May 21 is National Chardonnay Day! Chardonnay suffered damage to its reputation due to its association with heavy oak flavours, which were common in the Chardonnay wines of the 1980s and 90s. Some wine fans would even go as far to say their wine preference was “ABC” — Anything But Chardonnay! Nowadays, producers are much more careful not to overpower the wine’s fruit flavours with flavours from oak, seeking to repair the ‘brand’ of Chardonnay.
Chardonnay in reality is prized for its ability to produce outstanding-quality wines in cool, moderate AND warm climates. They can be oaked or unoaked, and some Chardonnays can evolve even after decades of aging in bottle.
Let’s learn more about this grape and style of wine, as well as a few of our favourites available in store!
What is Chardonnay?
Chardonnay is a white grape variety that is incredibly versatile and can grow in all kinds of climates. It’s the world’s most popular white wine — it’s grown basically everywhere wine is made! It originated in France’s Burgundy region, and takes its name from a small town in the Maconnais. Chardonnay is also one of the three main grapes used in Champagne production, alongside Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
It’s important to note that in France, wine takes its name from its place of origin rather than the grape, so Chardonnay is synonymous with White Burgundy, Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé, Montrachet and Meursault.
Characteristics of Chardonnay
Chardonnay is very expressive of its terroir — its primary fruit aromas and the levels of alcohol, body and acidity are greatly affected by the climate where it is grown. Cool climate Chardonnay has high acidity, light to medium body and flavours of green fruits (apple, pear), citrus fruits (lemon, lime) and wet stones. Moderate climate Chardonnay has medium to high acidity, a medium to full body, and flavours of lemon, stone fruits (peach) and sometimes tropical fruit (melon). And warm climate Chardonnays are often full bodied, medium in acidity and dominated by flavours of stone fruit (peach) and tropical fruit (banana, pineapple).
Chardonnay can be made in many ways. Many Chardonnays are produced using inert vessels to avoid adding secondary characteristics to its primary fruit flavours. Some producers use a process called malolactic conversion in the fermentation process, which can add buttery and creamy flavours and soften harsh acids. Lees contact during maturation can add body and flavours of bread and biscuit. Oak barrel fermentation and/or maturation is commonly used to add body and flavours like smoke, vanilla and coconut.
The homeland of Chardonnay, this is the main white grape variety of the region. Within Burgundy, there are a few regions and appellations that dictate how the Chardonnay is made.
Bourgogne AOC: The simplest AOC, wines labelled under this regional appellation can be made from grapes anywhere in Burgundy. These wines are usually simple with apple and lemon characteristics and high acidity.
Chablis AOC: The cool climate here produces dry wines with high acidity and flavours of apple, lemon and wet stones. There are Cru and Grand Cru classifications for premium Chardonnays from Chablis. Oak is not usually used in wines from Chablis, with producers preferring to preserve the delicacy of the cool-climate fruit flavours by fermenting in inert vessels.
Côte d’Or: Moderate climate here produces more ripe fruit flavours in the grape, and production is focused south of the town of Beaune, in an area known as the Côte de Beaune. Meursault AOC and Puligny-Montrachet AOC are famous for producing outstanding Chardonnays. Complexity and body is created by fermenting and/or maturing the wines in oak barrels and aging on lees. The premier cru and grand cru vineyards are considered the pinnacle of Chardonnay in the world.
Mâconnais: Located in the south of Burgundy, this is a source of fruity and mostly unoaked Chardonnay with simple flavours, labelled Mâcon AOC. Higher quality wines are found in the village of Pouilly-Fuissé AOC, which feature concentrated stone fruit and tropical fruit flavours and are often aged in oak barrels.
Chardonnay is widely planted in California and the quality can range. Coastal vineyards in Sonoma are cooled by Pacific sea breezes which help the grapes retain their acidity while developing complex fruit flavours. Napa Valley becomes increasingly warm and sunny as you go further north, and produces full-bodied Chardonnay with pronounced tropical fruit flavours complemented by vanilla and spice from new oak. Santa Barbara County is also known for high quality Chardonnay, with vineyards that receive cooling sea breezes. The style varies but some are similar to those of the Côte de Beaune, and ranging to more tropical fruit flavoured wines with higher alcohol and more new oak flavours.
South Australia: Adelaide Hills is cooled by altitude while Yarra Valley is cooled by ocean currents from the south. These moderating influences allow for a longer growing season and produce wines with ripe peach flavours and sometimes pineapple and banana. They typically have medium to high acidity and carefully balanced oak flavours.
Margaret River: Located in Western Australia, the quantity of wine produced is less than South Australia but the quality is consistently high. It has a warm climate, but cooling sea breezes help elongate the growing season. Chardonnay wines from this area are typically medium to full bodied with ripe peach and pineapple flavours.
The Coastal Casablanca Valley region is exposed to sea breezes and morning fogs from the Paific Ocean, and produces refreshing Chardonnay wines with citrus and peach flavours and varying levels of oak influence.