The Chardonnay grape produces a broad range of unique wine styles, ranging from steely and austere to rich, fat, and buttery, to mineral-flavoured wines that can hold their own against many of the world’s best white Burgundies.
Chardonnay provides us with all kinds of white wines, including Champagne, sparkling wines, and dessert wines. There are currently 34 different Chardonnay clones out there, but thanks to modern science, we are able to trace it back to its roots.
The Origin of Chardonnay
The University of California, Davis, conducted a research study that examined the DNA of Chardonnay grapes concluding Chardonnay is a cross between three varietals: Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Gouais Blanc. Experts are split on where the original cross-breeding happened. Chances are it occurred centuries back, quite possibly with the Romans planting Gouais Blanc in the same French soils where Pinot Noir was growing. It does not appear to be a deliberate cross, more a matter of nature simply taking its course.
Today, Chardonnay is the most popular white wine-producing grape and the fifth most widely cultivated wine grape of any kind in the world. One sip of a good Chardonnay and it is easy to see its appeal. This grape is so widely celebrated it even has its own holiday: International Chardonnay Day, celebrated worldwide on May 23 annually.
Characteristics of Chardonnay Grapes
Chardonnay grapes have a light green colour and adapt well to an array of terroirs, soils, and climates. France may be the grape’s spiritual home, particularly in appellations of Burgundy, but Chardonnay grapes also produce high-quality wines from America, Africa, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand (among numerous other countries), as most any wine connoisseur would attest.
One reason why the grape has gained such a mass popularity is due to its ease in reflecting the qualities of the area in which it is grown. The choices made by both the grower and the winemaker are easy to detect. This allows for the presentation of a wide variety of differences within the varietal. These differences range in characteristics from when to pick to the amount of sugar in the grapes to the length and temperature for fermentation. These are just a few of the choices the winemaker has to make.
Cultivating Chardonnay Grapes
As many wine tasting enthusiasts agree, Chardonnay grapes planted in the best quality Burgundy soil will produce the best possible expressions. Chardonnay vineyards in America can be found coast-to-coast, but some of the best can be found along the Sonoma Coast of California and the Central Coastal regions of the United States.
Some of the best Chardonnay grapes are grown in soils that have high concentrations of limestone, clay, and chalk, all three of which dominate the ideal terroir of Burgundy. Chardonnay grapes are predominantly used to produce wines that are 100 percent Chardonnay, but the grape is very versatile and is therefore sometimes used as a blending grape as well.
Differences in Expressions
The range of styles of Chardonnay goes beyond simply where the grape is planted. The vessel used for its aging and vinification plays a large role in the development of the overall style and character of the wine. For example, a rich, buttery Chardonnay is the result of aging the grapes in French oak barrels. If the wine has a note of vanilla, it usually means that it was aged in a new French oak barrel. Wines aged in stainless steel containers have more of a bite and take on the metallic flavour of the vessel.
With so many different expressions and so many ways to pair it with a variety of foods, it’s no mystery why Chardonnay is California’s most popular white wine. It is a wonderfully diverse variety to include in your wine journal.