There is plenty to say about Chardonnay, and so I will spread my thoughts over two sections. In the first I will make some general observations, and in the second I will deal with the different parts of the world where Chardonnay is grown. There are a lot of wonderful Chardonnay wines manufactured in Australia.
Chardonnay is far more widely planted than any of the other grape varieties, covering over 175,000 hectares. Interestingly, top quality vine varieties tend to be planted in comparatively small quantities because they are inconveniently low-yielding, difficult to grow, disease-prone, unreliable croppers. But Chardonnay is very adaptable to all sorts of soils and climates, is easy to grow, and yields generously and reliably. Furthermore, it is a very forgiving variety for the winemaker, and allows a wide range of styles to be superimposed on the raw material: it goes well with oak treatment; can be made crisp and citric; or lush and rich; mineral or exuberantly fruity. It is a classic anecdote in the wine trade that drinkers will say they hate Chardonnay, but please could they have a glass of Chablis (which is always made from 100% Chardonnay – in fact, it is often said that Chablis is the purest expression of Chardonnay).
To begin at the beginning: where does it come from? It used to be thought that it was one of the family of Pinots, but the French ampelographer (vine expert) Galet has shown that it is a variety in its own right with no other close relations. There is a village in the Mâconnais in southern Burgundy by the name of Chardonnay, from which it no doubt takes its name – it is, after all, the variety that makes great white burgundy. However, since time immemorial Chardonnay has been (and still is) cultivated in the Lebanon, and it seems that this is where it originated from.
Read more in the book “First Steps in Ampelography: a Guide to Facilitate the Recognition of Vines“
What does Chardonnay taste like? Well, first of all, the variety itself doesn’t taste of oak, although it has become a commonplace to think of Chardonnay as oaked Chardonnay: young Chardonnay without oak is floral, blossomy in flavour, riper examples tending towards tropical fruit flavours – also, aniseed (the French think of it as fennel) is a frequent component; oaked wines (provided the oak barrels that are used are new, or nearly new) will display in addition notes of vanilla, leather and spice; as the wines age they lose their initial florality and take on notes of nuts, straw and honey. Another feature of Chardonnay is that it has weight, making the wines excellent for drinking with meals, even standing up to fairly robust flavours such as roast chicken.
In its homeland of Burgundy, you will meet it crisp, mineral and unoaked in Chablis, fermented and matured in tank; going south, minor Bourgone Blancs in the Côte de Beaune (and surrounding area) will usually be matured in old oak, showing no influence on the taste, though more expensive examples will have been put into younger, even new, oak barrels; grander wines from named villages in the same area such as Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet will almost always be fermented and matured in oak barrels, but will be made in a wide variety of styles from searingly dry and mineral (not showing much oak influence) to broad, rich, weighty with noticeable oak flavours – it is here that the greatest white burgundies are produced, and they will age for decades, requiring at least ten years of cellaring before they start to show their full potential â€“ the best will display a majesty and power, and yet at the same time a delicacy and beauty that is unimaginable until you have tasted an example; continuing south, the Côtee Chalonnaise produces some fine, though less concentrated, Chardonnays from villages such as Rully, Givry and Mercurey, with Rully being a particularly good source; further south still there is the Mâconnais, which produces a looser-knit style, sometimes with some weight to the wines, and here you will find the superior enclave of Pouilly-Fuissé, an appellation made up of five villages , including Vergisson, Solutré-Pouilly, Fuissé and Chaintré.
Read more in the book “Oxford Companion to Wine“
It is also to be found all over the rest of the world – in particular, Australia adopted it and made a rich, heavily oaked style displaying lots of tropical fruit flavours that took drinkers by storm for a while, though now people are tiring of all that weight and it is losing out to the lighter charms of Sauvignon Blanc.