The success of chardonnay is so striking that it has almost become a brand name in itself, though in its homeland of Burgundy the name rarely appears on the label.
Even today it continues to suffer from an image problem, with some still traumatised by the so-called 'oaky blokey' styles of the 1990s. Yet such afflictions are rectified relatively easily by being introduced to the wonderful elegance and diversity the grape is capable of, across a remarkable range of countries and regions.
In France, it can make wines as crisp and mineral as Chablis at one end of the scale, and full-bodied, buttery Meursault at the other. In warm New World climates chardonnay takes on attractive tropical fruit flavours and aromas. As winemakers seek out cooler sites for the grape, in Chile and New Zealand in particular, wines with a more linear structure and subtle nuances of flavour are emerging.
Chardonnay is a dream to grow, adapting to new environments with ease
The grape itself is relatively neutral in taste and its flavours can be rather elusive – reminiscent of green apples in its purest form. In bottle, the flavours are generally those gained from its terroir or oak, making it the perfect vehicle for producers to show the character of their vineyard and demonstrate the full art of winemaking techniques. Long, cool fermentations and early bottling are as suited to this variety as barrel fermentation and new oak ageing.
Growing chardonnay does not seem to present any special problems except maybe in its native Burgundy where its early budding can make it vulnerable to spring frosts. Elsewhere though, chardonnay is a dream to grow, adapting to new environments with ease.
Despite being an all-round crowd-pleaser, very few white grapes are capable of producing wines with such complexity and ageing ability as chardonnay. As such it is one of the world's true classics or noble grape varieties.
Burgundy | New Zealand | Australia | South Africa | California | Chile
- Glacé fruit
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'Chardonnay does not have a distinctive aroma or flavour, although it does have a broad and structured palate. Instead it reflects where it is grown and how it is made.'.
In its Burgundian homeland, chardonnay produces some of the world's finest white wines and, as the variety migrates from north to south, it adapts and takes on a broad range of flavour characteristics.
Its northern limit in Burgundy is Chablis where, grown on mineral-rich Kimmeridgean Clay soils, the wines are dry, distinctively acidic, lean and steely in character with some capable of considerable longevity; a mouth-watering experience.
Spring frosts in Chablis (above) can pose a risk for the early-budding chardonnay grape
This region produces what many consider to be the 'purest' expression of the varietal character of the grape – allowing the green-skinned, acidic character to shine through. The aim of the Chablis winemaker is to express terroir – the unique soil and cooler climate. The wines rarely will go through malolactic fermentation or oak-ageing and, as a result, the crisp, green apple-like acidity which gives the wine bite is a trademark of Chablis and can be very noticeable in the bouquet. High acidity allows the wines to age well and these are some of the longest living examples of the chardonnay grape. As the wine ages, acid levels drop and mellow and the wines adopt slightly honeyed, stony aromas and sometimes mushroomy flavours.
Travel further south and you enter the heartland of Burgundy – the Côte d'Or. The focus of plantings is in the southern section, the Côte de Beaune, where the wines become riper, richer and more full-bodied than their chablisien counterparts. Oak ageing is frequently used. Prolonged stirring of the lees also contributes a creamy texture to the wines.
While such techniques can at times blur the flavour boundaries between villages of the Côte d'Or, there are definite characteristics that can be attributed to wines from particular villages: Corton-Charlemagne is notable for its marzipan and almond aromas; the buttery, heavyweight style is characteristic of Meursault; Puligny-Montrachet is more often fine and steely, and Chassagne-Montrachet is said to have distinct hazelnut flavours.
The great names of the Cote d'Or have considerable ageing potential, with the finest lasting a decade or so. With age the wines evolve in bottle, taking on aromas of spice, hazelnuts and a slightly honeyed aroma, making these wines among the most sought-after whites in the world.
South of the Côte d'Or are the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais. The Côte Chalonnaise can provide more economical alternatives to the wines of the Côte d'Or, if, at times, slightly less full-bodied and age-worthy. Key appellations are Rully, Mercurey and Montagny, which produce wines with the freshness of apple and citrus-fruit flavours with notes of subtle creamy oak.
Being the furthest south of the Burgundian appellations, the Mâconnais produces some of the ripest styles of chardonnay, thanks to its more continental climate. It is here that the transition between northern and southern France begins. The appellation of Mâcon-Villages covers the majority of wines, producing a softer style with many fermented in stainless-steel for early drinking and to preserve the fruit flavours of apple, white peach and ripe citrus fruit. Those that are aged in oak show a riper style of fruit with spice and butter notes, but tend not to have the elegance or ageing potential of the great Burgundian wines.
Saint-Véran and its enclave of Pouilly-Fuissé offer the most complex wines of this southerly region. The grapes are grown in natural sun-traps resulting in the full-bodied, richer wines, though perhaps without the refined finesse of the Côte d'Or.
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It is an exciting time for New Zealand chardonnay, with long-overdue recognition from the press finally coming the way of its elegant, finely balanced wines. The best use oak, albeit skilfully, enhancing rather than replacing the wines' trademark zestiness.
The early-ripening chardonnay grape flourishes in here, producing an edgier and more citric wine than that found in Australia. The green-skinned character, and associated fruit flavours and acidity, are maintained but are complemented by ripe, stone-fruit flavours and, at times, light tropical fruits.
Gisborne, on the north-east corner of the North Island, is home to some highly distinctive chardonnays. The wines are soft and rounded in body, with ripe fruit flavours of melon, peach and pineapple. Where oak is used, it adds vanilla, light spice and complex, nutty notes.
To the south, Hawkes Bay produces the most full-bodied and powerful of New Zealand's chardonnays. Intense citrus aromas are balanced with tropical fruit notes and subtle vanilla oak flavours.
South Island's Marlborough district, on the other hand, is home to a crisper, finer style of chardonnay. The natural zestiness of the fruit lends the wine subtle qualities. The most commonly-associated fruit flavours are peach and apricot.
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Whilst Australia produces some outstanding chardonnays, it has also been blamed for generating an 'anti-chardonnay' movement amongst consumers, deterred by an overly zealous use of oak at the expense of fruit flavour. Sadly, 'ABC' – Anything But Chardonnay – seems to be a common phrase bandied around that, in reality, can turn consumers away from excellent, well-crafted wines that have a sense of place. Thankfully, times are changing and a perceptible return to finesse in recent years is strengthening the country's portfolio of wonderful chardonnay wines.
The best can be found in regions with a significant cooling influence, whether from hillside sites or a body of water. This helps to maintain levels of acidity and fruit complexity rather than creating an overly ripe, alcoholic wine.
One of the finest exponents is Margaret River in Western Australia; cooled by the Pacific Ocean, it produces complex and, at times, long-lived chardonnays. The wines display exotic, tropical fruit aromas, which are complemented by refreshing acidity. Oak is used lightly.
The Freycinet peninsula in Tasmania makes world-class chardonnay
Victoria, the most southerly of the mainland Australian states, achieves fruity wines which retain their acidity, as a result of strong sea breezes and coastal currents that cool this peninsula. The Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Geelong are the key regions to look out for, producing rich but elegant chardonnays, with restrained, tropical fruits and a lemony zestiness.
Tasmania, Australia's smallest state, should not be missed in the search for a refreshing, zesty chardonnay. Its isolated location and constant maritime climate create a much leaner style than that found on the mainland. The tropical fruit is replaced by more stone-fruit flavours (peach and apricot) and the wines show perhaps the greatest restraint of all Australian chardonnays.
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Focus of quality production is in the Coastal Region, namely Stellenbosch and Constantia, with an appealing freshness in the bottle gained from the cooler maritime climate. Styles range from fresh, young, fruity wines to some serious oak-aged, complex examples. The youthful chardonnays are often blended, frequently with viognier, to produce a lively, peach-flavoured wine with little or no oak. Those chardonnays that are oak-aged are done so with considerable skill with the slightly sweet oak flavours well integrated with those of peach, apricot, tropical fruit and acidity.
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Chardonnay is fundamentally a cool-climate variety. When grown in an environment that is too warm, it loses its acidity and becomes flabby and often unappealing. Surprisingly perhaps, it is arguably the premier white grape of California. Like Australia, the region has had an image problem with some overbearing styles in the past, but many of the wines being produced in cooler sites show stunning finesse.
Northern California is renowned for such well-balanced chardonnays, specifically the areas of Sonoma, Napa and Monterey, all found on California's North Coast.
Taking a leaf out of the Burgundian book of winemaking, California chardonnays are a product of the winery as well as the vineyard. Techniques such as barrel fermentation, oak ageing and lees stirring create a spectrum of flavours from straight-forward fruity wines to buttery, creamy chardonnays. The majority see a well-crafted marriage of vibrant, tropical fruit with a measure of zesty, citrus fruits and a dollop of buttery oak.
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Winemakers have sought out their coolest sites to ensure Chilean chardonnays are filled with concentration and freshness. In the north are the cool Elqui and Limarí Valleys. The limestone-rich soil produces a refined, understated style of chardonnay with vibrant, citrus fruit and mineral-laden aromas and flavours.
Casablanca is chardonnay's other focal point in Chile. These wines tend to be more concentrated with ripe, tropical notes of pineapple and lychee. The acidity and restrained winemaking techniques ensure that the palate is crisp and mouth-watering.
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