Best-known as the white grape of Burgundy and cornerstone of Champagne, Chardonnay is the world's most famous white-wine variety and also one of the most widely planted across the globe. Made in a variety of styles, Chardonnay wines can show fruit notes that run from citrusy and mineral to exotic and toasty. It is found in wine regions worldwide.
What Chardonnay tastes like
Despite its global success, Chardonnay as a grape is relatively neutral and it is not considered an aromatic variety. Indeed, it is often dubbed "the winemaker's grape", for it is in the winery that many of its defining characters are amplified or reduced.
At its most basic, Chardonnay produces wines of a light golden hue, with notes of citrus, green apple, blossom and almonds or oatmeal. On the palate, Chardonnay has moderate acidity and moderate alcohol with a medium body.
Climate, as well as viticulture and winemaking, play a major role in the aromas and flavors of the resulting wine.
The effect of climate on Chardonnay flavors
The very coolest Chardonnay vineyards (those in Chablis, Champagne and Germany, for instance) lean towards green apple aromas. Mineral descriptors such as chalk, wet stones and crushed seashells also find their way into Chardonnay tasting notes.
These are sometimes attributed to the soils in the vineyard. The wines of Chablis, for instance, often show Chardonnay at its most mineral, with little or no oak used in the winemaking process and often notes of citrus, blossom and chalk are encountered along with high levels of acidity.
Chablis' famous Kimmeridigan, ancient oystershell, soils are often credited with this chalky minerality. This can be contrasted with the more full-bodied Chardonnays of the New World.
Indeed, while winemaking and styles of Chardonnay have evolved in the last decade or so, New World Chardonnays (from the likes of Australia or California) often show more body, fruit and palate weight, with exotic fruit notes and toasty oak on the nose. Broadly speaking, these warm regions, which also include Chile, South Africa and Argentina tend to give more tropical styles.
Stylistically, most global examples of still, dry Chardonnay full somewhere within this spectrum. The wines of Burgundy, for instance, strike a note that incorporates the minerality of Chablis and some of the power of the New World, often incorporating oak and giving intruiging (sometimes subtle) stonefruit aromas with concentration of flavor and an impressively balanced and fresh length on the palate.
For many Chardonnay lovers, from winemakers to winelovers, Burgundy remains the touchstone by which many a Chardonnay is judged.
Alone, the variety itself (although 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 stonefruits (peach, nectarine and apricot), to citrus and apples.
However, a number of other viticultural and winemaking approaches can also affect the final flavor.
Vineyard effects on Chardonnay flavors
In general, Chardonnay grows well in a variety of climates. It provides a relatively good yield and is relatively vigorous and concentration of flavor in the final wine may involve a degree of crop-thinning in the growing season.
Vines bud and flower early in the season, making them susceptible to spring frosts and viticulturists in cool climates such as Chablis (and wider Burgundy and Champagne too) have traditionally mitigated this by lighting braziers between the vine rows (a reasonably effective and traditional, albeit not environmentally-friendly, solution).
Some parts of Chablis are protected by water sprinklers in which water freezes around the nascent bud, actually protecting it. Other techniques include warming the fruiting wires in the vineyard trellis.
Although, generally speaking, Chardonnay has moderate to high acidity, in very warm climates (and with extended hang-time over harvest) Chardonnay grapes can lose their natural acidity, resulting in flat, overblown wines.
In the vineyard, clonal selection is a major factor – albeit anecodally not to the degree of Chardonnay's Burgundian counterpart, Pinot Noir. In the New World especially, clones are often mentioned. For instance, much is made of the likes of the Mendoza clone (known for its variability in berry size, it brings both freshness and concentration) or the sometimes pithy notes and acidity of UCD (University of California-Davis) Clone 15, actually sourced in Washington (where it is sometimes called the Prosser clone).
Burgundian clones – while perhaps appearing more serendipitously in Burgundy via artisanal propagation – are also frequently encountered, including the classic clone 95 which gives lemon and blossom notes. Also isolated in Burgundy are a number of muscat-like clones of Chardonnay, sometimes encountered in a wine as a Chardonnay Musqué, but more often used (in Burgundy and abroad) as a blending component to add aromatic complexity.
Winemaking effects on Chardonnay flavors
It is generally accepted that pressing Chardonnay with the bunches intact ("whole-bunch press", as it is known) gives better quality juice due to a number of factors but mainly through efficient pressing and keeping fruit intact until the moment of pressing.
Whole-bunch pressing is expensive, however, as it requires fruit to be hand-harvested and carefully transported (and stored, in some cases). At this time too, a winemaker may decide to run the freshly-pressed juice directly into barrel rather than the standard white winemaking procedure of pressing to a tank and separating the juice from its gross lees (solids that settle out from the juice) at a later time.
Putting juice straight to barrel and initiating a so-called "high solids" fermentation can not only add greater palate weight, or body, in the final wine, but it can also affect the potential for reductive notes to appear (as can the likes of Nitrogen deficiency in the soil). Reduction in Chardonnay is a contentious matter, even among winemakers, with some very much embracing the background hints of struck match (often accentuated by or mistaken for new oak), rubber, or onion, and others considering it a winemaking fault.
Secondary or malolactic fermentation is also a major stylistic choice among winemakers. Some New World winemakers, wanting to preserve acidity (and freshness) may elect not to put the wine through malolactic fermentation (in which malic acid, from the latin for apple, is converted to the softer lactic acid, as found in milk) – a process which reduces the overall acidity in wine.
Malolactic fermentation is, however, a relatively naturally occurring phenomenon. It can happen any time after primary (alcoholic) fermentation – and in some cases overlaps it. Malolactic fermentation gives distinctive buttery aromas to the final wine (often a good flavor combination with toasty notes from new oak).
Aging Chardonnay on lees (which can be stirred with varying degrees of regularity) will impart some body to the wine and will also impart biscuity and doughy flavors.
Lastly, the use of oak can have a major effect on the finished wine. Fermenting wines and aging them in oak is often encountered in Chardonnay production and the degree of new oak, which imparts the vanilla, smoke, hints of sweet spices such as clove and cinnamon, can be a major factor in a young wine's aroma and, to a degree, palate profile.
Oak can also interact with other winemaking aspects, highlighting reduction (as noted above) while also encoraging a degree of slow oxidation (irrespective of old and new barrels). Depending on the winemaking regime, oxidation rates can be further increased by regular lees stirring.
This is why the percentage of oak and/or of new oak used in making a Chardonnay is often noted by tasters.
Some winemakers, such as those in the Jura will even work with oxidation and encourage it in the final wine, very much in keeping with local winemaking traditions. Such Chardonnay wines are often labeled "Sous Voile" ("under a veil" – a nod to the layer that forms on the surface of the wine).
At this point, it is important to note that there is a difference between oxidative winemaking (as found in Jura and Sherry) which gives bruised apple notes, and a wine that is oxidised in bottle – a wine fault.
Other Chardonnay wine styles
Although most famous for its still, dry wines, Chardonnay is used to produce an impressively diverse range of styles.
The variety is put to use in sparkling wines all over the world (most famously in Champagne), when it is usually paired with Pinot Noir. It is also regularly encountered on its own, often with the "Blanc de Blancs" moniker.
Indeed, some of the world's most sought-after Chardonnays are sparkling. These include Salon's Cuvée S, Taittinger's Comtes de Champagne and Krug's Clos du Mesnil – all made in the Blanc de Blancs style.
It can also be found in sweet botrytized and late-harvest wines; Canada even produces sweet Chardonnay ice wines. However, as mentioned above, extended hang-time on the vine can mean Chardonnay loses a good deal of its natural acidity – this is why late-harvest Chardonnay wines are not widespread.
Burgundy is Chardonnay's spiritual home. Chablis shows the grape at its most mineral while Chablis Grand Cru wines will often show greater concentration to boot, often with a small degree of oak. Chablis Premier Cru wines strike a note between the two.
In the C?te d'Or, the more northern C?te de Nuits subregion is broadly given over to Pinot Noir although white wines can be encountered in small areas such as Musigny blanc or Vougeot's Le Clos Blanc, or under the broader village appellations. But it is in the C?te de Beaune where Chardonnay really comes to the fore.
Just north of Beaune town lies the famed Corton hill and the wines of the Corton Grand Cru (particularly the wines of Corton-Charlemagne). Other famed (and pricey) wines are found on the southern side of Beaune, including Meursault and the wines of Chassagne and Puligny-Montrachet.
All are highly coveted, while the Grand Cru site Le Montrachet is the origin of wine-searcher's most sought-after still Chardonnay: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti's Montrachet. Tucked in a valley immediately west of the Montrachets lies Saint-Aubin, often the source of excellent and affordable Chardonnay.
As noted above, Champagne is another major grower of the variety. It accounts of the majority of plantings in the C?te de Blancs subregion and, as a whole, is regularly encountered in the Champagne blend. Blanc de Blancs on the label often designates a wine made entirely from Chardonnay.
Alongside Savagnin, it is one of the major white varieties of the Jura and figures in the list of principle varieties in the Savoie further south. More broadly, Chardonnay is found throughout France, often under the wider regional IGP titles.
Europe and the New World
In keeping with its popularity, Chardonnay is found worldwide, from the slopes of Somontano and Friuli in Spain and Italy respectively, to the cool climates of New Zealand and Tasmania. Warmer sites include vineyards across South Africa, California, Western Australia, Australia, Chile and Argentina.
Chardonnay is the product of Gouais Blanc – the parent of a host of well-known varieties including Riesling – and Pinot Noir. Pinot and Gouais are thought to have been the principle varieties in Burgundy in the Middle Ages.
Morillon, Pinot Chardonnay, Feiner Weisser Burgunder.
Food pairings for Chardonnay
- Butternut squash risotto (risotto alla zucca)
- Japanese-style pork belly
- Roast chicken with honey-sesame carrots