Chardonnay originated in the Burgundy region of France, and takes its name from a small town in the Maconnais, an area in southern Burgundy that makes relatively inexpensive, high-value Chardonnays.
They recently celebrated their thousandth anniversary and the name comes from ‘cardonnacum’ that is known as the ‘place full of thistles’. Chardonnay most likely originated here and was then spread throughout France by the monks. The earliest recorded reference to Chardonnay occurs in 1330. Cistercian monks built stonewalls around their ‘Clos de Vougeot’ vineyard exclusively planted to Chardonnay grapes.
The heritage of Chardonnay grapes can be traced back for thousands of years, ever since the region was under the control of the Roman Empire. Despite periods of unrest in the area over the years, Chardonnay grapes still remained, and they have been thriving and branching into many different species. The grapes are thought to be a crossbreed of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc.
The Romans are thought to have brought Gouais Blanc from Croatia, and it was widely cultivated by peasants in eastern France. The Pinot of the French aristocracy grew in close proximity to the Gouais Blanc, giving the two ample opportunity to interbreed. This makes Chardonnay one of the oldest crossbred species of grapes in history.
Another stream of history points towards Chardonnay coming from Lebanon, but there are no written references to Chardonnay originating in Lebanon ‘till much later than 1330.
Grapes were among some of the crops that were planted in the New Colonies of early America. Wine grapes weren’t excluded from these plantings.
As settlers moved West, so did wine grapes. In fact, the state of Missouri was the largest wine producer before Prohibition. These wines coming from these young grapes and wine makers was for mostly sweeter wines with no character.
Because of this, C.H. Wente in California is famous for cloning Chardonnay from Burgundy in 1912. As part of the first graduating viticulture class of UC Davis, his professor mentioned that there was this wonderful green grape growing in Burgundy making great wines. Why wasn’t it here? That clone, called the Wente clone, is the source material for nearly 80% of American Chardonnay plantings today.
That Chardonnay clone was used to introduce the grape variety in several Californian vineyards throughout the 1940s. In the 1950s, James David Zellerbach, one-time US Ambassador to Rome, started Hanzell Vineyards winery and dedicated it to making Burgundian-style Chardonnay.
His success encouraged other Californian winemakers to follow suit and culminated in Chateau Montelena’s victory over Burgundian Chardonnay in the 1976 blind tasting event conducted by French judges known as the Judgment of Paris. In response, the demand for Californian Chardonnay increased and Californian winemakers rushed to increase plantings.
California had 93,148 acres of vineyards planted to Chardonnay in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual report. The next most common white wine grape was French Colombard, far behind at 18,246 acres, followed by Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. (Cabernet Sauvignon, California’s main red grape, surpassed Chardonnay by a mere 100 acres).
Because it is now grown nearly everywhere wine is made, and because we label it by the grape variety rather than the place of origin, we tend to forget that appellations such as Montrachet, Meursault, Pouilly-Fuissé and Chablis in France are synonymous with Chardonnay. So make sure to check them out.
The Actual Grape
The Chardonnay vine buds out relatively early, and has slightly rounded leaves similar in appearance to Pinot Noir. Grape clusters are small to medium-sized with round berries that turn yellowish-green after veraison (color change), and may become yellow or brownish-green by harvest. Some clones of Chardonnay are noted for producing a “hens and chicks” pattern of alternately large and tiny berries.
Where it can grow
The Chardonnay vine is nothing if not adaptable. Commercially acceptable Chardonnay can be produced in really quite hot wine regions such as the hot interiors of California, South Africa and Australia. Also, in cooler wine regions such as Chablis, Carneros, California’s Central Coast and Tasmania.
In the US, besides California, it is also grown in 29 other states.
Worldwide, besides France, you will find it in Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Italy, Greece, Croatia, Germany…and many more. You get the idea.
Instead of covering each state and country, let’s get into climate regions. Namely cool and warm.
In warmer climates the grapes mature quicker. If left on the vine too long, the grape will lose some of its fruit flavor and natural acidity. These regions have a tendency to harvest early to retain some of those characteristics.
Chardonnay seems to shine in the cooler to moderate climates. A longer growing season develops a grape with a lot of fruit flavor and sharp acidity. The vine buds early in the season, which can be a challenge. If it is growing in a low lying valley, it can be susceptible to frost issues. Many vineyards have frost deterrent systems in place to prevent this problem.
How it’s made
All over the world, producing Chardonnay has been seen as a rite of passage in new wine regions. Almost any wine producer with ambitions to belong to the great international club of wine grown-ups has to prove that he or she can make a Chardonnay, preferably a Chardonnay fermented and matured in new(ish) oak barrels the Burgundian way, with the best of them.
The fact is that most of this sort of wine is made in the cellar than in the vineyard. Or, to put it another way, skillfully-made barrel-fermented Chardonnays tend to taste very much the same wherever they are made. Indeed when many people say they like the taste of Chardonnay, what they often mean is that they like the taste of oak, or at least the qualities of oak maturation.
The best examples of the wine (mainly from Burgundy) can benefit from five or even more years in bottle to soften that acidity and develop rounder flavors to balance it – although less concentrated examples produced in cool years may simply taste even leaner as the bloom of youth fades. Excluding premier cru and grand cru burgundy, Chardonnay does not make wines for seriously long ageing.
Producers harvesting from warmer climates will use more of the barrel aging process. Most of these wines go through a secondary fermentation known as malolactic fermentation. That is when the natural malic acids found in the wine will be converted to lactic acid, which results in a creamy or buttery finish. This process can be stopped at any time.
Wine makers that have 100% ML (malolactic), can over power the fruit and acidity of the wine. This style was very popular in the late 80s to mid-90s.
So a well-balanced Chardonnay will have some ML as to not mask the fruit and acidity.
A newer style of Chardonnay production is known as “stainless steel”. You would assume that the wine has a metallic flavor, but it is more in the process than the characteristics.
This means that the wine does not touch an oak barrel or has any oak influence. All fermentation and aging is done in stainless steel tanks. What this creates is a wine with brilliant acidity and lots of fruit on the forward part of the palate.
What does it taste like?
The variety itself (although often said to be relatively flavor-neutral) is responsible for most of the fruity flavors found in Chardonnay wines. These range from the tropical (banana, melon, pineapple and guava) to stone-fruits (peach, nectarine and apricot), citrus and apples.
Climate plays a major role in dictating which fruit flavors a Chardonnay will have. Broadly speaking, warm regions such as California, Argentina and much of Australia tend to give more tropical styles. Temperate zones such as southern Burgundy or northern New Zealand create wines marked out by stone-fruit notes. The very coolest Chardonnay vineyards (those in Chablis, Champagne Oregon, and Germany) lean towards green-apple aromas.
When purchasing a Chardonnay of good to really good quality, really pay attention to where the grapes came from, this will dictate what direction the flavor is headed.
Sparkling Wine and Chardonnay
Chardonnay is one of three traditional Champagne grapes. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier being the others. All Champagnes is blended with the exceptions of Blanc de Blanc being 100% Chardonnay and Pinot Noir/Meunier being the Blanc de Noirs to increase body or ballast to the wine.
Worldwide, producers of sparkling wine using the “methodechampenoise” production style, usually stick with these two grapes to create true to form wines.
♦ In-Depth Varietal Comparisons
If you have any experience with Chardonnay then you may find some of these comparison pieces interesting, helpful, and educational.
► Differences Between Chardonnay & Pinot Grigio
► Differences Between Chardonnay & Sauvignon Blanc
► Differences Between Chardonnay & Moscato
► Differences Between Chardonnay & Pinot Noir
► Differences Between Chardonnay & Riesling
► Differences Between Chardonnay & Chablis