STYLE: Dry; light to full; still and sparkling.
SUITABILITY FOR LONG TERM KEEPING: Very good, especially the top wines.
OAK AGED? Normal for top Chardonnays.
WHERE GROWN SUCCESSFULLY: France (Burgundy, Champagne, Jura, Ardeche, Loire), North America (California, Oregon, New York State, Canada), South America (Chile). Australia, New Zealand, Italy (Sud-Tyrol), Spain (Penedes). Germany, Bulgaria, South Africa, India, China, Yugoslavia, Lebanon.
Chardonnay is today’s most fashionable grape variety, in the eyes of both producers and consumers. Its claim to fame is in the great white wines of Burgundy – Chablis, Corton-Charlemagne, Meursault, and Montrachet, for example. However, it’s still unusual to find the word Chardonnay on a bottle of white Burgundy.
Chardonnay is a relatively easy grape variety to grow and, because the world seems to love it, producers in virtually every wine-producing country have planted it. It is tremendously versatile, both in where it can be grown and in the different styles of wine it can produce. Chardonnay on its own, without being aged in oak barrels, has a flavour of white currants and makes dry, medium to full-bodied wine, depending on where it is grown. But these characteristics change dramatically when the wine is aged in oak barrels. It takes on a much richer, deeper texture with buttery, toasted flavours and overtones of vanilla and spices. The best Chardonnays that have aged in oak barrels can last for decades.
This grape is not only responsible for some of the greatest still white wines in the worlds, it also produces the world’s finest sparkling wine – Champagne. Chardonnay is one of only three permitted grape varieties (along with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) grown in Champagne, and any Champagne called “Blanc de Blancs” is made entirely from Chardonnay.
Chardonnay’s popularity has something to do with its versatility of style, In its homeland of Burgundy it produces almost every variation: relatively simple, straightforward wines in the Cote Chalonnaise (Rully, Mercurey); more elegant, sometimes powerful wines in Chablis.
It can produce lights, undemanding wines like those from the Ardeche or light wines with a bit more body like those from Italy. Most of these wines are not oak-aged.
It is the New World producers who have done the most for Chardonnay in recent years. Their wines tend to be heavier than the traditional European Chardonnays and are almost always aged in oak. The first Californian wines were very full, but they have improved considerably and there are now some excellent wines. Australia seems to produce more high-quality Chardonnay than any other country, and now New Zealand is getting into the act with some stunning cooler-climate wines. There does not seem to be any stopping the rise of Chardonnay.