Chardonnay is not an aromatic grape variety. The delicacy of its fruit makes it suitable for expressing the oak and yeast-derived flavours described below.
The flavours of Chardonnay
Chardonnay is an usual white grape variety because it can make attractive wines in regions of varying climates, ranging from cool (Chablis) to hot (parts of California). The style varies greatly depending on where it’s grown. In cool regions such as Chablis, it can offer green fruit (apple,pear) with citrus and occasionally vegetable notes (cucumber).
In moderate regions, such as Burgundy and some premium New World wine regions, the wines may taste of white stone fruit(peach) with citrus notes and hints of melon. Hot regions, mainly New world sites, express more tropical fruit notes (peach, banana, pineapple, and even mango and fig).
Many of the flavours associated with Chardonnay come from the winemaking process/techniques and not the grape variety. When they appear the dairy (butter,cream) flavours are the side-products of a process called malolatic fermentation, which is sometimes used to soften harsh acids.
The lees (dead yeast cells left behind after fermentation has finished) can also be stirred through the wine to add a creamy texture and savoury flavours. Flavours of toast,vanilla and coconut occur because of aok treatment.
Not all Chardonnays taste of oak. Chardonnay has quite delicate flavours, and the regional characteristics the fruit can display are easily obliterated by excessive oak.
Wines such as Chablis work well because of their purity of fruit and little or no use of oak. Where the fruit is of sufficient quality, the wine can be fermented and aged in small new oak barrels, and the oak and fruit will balance each other.
Chardonnay wines tend to be quite full-bodied, with a weighty, creamy texture. The best Chardonnays age well, developing a honeyed, nutty, savoury complexity.
Premium Chardonnay Regions
White Burgundy - The classic region for Chardonnay wines, and arguably where this grape variety finds its best expression, certainly the most expensive in Burgundy, eastern France.
The word ‘Chardonnay’ rarely appears on the labels of these wines, and as such they’re labelled according to the region, the district, the village or sometimes the vineyard from which the grapes originate.
Chardonnay is grown throughout Burgundy. Wines made from grapes grown throughout the region are simply labelled as Bourgogne.
Chablis has a cool climate. The bone-dry wines it produces have high acidity and can be quite austere, with green fruit and citrus notes. Many of the wines have a recognisable smoky, flinty, mineral signature. These characteristics are more pronounced in wines labelled Premier Cru or Grand Cru. With very few exceptions, oak flavours are not detectable in these wines.
The Cote d’Or is in the heart of Burgundy. It has a moderate climate that provides ideal conditions for high-quality Chardonnay. Chardonnay wines come mainly from the southern half (known as Cote de Beaune), and are usually sold under the name of the village from which the grapes originate. The most famous of these are Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet. Complexity and body are often added to these wines by fermenting them in small oak barrels, and ageing them in contact with the yeast left over from fermentation. The result means the wines are full-bodied and offer a complex succession of different flavours including citrus, white stone and tropical fruit, oak, spice and savoury notes. Chardonnay wines from the Le Montrachet vineyard are judged by many to be the finest white wines in the world, with prices to match.
MAP OF BURGUNDY AND EAST FRANCE.
The Maconnais is the most southerly major green region for White Burgundy. It is also a source for large volumes of moderately priced , light, fruity (melon,citrus) Chardonnay wines, most of which see little or no oak and are sold as Macon. Pouilly-Fuisse offers full-bodied Chardonnay wines, often with tropical fruit (pineapple,melon) and oak flavours. These come from a series of steep suntrap slopes at the far south of the Maconnais.
Australia and New Zealand
In Australia, Chardonnay is planted widely throughout the vineyard regions and made in a wide range of styles. The main regions for premium Chardonnay include cooler parts of Victoria (the Yarra Valley) Adelaide Hills region in South Australia and the Margaret River region in western Australia. A classic Australian Chardonnay style has pronounced fruit (fresh citrus and melon) and well-integrated oak flavours. Although there are some examples with a more restrained fruit character and less or no oak becoming more common.
In New Zealand, Chardonnay has large volume brands in the form of Marlborough and is an important area for premium Chardonnay with high natural crisp acidity with pronounced citrus and tropical fruit flavours and mineral notes. The best wines have pronounced oak flavours.
Chardonnay is grown widely throughout the premium grape-growing regions of California. Most Chardonnays come from regions that are cooled by breezes and morning mists blown in from the Pacific Ocean. This slows the ripening of the grapes, and this long ripening period allows intense, complex flavours to build up. The wines may be labelled as California or state the specific location, such as Russian River,Sonoma or Carneros). Some premium producers even follow the burgundian model by bottling their wines in small quantities according to the individual vineyard. Californian Chardonnays vary widely in style. Many are very full bodied, with intense, rich, citrus and ripe peach flavours and are heavily oaked. Others can be savoury and reminiscent of those from the Cote d’Or.
South American and South Africa
In Chile, the Casablanca Valley sub-region north-west of Santiago is establishing itself as an area for premium Chardonnay. The Central Valley also offers high class Chardonnay wines.
Cool sea breezes and morning fogs slow down ripening and allow time for flavours to build up, while acids are retained. Banana and melon flavours are often enhanced by barrel fermentation and oak ageing.
In Argentina there are some premium Chardonnay sites within the province of Mendoza. Here the altitude and cool night-time temperatures help produce wines with intense fruit flavours often with a spicy oak character.
South Africa, particularly in the cooler coastal parts such as Walker Bay, is a source of some very fine Chardonnays in a variety of styles.
Bulk production regions for inexpensive Chardonnay
Chardonnay wines are popular on the international markets. Premium vineyard sites for Chardonnay are limited in area. Fortunately this is a grape variety that can tolerate a wide range of soils and climates, and can still show some of its soft texture and buttery-melon fruit flavours even at high yields.
To hit low price points and still make a profit, producers need to make large volumes and take advantage of economies at scale in production and distribution and marketing. In order to obtain large volumes, wines must be blended together. The wine may then be sold simply as South Eastern Australia, Western Cape, California, Central Valley (Chile), Pays d’Oc IGP or Vin de France.
Generally large volumed Chardonnays will be fermented, blended and stored in stainless steel vats until they’re ready for packaging and sale. Oak flavours are often added in the form of staves or chips, although a portion of the wine may be fermented or aged on oak barrels.
Chardonnay produces its finest still wines unblended. For the low price high volume market, other grape varieties that are more widely available at a lower price may be use to stretch the Chardonnay component. The classic example of this is Semillon -Chardonnay or Chardonnay-Semillon, depending on which variety dominates from Australia.
In South Africa and California , Colombard-Chardonnay and Chardonnay-Chenin Blanc blends work in much the same way.
Similarly, in European regions, unfashionable local grape varieties may be blended with Chardonnay to make a marketable wine, providing a viable outlet for grapes that may otherwise struggle to find a buyer.One other grape variety that does seem to provide a successful pairing is Viognier. Its oily texture and full body merge well with Chardonnay, and the aromatic Viognier gives a little extra peachy, floral character to the wine.