No white wine grape the world over is as well-known or as common as Chardonnay: nowadays people recognize the name at least as readily as they do Cabernet Sauvignon. There is hardly any serious wine country in the world that doesn’t grow Chardonnay in one place or another, and the great thing about it is that it can thrive in so many parts of the world–the white equivalent of Cab. Also like Cab, its best examples are generally considered to be found in France, but dozens of New World challengers exist.
Chardonnay’s main viticulture advantage is its neutrality, meaning it can take on aspects of whatever region it is grown in. That said, the Chardonnay craze that has enveloped the wine culture for many years has driven up production and had an inverse effect on quality, making truly great Chardonnay a needle in a haystack. Nevertheless, the grape is the mainstay of many great wines, varietal or blended, and plays a crucial part in the wine world.
Long speculation on Chardonnay’s origin was recently settled when it was found to be a cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais. It most likely originated in France. Since then, Chardonnay itself has been crossed, cloned, imitated, impersonated, and misidentified along with all the other varieties of the world. Distinguishing Chardonnay from Pinot Blanc has long been a serious difficulty for growers.
Like Cabernet Sauvignon, the other “universal” grape, Chardonnay is easy to cultivate and is resistant to disease. The grape is high-yielding and acidic, and low-quality wines that fail to solve these problems have dragged down Chardonnay’s reputation in recent years. The mineral-rich soil of Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune vineyards was considered until recently to be Chardonnay’s best form of expression, but serious competition from California and the rest of the world indicates that this may not be the case.
Chardonnay’s reaction to oaking is pivotal. Unlike many varieties, Chardonnay reacts well to almost all kinds of oak, from new to old, and again leaves the winemaker a way to express his or her own tastes. Over-oaking, though, can cause serious problems. As for the barrels, the Côte de Beaune and Chablis have long used old barrels, and nutty but sharp wines can be produced using this technique. Less refined, more acidic creations come out of the usage of new oak. Unoaked Chardonnay is also often excellent, although oaking has become so popular that this is considered an experimental style.
Classical wine snobs maintain that the best Chardonnay is still produced in France. Small strongholds in the Languedoc, Alsace, and the Loire provide good wines for people searching for lower-priced offerings. In fact, this is true of all French wines produced in less popular appellations. Chardonnay makes up a large part of Champagne, where it is usually blended with Pinot Noir, and “Blanc de Blancs” is 100% Chardonnay. Lighter and sometimes more refined, Blanc de Blancs is exemplified by Krug’s legendary “Clos du Mesnil” cuvée. The special flavors brought out by the Champagne vinification process are often unrivaled, and a clear demonstration of how versatile Chardonnay is.
Chardonnay is the absolute mainstay of white Burgundy, making up the vast majority of plantings. Within Burgundy, the Côte de Beaune is often considered the finest place in the world for dry white wine. The Côte de Beaune actually produces a great deal of red wine, but it pales by comparison to the whites. All Chardonnay’s Grand Cru vineyards are located here. In the northern half of the slope, red wine is prevalent, but the Grand Cru appellation Corton-Charlemagne, located high on a hill, also produces outstanding white.
The southern appellations are much more famous. Famously buttery Meursault has no Grand Crus, but probably deserves to. The five Montrachet areas can be explored here; they are extremely complex. They comprise two villages, Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet. Both produce wine on their own, but their Grands Crus, especially the titular Montrachet, are among the most fabled single vineyards in the world.
The Côte de Beaune’s main rival in France is the northernmost wine district of Burgundy, Chablis. Chablis is known for its pure, flinty wines that can often have metallic flavors. It may not sound good, but Chablis has been one of the primary places for white wine production for decades. Made 100% from the Chardonnay grape, it is undoubtedly the purest expression of Chardonnay’s unique flavors. The difficulty of producing wine in this cold area makes for expensive wine. The classic, young-drinking examples of Chablis are unoaked, whereas more modern producers are experimenting with oaking.
The magnitude of excellent Chardonnay produced in France often overshadows that of the rest of the world, but California Chardonnay can often be excellent. Located in Calistoga, Napa Valley, Chateau Montelena defeated Burgundy Chardonnay in a blind tasting event conducted in 1976, called the Judgement of Paris. This win ushered in a new era for Chardonnay, but producers perhaps strayed too far from the great Burgundy which Chateau Montelena so successfully replicated. Overoaking caused California Chardonnay’s reputation to suffer, along with a great deal of mediocre low-market offerings. However, Sonoma Valley, especially the Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, and Carneros, produce more classically oriented wines that are on a par with the top Burgundies. One side effect of this, though, is that prices have risen to almost match those of France.
The Chardonnay grape has a long history in Australia. The climate is warmer there, making for lighter, more tropical flavors in the wines. These wines are more similar to those of California than those of France. The Hunter Valley is one of the best places to find Australian Chardonnay.
Extremely unusual Chardonnays from New York have a good reputation due to very low production, and these wines can often be very elegant. Oregon, Washington, and Canada have rich, fuller-bodied wines that, when successful, can reflect the cold climate. New Zealand can often produce elegant wines quite different from those of nearby Australia. South Africa has some experimental plantings.
South America is emerging as a great place for modern Chardonnay. Chilean Chardonnay especially deserves a mention, as these wines, although still fairly uncommon, exhibit unusual flavors. All other wine countries in the world produce Chardonnay; this article has essentially just scratched the surface!