced acidity, a lighter body, and intriguing mineral and herbs flavors.
Cool climate Chardonnay can be found in both the old and new world:
- Old World: Burgundy and Champagne (France), Northern Italy, Germany, Austria.
- New World: Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley (California, USA), Willamette Valley (Oregon, USA), Casablanca and Leyda Valley (Chile), Ontario (Canada), Tasmania, and Mornington Peninsula (Australia), New Zealand.
Warm-climate Chardonnay wines have less acidity than their cool-climate counterparts; they are typically fuller-bodied with higher alcohol and rich fruit flavors.
Warm climate Chardonnay is made in the following geographies:
- Old World: Southern Italy and Spain.
- New World: Most areas of California, much of South Africa, South Australia.
Chardonnay grapes are green-skinned and beautifully round berries that get more golden-yellow in color on ripening and produce very rich and sweet juice at the end.
But since the Chardonnay grape has a tender neutral flavor, all aromas and tastes that its wine conveys depend on the location of the vineyards, weather patterns, and winemaking techniques. Besides that, there is a strong vessel influence, that is why you might have already heard about the differences between oaked and unoaked Chardonnay wines.
Typically, Chardonnay grapes are used to produce a self-contained wine and do not get blended with other white wine grapes. The notable exception is a traditional blend with Pinot Noir to create Champagne and exquisite sparkling wines 🥂
Like all white wines, Chardonnay should be served chilled and at a certain temperature. The flavors and aromas in unchilled wine are just jumbled and if wine is too cold, the flavors are muted. The recommended temperature range is 10-12.5°C (50–55°F), which can be achieved by keeping a bottle for a couple of hours in the fridge.
Unoaked Chardonnay is ideal with grilled seafood, poultry, goat cheese, and charcuterie (a French term for a branch of cooking devoted to prepared meat products, such as pâtés, galantines, ballotines, bacon, and ham).
A classic pairing for an oaked Chardonnay is lobster though. I tried it with escargot in a rich butter sauce, infused with plenty of garlic and this combination was just amazing.
But if you are not ready for eating snails and you are out of charcoal for your BBQ grill, you can pair Chardonnay with risotto, cream soup, or pasta with delicious Béchamel sauce.
Taste Profile & Aromas Of Chardonnay
The Chardonnay taste profile is determined by a mixture of the following components: color, flavors, aromas, structure, and terroir.
Being such a widely grown grape, Chardonnay, actually, has got two taste profiles: one for cool climates, and one for warm climates ☀️🍇
The most important Chardonnay flavors can be divided into the following categories:
- Citric: lemon, lime, and grapefruit notes (cool climate)
- Pomaceous: green apple, golden apple, and pear (cool climate)
- Stone fruits: apricot, peach, and nectarine (moderate climate)
- Tropical fruits: pineapple, mango, guava, fig, jackfruit, passionfruit, kiwi, and banana (warm climate)
Other Chardonnay flavors:
- Non-fruit floral: apple blossom, jasmine, honeysuckle, lime flower
- Vegetal: cucumber, celery leaf
- Herbal: fresh-cut hay, thyme, mint
- Mineral-earth: chalk, flint, dried clay, wet stones, saline solution, pencil shavings, field mushroom, truffles, forest floor
Flavor notes from the winemaking process:
- Creamy cheese
Flavor notes from oak aging:
- French oak: nutmeg, almond, hazelnut, smoke
- American oak: vanilla, coconut
- Baking spice
The list above might be helpful when you start taking your Chardonnay tasting notes (which is a really exciting thing to do considering how many outstanding wines are out there).
Unoaked vs Oaked Chardonnay
There are two more factors that influence the aromas and taste profile of Chardonnay wines: the fermentation process and maturation.
In the 1950s, the appearance of stainless-steel tanks revolutionised the white winemaking process forever. Stainless steel is capable of retaining fresh fruit flavors while preventing oxidation. Temperature control stops the reaction which is called “malolactic fermentation” – the biochemical process of turning tart malic acid into softer lactic acid and therefore, making wines less sharp and more rounded on the taste.
Stainless-steel tanks allow wines to stay clean and crisp with tart citrus and apple aromas. That means that Chardonnay fermented in steel will sustain a higher acidity and fresher flavor profile than those staying in oak.
Unoaked Chardonnay has gained tremendous popularity over the last decade. You might understand this style even better if you try the wine fermented in an acacia barrel or in a clay amphora. These vessels allow Chardonnay to end up on your table being firm, dry, with light ginger, nutty notes, and intriguing texture on the palate.
Oak barrels, on the opposite side, play a tremendous role in winemaking through creating various flavors with amounts based on the condition of the barrel and its origin.
Uncontrolled temperature contributes to malolactic fermentation which, together with lees (dead yeast particles found in the old barrels), influences the wine texture and makes it richer and creamier, while softening Chardonnay's naturally sassy acidity and bringing biscuity, doughy, buttery aromas.
In cool climates, maturation for basic level wines usually occurs in stainless steel tanks as we can see in most of the Bourgogne Chardonnay. The use of different sorts of used oak barrels is more common in higher-level wines including some Chablis from Premier Cru and almost all Chablis from Grand Cru appellations.
However, the wines of Chablis spend less aging time in barrels than the wines in the Côte d'Or (another sub-region of Burgundy known for its outstandingly beautiful Chardonnays).
Tips For Drinking & Handling Chardonnay
If you choose to store bottles of Chardonnay for a few years then you will need to keep it in a light- and vibration-free environment at 10℃ (50℉).
Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chardonnay wines have five to seven years of cellaring potential. Grand Cru Chablis ages even longer and can be enjoyed young (five years old) as well as aged – ten or fifteen years old.
On the contrary, it is not recommended to extend the five years period of cellaring for nonspecific Bourgogne Chardonnay.
When you are ready to drink your Chardonnay, you should serve it at a temperature between 6℃ (43℉) and 8℃ (47℉) degrees if it is sparkling, so it can fully express their wonderful aromas of white blossom and citrus.
Light fruity Chardonnay can be enjoyed at between 10℃ (50℉), and other wines can show their best at between 12-14℃ (53.6-57.2℉).
For a Petit Chablis, the ideal temperature is around 8°C (47℉) if it is served prior to the meal as an aperitif and one degree warmer when served with food. Chablis and Chablis Premier Cru should be served at 10-11°C (50-51.8℉), and Chablis Grand Cru at 12-14°C (53.6-57.2℉).
Our refrigerators are not designed for storing wine, so getting yourself a decent wine cooler suitable for both reds and whites is a good investment for anyone who does not have a cellar but wants to keep their wines in the right conditions.
In order to bring to light the features of young wine and to enrich your enjoyment, you can aerate it by transferring from a bottle to a carafe. The oxygenation helps to unlock the plethora of flavors and aromas and makes the wine more distinguished.
For successful aeration, you should use a wide-mouthed carafe and pour in your Chardonnay in a slow manner, letting it run down the side of the decanting vessel. After transferring the wine, allow it to relax for two hours so, all its aromatic depth will be revealed in full. Since keeping wine for two hours at room temperature will definitely make it too warm, you can place your carafe in a fridge and take it out an hour and a half later.
If you are planning to enjoy some old wine, note that it needs to be decanted before serving. Decanting is a technique of delicate transferring of the wine from its bottle in a decanter for soft oxygenation and clearing it from any deposits like lees or tartrate crystals. You should perform this operation right before the tasting otherwise, the wine’s aromatic qualities will start degrading within a short period of time.
As for glass, it is not that easy to find the perfect one with so many choices available on the market. My advice is to look for a non-leaded crystalline version and since I am a fan of stemless design I recommend choosing these affordable trendy-looking glasses by Riedel. Their well-adapted shape will allow you to appreciate the color of your Chardonnay, indicate the most subtle flavors, and enjoy pleasurable sipping for an enhanced tasting experience.
In case you prefer traditional stemware and want to get a thrill out of your wine without the frivolity that may present itself in over-designed wine glasses, I believe you will like the hand-blown crystal vessel by Zalto. And some experts suggest, Crémant de Bourgogne can be tasted only in narrow (flute) glasses, which helps to preserve aromas for a while due to less exposure to air.
The choice of glasses for sparkling wine is overwhelming and I think getting a few different sets for different occasions might not be a bad idea. Mikasa Cheers Champagne Flutes are great for informal parties, modern and elegant flutes can carry your Champagne during formal events, and these durable stainless steel stemless cups are a great choice for outdoor celebrations.
Best Food To Pair With Chardonnay
We love Chardonnay for its versatility, but combining it with the wrong food may be disastrous. Even though this wine supports a variety of cuisines, you will avoid any possible mistakes by following our simple suggestions.
Young, Unoaked, Cool-Climate Chardonnays
These fresh and delicate wines can be paired with raw shellfish, especially oysters, or with cooked shellfish dishes such as "Mussels steamed with cider & bacon or Gwyneth Paltrow's seared scallops with watercress and asparagus". They also go well with pasta, risotto, and light creamy vegetable soups.
Two-To-Three-Year-Old Unoaked, Or Lightly-Oaked Chardonnays
We can expand our boundaries and include inexpensive Chardonnays from the south of France, South Africa, New Zealand, and Chile. These wines have more intense flavors that can complement dishes like "Grilled fish with lemon parsley butter" or "Grilled Sea Bass with pesto sauce".
And if you enjoy cooking as much as I do, you can take a look at this amazing recipe of a dish known as "La pôchouse" in its Australian interpretation, or turn on your oven for a beautiful creamy fish pie.
Also, you can successfully pair with your favorite sushi and sashimi instead of traditional sake. The acidity of unoaked Chardonnays helps cut through the richness of the fish, though as fattier the fish is, as richer should be your wine so if there is tuna, uni or mackerel on your plate, you should probably opt for Chardonnays that have been influenced by malolactic fermentation.
Three-To-Five-Year-Old Burgundy Chardonnays
Wines with rich texture and an expressive bouquet of flavors make a great combination with fatty seafood served with rich butter-based sauces. You may consider choosing something like this "Creamy garlic butter salmon" or cooking scallops in a creamy sauce as suggested in "Ina Garten’s Make-Ahead Coquilles St.-Jacques" recipe.
But if you have got the impression that Chardonnay is somehow just a seafood wine, I am happy to tell you that grilled veal or pork chops, especially with mushrooms, ham, chicken in a creamy sauce, such as "Chicken fettuccine alfredo", mild chicken curry, and cheese-based salad will taste even better if paired with a bottle of delightful Chateau Fuisse Pouilly Fuisse Le Clos 2017.
Full-Bodied, Oak-Aged Warm Climate Chardonnays
It is time to say a few words about top-end Californian, Australian, and New Zealand wines. And the good thing is that you can match them with anything from the previous category in case you add some extra richness to your dishes.
Are you craving a juicy rib-eye steak? Why not prepare a "Pan-Seared Rib-Eye Steak with Béarnaise" then.
Another fantastic option might be having "Flavorful pumpkin ravioli with a brown butter sauce" accompanied by 2017 Chardonnay, Estate Vineyard, Giaconda, Beechworth.
Grand Cru Chablis, And The Best Premier Cru Chablis
These exclusive Chablis wines are precise, complex, powerful, refreshing, and incredibly delicious with their divine minerality and immense unforgettable aromas.
Such luxurious dishes like "Steamed lobster with herb butter", "Poulet de Bresse a la Crème", or "Veal kidneys with a Roquefort and walnut butter" can make a perfect match with your Chablis and become one of the most incredible food-wine pairings of your life.
Brief History Of Chardonnay
The origins of the classic Burgundy wine grapes have been the subject of guesswork for a long time.
Only the modern DNA research has helped us to reveal the truth regarding Chardonnay and other fifteen grapes including Aligoté, Aubin vert, Auxerrois, Bachet noir, Beaunoir, Dameron, Franc noir de la Haute, Gamay blanc Gloriod, Gamay noir, Knipperlé, Melon, Peurion, Romorantin, Roublot, and Sacy that have long been grown in north-eastern France.
All these grapes have micro-satellite genotypes that indicate that they all appeared due to a single pair of parents: the Pinot grape, and almost extinct Gouais Blanc. This explains why Chardonnay and Pinot Noir always seem to grow together.
Gouais Blanc most likely arrived in France with the Romans from the territory of modern Croatia. As for Pinot Noir, its home is the Burgundy region, particularly one of Burgundy subregions called Côte-d'Or (golden slope).
It is quite interesting that Pinot Gris/Grigio and Pinot Blanc are simply color mutations of Pinot Noir. DNA analysis revealed that three of them are identical (but it doesn’t mean that you get identical wine from them). Pinot grapes show us how important terroir and the role of the winemaker are in determining a wine’s character.
In accordance with the earliest documented reference to Chardonnay, Cistercian monks started cultivating the rocky Burgundian slopes following the idea that hard work would bring them closer to God. These monks had discovered that one of the strains that came to life as a result of the cross-pollination between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc is capable of expressing the character of the terroir it comes from and the influence of the winemaking processes, so it is ideal for growing, fermenting and aging.
The first enclosed Burgundian vineyard for Chardonnay grapes was constructed back in 1336 - ‘Clos Vougeot’. It is still producing wine.
An analytical approach to winemaking taken by these monks that dedicated their lives to creating and understanding wine had a far-reaching effect and played a significant role in converting Burgundy into the most prestigious wine-producing region in the world.
The official story says that Chardonnay got its name from a Mâconnais village located in the south of Burgundy, though there are lots of non-official versions based on myths and legends regarding its name and the origin.
Some experts suggest that a single type of Chardonnay grape didn’t exist till the 1700s and most vineyards had mixed plantings with Pinot blanc and gris. Between the 1700s and the 1800s, it was accepted as a single variety known as Pinot blanc – Chardonnay with multiple spelling variations.
Even at the end of the 1800s, they couldn’t decide between Chardonnay or Chardonnet until the Ampelographic Congress in Chalon-Sur-Saône in 1896 finally set the name that the grape owns today.
Chardonnay has quite a few other obscure names: Arboiser, Arnaison blanc, Aubaine, Auvernat blanc, Bargeois blanc, Beaunois, Blanc de Champagne, etc. (you can see the complete list here), but the prime name is Chardonnay Blanc.
In the mid-to-late-1800s the deadly phylloxera virus almost completely eliminated Gouais blanc grapes in France. Chardonnay survived and was brought by immigrants overseas as one of the foremost New World grape varietals.
Californian winegrowers started producing wines in French style but soon graduated to a softer, buttery style, with a serious oak foundation. It was a very distinguished style that helped define classical California wine. But everything changed when Chardonnay wine production turned into a really big business.
About thirty years ago, wine drinking became so fashionable that international wine conglomerates concentrated on flooding the market with affordable wines intended for people who knew nothing about viniculture, and just wanted to get drunk by consuming cheap plonk with a good name on it.
In the early 1970s, Chardonnay accounted for only a small proportion of all vines grown in California and Australia. But by the early 1990s, it had become the most planted white wine grape in both. The cheap heavily oaked, creamy, buttery Californian Chardonnays of the ’80s and ‘90s made from overripe fruit disgraced the old noble grape so much, that you might probably remember this terrible acronym: ABC – ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ that came out as a strident backlash.
Things are different now. Nowadays, there are thousands of excellent Chardonnay producers in the Old and New World countries alike.
When we talk about French Chardonnay, we talk about wines produced in Burgundy and Champagne.
Let’s take look at Burgundy and its sub-regions first. If you take a look at the map, you would see that we are moving from the southern part of Burgundy towards the north.
Beaujolais is a place of red Gamay grape and a very limited amount of Chardonnay. Beaujolais Blanc - the “white pearl” - makes up only about 2% of the region's production but it is definitely worth trying.
This wine is fresh and light and gives off charming aromas of white blossom, citrus fragrances, autumn apples, and stone fruit that just jump right out of the glass. It is Old World in style, which means that you can taste some minerality - flint notes brought to life by limestone soils of Burgundy. The color of Beaujolais Blanc is gold though, there is no oak influence as you could think.
Wines to consider:
- Domaine du Penlois 2017 Chêne du Chatelard (Beaujolais Blanc)
- Château de Pierreux 2017 Chardonnay (Beaujolais Blanc)
Mâcon-Chardonnay offers quite a generous aromatic palette, brightened up with delicious aromas of orchard fruits like pear, apple, peach, and apricot, along with intriguing notes of quince cheese and nuts. In some cases, barrel-aged wines present subtle notes of honey and vanilla. In the mouth, these wines are silky and fruity.
The most famous Mâconnais Chardonnay wines come from the Viré-Clessé, Pouilly-Fuissé, Pouilly-Vinzelles, Pouilly-Loché, and Saint-Véran appellations. Therefore, if you see on the label Pouilly-Fuissé or Viré-Clessé you will not be disappointed with your Chardonnay experience.
Wines to consider:
- 2017 Domaine du Clos des Rocs Pouilly Loche Clos des Rocs Monopole
- Chateau-Fuisse Le Clos, Monopole, Pouilly-Fuissé 2018
Young Montagny wines please your eyes with the pale gold color that gets darker with age. As for aromas, the bouquet includes the beautiful notes of mayflower, acacia, honeysuckle, bramble flowers, and sometimes violet. But flavors of lemon and gun-flint would not be surprising, either. Rully Chardonnays present similar aromas including elderflower and white peach. And in some older wines, you can detect honey, quince, and dried fruits.
The Côte Chalonnaise is supposed to be the cradle of Crémant de Bourgogne. It happens back in 1822 when the owners of some local vineyards invited a young specialist from the Champagne region to share his knowledge about the methods that Champagne winemakers used to make sparkling wine. Since then, the Côte Chalonnaise produces its own sparkling wine using the same grape varieties and the same classical method of fermenting the wines in the bottle and aging on lees as in Champagne. Wines that are made from Chardonnay only, are Extra-Brut and you can really taste the terroir while drinking them.
Wines to consider:
- Rully Blanc 1er Cru Gresigny, P & M Jaqueson 2018
- Cremant de Bourgogne, Brut, Dureuil-Janthial, Dureil-Janthial, Vincent
Côte d’Or sub-region is subdivided into two smaller sub-sub-regions, the Côte de Nuits in the North (predominantly Pinot Noir grapes but there are Chardonnay grapes as well) and the Côte de Beaune in the South (predominantly Chardonnay). Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault, and Corton-Charlemagne are is one of Burgundy's greatest white wine appellations. Here we can find some of the finest white wines in the world.
Montrachet Chardonnays have a clean, pure, and distinguished nature capable of long aging that brings the powerful aromas of yellow fruits, warm croissants, vanilla, honey, and salted butter caramel, while Corton-Charlemagne features buttery notes of baked apple, citrus fruits, pineapple, lime, cinnamon, and flint. Long aging makes it even richer revealing strong flavors of leather and truffle. The young Meursault carries mineral, floral, and citrus aromas and time brings butter, honey, and the notes of toasted almonds and hazelnuts. On the palate, it is fresh, long, and silky and a little heavier and earlier-maturing than a typical Montrachet.
Take note that if a wine is labeled as “Bourgogne Blanc”, it is a multi-district blend. If the label says “Puligny-Montrachet”, you are looking at a “village” level wine. When the label says “Puligny-Montrachet 1” Cru” on one line, then on the line below appears another name such as “Clavoillon”, for example, this is called a “Premier Cru” wine. If the label simply says “Le Montrachet”, then it is a “Grand Cru” wine.
Wines to consider:
- Rene et Vincent Dauvissat-Camus Chablis 2018, Burgundy, France
- William Fevre (Domaine) Chablis Les Clos, Grand Cru. Chablis, Burgundy, France
The Chablis wine is among the best that you can get from Chardonnay grapes due to the clay-limestone soil of the region and distinctive climate conditions. This exceptional wine deserves nothing but admiration and if you want to learn more about it, you are welcome to read an article covering Chablis I have written prior to this one.
The best way to understand this exquisite wine is to start from Petit Chablis and make your way to the Grand Crus by practicing wine-tasting techniques and developing your palate.
Wines to consider:
- Rene et Vincent Dauvissat-Camus Chablis 2018, Burgundy, France
- William Fevre (Domaine) Chablis Les Clos, Grand Cru. Chablis, Burgundy, France
Champagne region offers top-quality sparking wines made from Chardonnay. In the Champagne region, Chardonnay is blended with other varieties such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. However, there is one type of champagne that is made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes –Blanc de Blanc champagne. Some of the great examples of Blanc de Blancs champagne display lively flavours – definitely the ultimate expression of Chardonnay grape variety.
Chardonnay In Australia & New Zealand
Chardonnay thrives across Australia where it was brought by James Busby, known as the founder of Australian viticulture, in the 1830s. Prior to that, in 1824, Busby made his first trip to Australia, with a small number of cuttings that were planted in The Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney.
In 1828, he received a land grant of 2,000 acres in New South Wales and started cultivating the land for future vineyards. In 1831 Busby traveled back to Europe where he visited plenty of vineyards located in France and Spain and obtained more than 20,000 vine cuttings, including over 350 grape varietals. All these cuttings were planted throughout Australia and their offshoots are still growing in some vineyards across the continent.
Though Chardonnay is grown in every region of Australia today, the top-quality wines come only from moderate-to-cool areas. These places either can be found at the edge of the ocean, like Margaret River, Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, King Valley, and Tasmania or at elevated zones like Adelaide Hills and the NSW-ACT (Canberra district, Orange, Tumbarumba).
Due to the combination of traditional and innovative techniques, Chardonnays produced in these areas have a lot in common with Côte d'Or wines in structure if not flavors. Whites from Tasmania are the leanest, so the island is home to some finest Australian sparkling wines.
One of the most significant cool-climate Chardonnay vineyard - Mountadam was founded at the highest point in South Australia’s Eden Valley in 1972 and soon after that Petaluma vineyard was created in the Piccadilly Valley following the aim of producing a pure cool-climate style of Australian Chardonnay. These particular vineyards and all those established in southern parts of Western Australia have all demonstrated the capability of making extremely good Chardonnays with higher acidity levels that allowed aging them for extended periods just like the best French Chardonnays.
When Chardonnay mania hit Australia, Australian winemakers started producing and exporting to the UK, Europe, and the US rich, oaky, buttery, and alcoholic 'sunshine-in-a-bottle' which was flying off the shelves. But the trend for this plonk did not last very long and in the late 90s, the oak was pushed to the backyard letting wines become fresher and crisper with pronounced minerality and acidity.
Today, a new generation of Australian winemakers all over the country is intended to create beautiful complex wines with elegant style, following the concept of terroir.
Wild yeast fermentation, wild malolactic fermentation (if necessary), plus the aging process performed in old oak are keys to producing wines that reflect the qualities of the harsh, rocky Australian soil in cooler climate areas. Young and passionate winemakers like Luke Lambert (Yarra Valley), Anna Pooley (Tasmania), and those who create wines at Si Vintners (southern Margaret River) believe that top-quality wines have to be handcrafted with almost zero-intervention to let the features of the vineyard shine through and this approach resulting in super-premium quality Chardonnays that are offered by these producers.
As for New Zealand, regardless of its reputation for excellent Sauvignon Blanc, this country can also produce remarkable Chardonnay. Winemaking standards are different in this country but most winemakers are opting for creating wines in a new new-world Chardonnay style by restraining oak influence. At the present time, Chardonnay accounts for less than 10% of New Zealand’s total wine production but local vintners prefer focusing on quality rather than quantity.
Closeness to the ocean, lots of sunshine and cool temperatures make it possible to cultivate Chardonnay at any part of both islands and create delicate wines with or without oak influence, with beautiful minerality and balanced acidity.
In the northern area of the country, where the climate is warmer, regions like Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay produce highly aromatic medium to full-bodied, lusciously textured wines with citrus, peach, and melon flavors, and the best examples are just perfect for long aging that allow them to improve greatly.
In cooler regions including Central Otago, Marlborough, Wairarapa, and Nelson winemakers create elegant wines with good acidity and mineral character that may present delicate floral, citrus, tropical, stonefruit, and spice notes.
Pyramid Valley area of North Canterbury in the South Island with its cool, dry climate and limestone-driven soil is capable of producing excellent Chardonnays that offer good structure and body, great acidity, and delightful floral and citrus flavors.
Chardonnay In The United States
Chardonnay is grown in 30 states across the US and it has become the prevailing grape variety in California since 1990, proving that it is nothing if not adaptable.
Back in the 1940s, when there were less than a few hundred acres of Chardonnay grapes in the whole country, the winemakers from Livermore Valley vineyards produced the first commercially successful California Chardonnay. A decade later, in 1953, ambassador James D. Zellerbach, who spent a long time in Burgundy, educating himself about viniculture, started Hanzell Vineyards - right at the southern toe of the Mayacamas mountain range facing the San Pablo Bay and Sonoma Valley. He planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and made every effort to create Burgundian-style wines.
Inspired by his results, a few more Californian winemakers decided to try their luck in producing top-quality Chardonnays. By 1970, there were just a little bit more than 3,000 acres of Chardonnay planted in California which was close to nothing compared to the current 100,000 acres but the enthusiasm was strong.
Just three years later the dedicated experts from Chateau Montelena, established in 1882, handcrafted the wine that won over over Burgundy Chardonnay in the 1976 blind tasting that came to be known as the Judgment of Paris. After that, Californian winemakers literally rushed to increase Chardonnay vines planting.
The early trend was to produce lithe, elegant, very Burgundian Chardonnay, and in order to make it possible, winemakers started to import from France small barrels made of French oak - the same barrels Burgundian producers used.
The 1973 Montelena Chardonnay had been maturing for eight months in French barrels before being bottled. But by the 80s the malolactic fermentation process became the standard winemaking technique and since lots of producers were picking overripe grapes, deficient in the acidity, and using new barrels made of local oak, it resulted in thick, creamy, buttery wines that had nothing in common with Burgundian Chardonnay but became very popular among the consumers due to relatively low prices and high alcohol content.
Fortunately, the Chatou Montelena, the Hanzells Vineyards, the Stony Hills, and a few other producers never went over to the un-Burgundian side. They kept using the right oak, and with the exceptions of Ridge Vineyards and Mount Eden Vineyards, both of which craft excellent Chardonnays from high-altitude vineyards with dry and cool air, that helps with sufficient levels of acidity, they avoid malolactic fermentation.
Today, some wine producers are rethinking the “classical Californian approach towards Chardonnay, skip oak, and choose Burgundian-inspired style but to my opinion, only the vineyards mentioned above are capable of creating the best American chardonnays around and showing to the world what California winemaking can achieve. Additional names to look for decent Californian Chardonnays are Kistler Vineyards, Ramey Wine Cellars, and Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery.
You can give a try to wine from any of those winemakers, but I would recommend starting with Chardonnay from Montelena. Unfortunately, that few bottles left of the 1973 Chardonnay that won the Judgement of Paris blind tasting are not for sale but you will not be disappointed with the recent vintages.
The first Chardonnay vines were planted in WA in 1964 but the state is still looking for ways to establish itself as a producer of its own great Chardonnay. Though it has all the potential for that - ever-warm Columbia Valley that provides perfect conditions for grapes ripening while cool nights help preserve acidity - just a few winemakers are working with Chardonnay grapes on serious terms.
The shelves in the stores across the State are filled with affordable local whites but red wines make more money so, most local producers are concentrated on producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet frank, Malbec, Syrah, Merlot, Grenache, and Pinot Noir.
Local Chardonnays are often fuller in style than Burgundian wines, but fresher, more refined, and more acidic than those from California. As an example of typical Washington State Chardonnay, I can bring the 2016 Cold Creek Vineyard Chardonnay from Chateau Ste. Michelle. The wine was aged for 10 months in French oak barrels and shows tropical fruit aromas, the palate exhibits flavors of butter and toast followed by surprising mineral notes that come through on the finish.
The good news is that a few Chardonnay-dedicated projects have launched recently, like the one from Lawrence Vineyards. Chardonnay made at Lawrence Vineyards is a blend from the grapes planted on three different vineyards - Solaksen (established in 2013), Laura Lee, and La Reuna Blanca. Solaksen vines are growing on fine loam soil (a fertile soil of clay and sand containing humus) and a relatively cool, and long ripening season allows producing complex Chardonnay with superior texture and nuanced mineral finish. Grapes from Laura Lee vineyard bring lots of citrus and La Reuna Blanca’s grapes that come from the higher elevation, add delicate white flower notes.
The Solaksen vineyard is already known as one of the top Chardonnay sites in the Pacific Northwest because Solaksen winemakers are really keen on the terroir concept so, you should definitely keep an eye on the wines they make.
Other Chardonnays you have to chalk up are three exclusive wines created by a winemaker Aryn Morell (the project Morell-Peña), one of Washington’s most talented and versatile winemakers. Aryn made three beautiful Chardonnays each one named after one of his daughters. Eldest daughter Ysabella Bjork Chardonnay doppelganger is a medium-bodied wine with a rich mineral-laced style on the palate, intriguing aromas of dried fruit, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, and a long beautiful finish.
This wine as well as Camylla Loren Chardonnay and Gemma Camaryn Chardonnay is the result of extremely reductive winemaking and in accordance with Aryn Morell’s note: “There is no inoculation on either primary and secondary fermentation with no nutrient additions, minimal use of SO2 and the use of an OXO rolling system for lees incorporation instead of stirring”. I don’t know about you, but I cannot wait to try these wines.
The last Washington Chardonnay I would like to draw your attention to is Woodward Canyon Chardonnay - expressive and elegant, this wine shows peach, melon, apple, nectarine, light starfruit, and indulging notes of subtle spice and vanilla. Unique soils from the extinct volcanic cone of Underwood Mountain provide the wine with natural crisp acidity and distinctive mineral characteristics. The founder of the Woodward Canyon, Rick Small, was inspired by the Grand Cru’s of Burgundy and it is not surprising that this wine was nominated as the Best of Class & Gold, 2020 Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition.
As Sean P. Sullivan, the founder of Washington Wine Report (an online publication dedicated to the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest) once said:
"Washington’s Chardonnay story is not yet fully written, but its compelling plot keeps you turning the page and looking forward to each forthcoming chapter."
I couldn’t agree more.
Known as a producer of world-class Pinot Noir, Oregon State is creating its own Chardonnay story which started with the planting of earlier ripening Dijon clones to the Willamette Valley about 30 years ago. Grape clones are cuttings from a single “mother vine” intended for either direct planting into the soil or grafting onto another vine. David Adelsheim, founder of Adelsheim Vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, brought these clones from the Office National Interprofessionnel des Vins in Dijon, France.
Adelsheim decided to give a try to these clones because the previous attempts at Chardonnay production from Californian clones ended in failure in Oregon. During his stay at Burgundy in 1974, he noticed the Chardonnay clones hybridized at the University of Dijon ripened at the same time as Pinot Noir clones, yet in Oregon, Chardonnay didn’t ripen until a few weeks after Pinot. Adelsheim assumed that these Dijon clones could be better suited to Oregon’s climate conditions and soil than Californian peers.
Long years of experimentation with clones, vineyard locations, and winemaking techniques, Oregon winemakers have discovered ways to create beautiful Chardonnays with vivid acidity, bright flavors from stone-fruit, and tropical-fruit to crisp citrus, and prominent herb and earth notes.
Some winemakers use steel tanks, concrete egg-shaped vessels, and clay amphorae instead of barrels for improving wine qualities during fermentation, some producers achieved success by using wild yeasts and non-intervention winemaking methods to ensure that the unique qualities of the vineyard are reflected in the color, nose, structure, and taste of the wine without unnecessary manipulation.
Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley with its warm and dry climate produces Chardonnay with dominating tropical fruit flavors and pleasant acidity. On the opposite side of the State where clime is cooler, the wines are more refined, with well-pronounced acidic character and highly aromatic flavors including citrus and green melon. I recommend paying close attention to the wines from Crowly Wines, Lingua Franca Estate, Bethel Heights, Big Table Farm, Brick House, Domaine Drouhin, Walter Scott, Evening Land, and Stoller vineyards, and meanwhile, get yourself a bottle of 2018 Four Winds Chardonnay and a bottle of 2018 Sisters Chardonnay while they last on the market.
Chardonnay In South Africa
The vineyards of South Africa have also been invaded by Chardonnay but its ‘unofficial’ introduction to the Cape is still the stuff of wine industry legend.
Three adventurous winemakers frustrated by restrictions implied by the authorities on having new vine material imported – Danie de Wet, Jan ‘Boland’ Coetzee, and Peter Finlayson, smuggled some vine cuttings from France inside suitcases. Surprisingly, what was thought to be Chardonnay turned out to be Auxerrois blanc - a full sibling of Chardonnay which rarely exists in the bottle without Pinot Blanc. This anecdotical mal-entendu was subsequently fixed with official importation of the real Chardonnay clones about 30 years ago.
Today, Chardonnay from South Africa can successfully compete on the world stage but it still has a long way to go but the potential for producing super-premium wines seems to be enormous.
One of the top Wine of Origin (WO) appellations for Chardonnay is the warm and dry inland area - Robertson. Soils high in clay and limestone convey lovely balancing acidity and minerality, and day-night temperature shifts reflect in powerful varietal flavors of citrus fruits, pineapple, melon, and green apple.
Another region I am going to tell you about is widely regarded as one of the most fascinating wine areas in South Africa. It’s the beautiful Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Located around the fishing town of Hermanus, it is falling within the cool South Atlantic Walker Bay “district”, and the bay itself is famous for having some of the best land-based whale-watching in the world. Hemel-en-Aarde Valley which soils are 60 percent clay, is home to Bouchard-Finlayson - one of South Africa’s most awarded boutique wine estates. If you are looking for the ultimate Chardonnay experience, this unwooded freshly styled Sans Barrique Chardonnay 2018 with its hallmark lemony texture is the one to put on your shopping list.
Almost all the vineyards in the Valley are family owned and operated. Preliminary grapes are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but the local winemakers grow some other varietals and produce top-quality world-class whites and reds. I recommend trying Restless River 2016 Ava Marie Chardonnay - a very polished wine that shoes real precision and elegance with some yellow plum, white peach, and citrus fruit. Out of barrel, it rested in stainless steel tank for 3 months before bottling what explains its structure and linearity. Lovely fine spice to open the creamy palate, and a long stony, lemony finish.
Another wine from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley that sounds very appealing is Hamilton Russell Vineyards 2018 Chardonnay. It is really Côte de Beaune-like on the nose, with flavors brought by a classic integration of bright natural acid and a long, dry minerality. An elegant, yet prominently textured and vivid, this wine has a strong personality that is easy to fall in love with and really hard to forget.
The Elgin Valley is another cool-climate WO that is capable of producing Chardonnays with highly powerful fruit and character.
The Elgin vineyards are surrounded by Hottentots-Holland mountains that invigorate a cloud base so valuable for grapes protection in sultry summers. The favorable combination of climate-moderating factors, including early-morning mists and closeness to the ocean, contributes to slow, moderate ripening and acid conversion and thus expressive well-balanced wines with the complexity of aromas. This area is home to exemplar Chardonnay producers Iona Wine Farm, Lothian Vineyards, Paul Cluver Wines, and Richard Kershaw Wines that make Burgundian style Chardonnays with a touch of unique Elgin Valley environment. Lothian estate, for example, is positioned in the Kogelberg Biosphere, which possesses 1654 plant species found nowhere else on earth.
Typical Iona’s Chardonnay is a blend of wines that are 100% wild fermented in a French oak barrel with lees stirring every 3rd week for 4 months for complexity and texture. The wines remain on the lees for a total of 11 months. Some wines undergo 12% malolactic fermentation to add richness and texture. After that wines are blended in stainless steel tanks and stabilized naturally for a period of three months prior to bottling. This results in the wine that presents bright beautiful floral notes, lime and lemon undertones, strong oyster shell minerality, fresh acidity, the hint of almonds, and brioche on the finish.
Another wine that I recommend to consider is Paul Cluver’s 2015 Seven Flags Chardonnay created from vines planted on Table Mountain sandstone soils. This vintage was described by the winemaker as “incredible” so, it makes sense to add a bottle to your cellar before it’s too late.
Last South Africa’s premier wine-producing area I would like to tell you about is Stellenbosch. With nearly 31,000 acres of vines, and summer temperatures hovering between 28-35℃ (82.4-95℉) the cooler Stellenbosch evening temperatures play a key role in the region’s ripening pattern and its unique microclimate. Warm mornings, sunless afternoons yield delicious ripe fruit aromas and highly concentrated flavors in wines while cool breezes from False Bay during the night time help to preserve the grape’s natural acidity and balance the abundant fruit tones.
Chardonnay In Chile
Chardonnay from this uniquely remote country offers well-pronounced qualities created by the area’s location and climate. This smooth and elegant, yet earthy and striking wine is surprisingly close to a Sauvignon blanc. I would characterize a Chilean Chardonnay as “an exciting blend of tropical fruit notes with a pronounced minerality”.
From a terroir perspective, the Casablanca Valley is home for the best Chardonnay wines in Chile.
The valley is overlooking the Pacific Ocean and grapes here take advantage of the fresh, cool, salty air and ancient soils that are high in clay. Cloud cover that appears due to the mountains and protects vines from extensive sun exposure.
I spent in Chile a few months a while ago and I was most impressed with this 100% organic Natura’s unoaked Chardonnay. Fermented in stainless steel tanks, with the presence of select yeasts this beautiful wine with delicate velvety texture conveys refreshing aromas of grapefruit and lime that merge with subtle tropical fruit aromas, especially pineapple, and a delightful hint of herbs.
Stylish and delicious, it easily pairs with grilled chicken, steamed or grilled seafood, pasta, and spring vegetables but its mouthwatering taste makes it a perfect aperitif or a drink you would just consume as a refreshing beverage on a hot summer afternoon.
Chardonnay In Argentina
Chardonnay had never been planted higher than 1000 meters (3,280.8 feet) anywhere in the world until it arrived in Argentina.
Lots of sunshine, cool climate, alluvial soils rich in calcium, and high allow local winemakers to create beautifully structured wines that offer fresh expressions with biting acidity.
In order to enhance your experience, you can taste this rich and broad Catena Chardonnay that has been aged for 10 months in French oak or add to your basket stunning Finca Suarez Chardonnay 2018 which is simply one of the best Argentine Chardonnays I have ever tasted.
This remarkably fresh and elegant wine with notes of apple blossom, peach, and mandarin shows just the faintest suggestion of oak. The complete lack of malolactic fermentation and the fact that only 15% of the wine is aged in French barrels are the reasons this wine is so dry, lean, and luscious. This wine cellar potential is 25 years, so get it now and enjoy it in 2045.
Chardonnay In Kazakhstan
You might be very surprised by my decision to wrap up this extensive article with brief info about Chardonnay from Kazakhstan but I really love surprises and, besides that, being one of Chardonnay’s passionate advocates, I just simply want to share my knowledge with everyone.
The very hard to obtain, Altyn Arba Chardonnay that is crafted at high altitude (1000 meters above sea level), shows rich and exclusive aromas reflecting a truly unique terroir of Arba Wine vineyards. Planted upon the most suitable for viticulture footsteps of snow-covered mountaintops, its wines really benefit from optimal microclimate conditions as well as the from rich in clay yet fertile soils.
Extremely fresh, complex, and savory, with pronounced herbal character, Arba Wine’s Chardonnay shows very rare notes of tomato leaf and basil, refined mineral notes, layers of fruit, a touch of lemon ice cream, beeswax, and biscuit, and a long, spicy finish. 2013 vintage has already gained well-deserved international recognition so, you may keep an eye on this wine because I am quite sure that it will become available on the global marketplace one day.
Below are the answers to some frequently asked questions about Chardonnay.
Is Chardonnay dry or sweet?
Typically, Chardonnay grapes are used to produce dry, medium- to full-bodied wines that offer a wide range of flavors and may vary in taste depending on where they came from and how they were made. They lack the residual sugar which can be found in sweeter white wines. Chablis which is made of 100% Chardonnay grapes, is some of the driest white wine around. Chardonnay-based sparkling wines are also bone dry and make the finest Brute Champagnes in the world.
Why is Chardonnay so popular?
Chardonnay is popular mainly due to how well it is known among non-seasoned wine drinkers. Whenever you ask anyone to name a white wine, most likely they’ll say “Chardonnay”. It’s prevalent in popular culture with its easy-drinking characteristics, mineral notes, and floral aroma. It’s also readily available in lots of stores - it’s not an obscure wine and it’s fairly easy to find a decent bottle. It’s good for any occasion or season. It’s not the kind of wine that you can drink only during certain months of the year, making it a very versatile choice. Chardonnay also goes well with seafood, poultry, soft cheeses, fruit platters, and of course it’s great on its own.
How to pick great Chardonnay wine?
Not all Chardonnay wine is created equally and some vintages are better than the others. Don’t expect to walk into a wine store and pick the first Chardonnay you lay your eyes on. If there’s a sommelier nearby, ask them to help you with the bottle selection. It also makes sense to do some research online before committing to investing in wine. There are many wine-related websites with lots and lots of reviews by experienced wine-aficionados who will give you a few pointers when it comes to selecting a perfect bottle. Study the wine before you buy it, read up on regions and vintages and you’re one step closer to choosing the wine that tastes amazing and is worth every penny.
Is Chardonnay and Champagne the same thing?
Chardonnay is a grape variety that is used to create both still Chardonnay-based wines and sparkling wines. Champagne is a sparkling wine made of 100% Chardonnay grape (blanc de blancs) or a blend between Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.