There are few wine growing regions that don’t grow Chardonnay. For many years it has been the world’s most popular white variety and even today with the rising fashion for Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay accounts for 43% of all
white wine grapes harvested in California. It is the second most planted white wine grape in France, although the first – Ugni Blanc – nearly all goes to making brandy.
So where did it come from, and why is it in so much demand?
Chardonnay originated in the south of the Burgundy region of eastern France, probably around the village of Chardonnay, which is found midway between Dijon and Lyon. Chardonnay was a natural cross between the local black Pinot Noir and a now almost extinct white variety named Gouais. By the late 1600’s Chardonnay was recognised there for making the best white wines.
Viticulturists like planting Chardonnay because it is fairly easy to grow, especially on limestone and calcareous clays.
Winemakers positively love it because it is a variety without strong flavours of its own which expresses the soil it grows on, but especially because it is so open to the winemaker’s influence. They can make it bone dry with a greenish tinge and a flinty taste, as they do in Chablis, by fermenting in stainless steel and avoiding using oak barrels. But by oaking and allowing malolactic fermentation, winemakers can produce opulent big wines with a fat buttery mouth texture, as popularised in California. And everything between those two extremes. Thus Chardonnay is malleable to the winemaker’s vision.
Chardonnay also plays an important role in sparkling wines. It produces 30% of the grapes used in the making of Champagne. The other 70% comes from two black varieties, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Most Champagnes are a blend of the three varieties but Champagne made solely from Chardonnay is labelled as Blanc de Blanc, meaning White from White.
Most places that want to make a sparkling wine to emulate Champagne will grow Chardonnay. Even England, which was thought to be too cold, now has vineyards of Chardonnay making excellent fizz.
You’ll find Chardonnay across the world, from Canada and England in the north down to South Africa and New Zealand in the south. But Chardonnay on a wine label doesn’t, by itself, tell you what the wine inside will taste like. It could be tart or it could be buttery, it could be bone dry or softly sweet. Chardonnay is an old variety and there are many clones, as mutations are known, with 28 authorised in Burgundy, and some produce better quality wines while others produce greater quantity than quality.
And those difference are all part of the mystique and pleasure of wine.
Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.