Growers love it, winemakers adore it because of its flexibility, and North American cannot get enough of it pending on region of origin. Today Chardonnay, at least in North America, is the most sought after white grape and fetches the highest price.
Originating in Burgundy, more precisely in the town of Chardonnay, it likes well-drained limestone soils with cooler climates, and requires expert handling in the winery.
Obadieh in Lebanon may be related to chardonnay or may have been the original vine, bur researchers have not yet proven this theory conclusively.
It adapts well to a range of terroir but not to hot climates. Chardonnay tolerates high yields (up to 80 hectolitres/hectare) but best quality achieved around 45 – 50 hectolitres per hectare.
It buds early, therefore prone to early frosts, and ripens one week later than Pinot Noir in Burgundy. However, it develops high sugar levels yielding more alcoholic wines.
Its winter hardiness is legendary and can withstand severely low sustained temperatures of - 20 - - 25C .
Chablis and Ontario growers like this quality. Chardonnay bunches are small, 200 – 250 grams, with tightly arranged, thick-skinned berries. In humid climates, frequent sprayings are required to prevent molding.
There are (36) recognized clones, some of which are meant for high yield, others for quality.
Chardonnay musque, a perfumey variant, is legally recognized and classified by French authorities. Cave Spring Cellars in Ontario, has a few blocs of chardonnay musque on its vineyards on the Bench. Once bottled, over time chardonnay musque loses its perfume and takes on traditional chardonnay aroma and taste characteristics.
It can be vinified in a number of ways and styles – cold fermentation, oak aging, no-oak or aging, sweet, extremely dry, off-dry, full-and medium bodied, sparkling, fermented in barrels and aged in barrels.
Joseph Di Maria is an Ontario winery specialising in chardonnay icewines, among others.
In essence, chardonnay can be made as much in the winery as in the vineyard.
It can be aged in French oak for subtlety and restrained oak flavour but it can also be aged in American white oak, which imparts vanilla flavours and rough texture.
Some winemakers blend French oak and American oak aged chardonnay wines to achieve flavours with more mass appeal.
In Burgundy, besides Chablis, the best come from communes – Puligny-Montrachet, Batard-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, Meursault, Montrachet, Aloxe-Corton in the Cote de Beaune, Macon, Pouilly Fuisse, Pouilly Loche, Pouilly Vinzelles and Macon Vire are well known for their appealing 100 percent chardonnay wines.
In Chablis the wines are generally not oak-aged, but of late some wineries do in an attempt to attract more consumers.
In Champagne, chardonnay plays an important role.
Languedoc has thousands of hectares planted to chardonnay.
Loire also has several hundreds of hectares planted to this grape.
In Spain, Miguel Torres, who studied winemaking in Dijon, France, successfully planted chardonnay on high-altitude vineyards in Penedes. Elsewhere in Europe, chardonnay has been planted in northern Italy, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania.
Some Italian Chardonnays are fine and flavourful. Here, winemakers tend to blend it with pinot grigio.
In the New World, Canada, the U S A, Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have been very successful with chardonnay.
In Ontario Bench vineyards yield premium grade chardonnay. They are fragrant, medium- to full bodied, and deeply flavoured. Some display mineraly undertones. Ontario chardonnay can display citrus flavours, and be very refined if not over cropped.
Chateau de Charmes, Inniskillin, Reif, Vineland estates, Thirty Bench, Stoney Ridge, Cedar Creek, Hernder, and Cave Spring Cellars are well known for their fine Chardonnays.
In British Columbia well over 300 hectares of chardonnay have been planted. Sumac Ridge, Quail’s Gate, Inniskillin, Jackson-Triggs and Burrowing Owl produce fine varietal wines.
Washington and Oregon produce some chardonnay from relatively young vineyards.
California’s Napa valley and Sonoma County produce a plethora of chardonnays. Napa valley’s chardonnays are fragrant and full bodied, deeply flavoured displaying tropical fruit undertones (pineapple and citrus).
Sonoma county chardonnays tend to be higher in alcohol and darker 8in colour/ Generally, full bodied chardonnays from the coastal region in the county are more fragrant and appealing.
Further south, Salinas and Santa Ynez Valleys grow fine chardonnay. Some to have a deep golden colour, full-body and are very “buttery” in texture.
Argentina and Chile are well noted for their mid-priced chardonnays. Thus far outstanding chardonnays have failed to materialize, but there is potential on high-altitude vineyards in Chile.
Australia is a large chardonnay producer and exporter. Most come from irrigated vineyards in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Vineyards have been planted with mechanical harvesting in mind to keep labour costs low. Due to the sunny climate, the grapes always ripen fully and chardonnay acquires sufficiently high sugar levels to yields 13-14 ABV wines. Here the wines are golden in colour. Often winemakers make liberal use of oak chips or planks during fermentation and aging in an attempt to produce heavily oaked wines which some consumers, wrongly I might add, associate with quality. The best quality Australian chardonnays come from the Yarra valley in Victoria and are always aged in French oak (Allier, Nevers or Vosges). They tend to be much expensive than main-stream Australian chardonnays, but still represent good value. Many Australian winemakers also blend chardonnay with Semillon, some prefer Riesling yet others blend chardonnay with neutral tasting grape varieties to stretch them and thus decrease cost.
New Zealand started producing respectable chardonnays starting 1980’s and since then improved quality. Both islands have significant acreages of chardonnay. Cloudy Bay, Marlborough and Otago are potentially the best regions.
Chardonnay’s easy cultivation and relatively neutral taste allows winemakers to manipulate it more than most grapes. The taste can be modified to suit the palates of different markets.
Reliable chardonnay producers:
France: Chablis: Domaine William Fevre, Moreau et Fils, Dauvissat
Burgundy: Bouchard Pere et Fils, Dujac, Verget, Olivier Laflaive, L. Jadot, L.Latour, J. Drouhin, Ramonet, Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Leroy.
Ontario: Chateau des Charmes, Inniskillin, Cave Spring Cellars, Hernder, Vineland Estates, Colio, Thrity Bench, Funk Vineyards, Lailey,
U.S.A La Crema, St Francis, Arrowood, R. Mondavi, Staglin Family, Kendall-Jackson, Lohr, Jordan Vineyards, Estancia, Matanzas Creek, Beringer, Cuvaison, Grgich Cellars, Heitz,
Chile: Errazuriz, Santa Rita, Concha y Toro, Caliterra, Casa Lapostolle, Undurraga
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu