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Chardonnay

bunch of chardonnay grapesChardonnay is the world's most popular white wine grape, and the fifth most widely planted of all wine grapes, although until the 1980s few people, other than those in the wine trade together with assorted wine connoisseurs, had even heard of it. That is because until then French wines, and wine laws, dominated wine drinkers' perception and understanding of wine for the most part. People drank Chablis, a Côte de Beaune white Burgundy or even a Blanc de Blancs Champagne and had little idea, or the desire to know, that the grape responsible for all of these wines and many more was in fact Chardonnay. What changed this level of awareness was the increasing popularity of the so-called New World wines.

Bottles, principally from Australia and California at first, were marketed as varietal wines with the grape variety prominently displayed on the label. A big factor in this revolution were the regulations of the then European Community which defended European wine-makers by banning the import of wines claiming to be Australian Burgundy, Port etc. Burgundy wines could only be made in Burgundy and sparkling wines from anywhere other than Champagne could not use the famous name on the label even if they were produced elsewhere in France and using the same method of production. In Europe geographical heritage was, and still largely is, paramount. It is somewhat ironic that what started as simple European protectionism actually paved the way for a seismic shift in the public's perception of wine, a democratisation of wine drinking and a boom in the sales of New World wines with easily understood labels. Increasing consumer awareness of varietal flavour profiles became more important commercially than a knowledge of terroirs. Chardonnay, and single varietal wines in general, had arrived!

An equally important factor explaining the ubiquity of the Chardonnay grape variety is its appeal to both growers and wine-makers. Chardonnay is quite a straightforward grape to grow. It isn't particularly fussy about terroir; Chardonnay grows well in a variety of soils, climates and micro-climates although it absolutely excels in soils that are rich in chalk, limestone and clays. Happily all three soil types are widespread throughout Burgundy. With very generous yields the only slight snag for the viticulturist is that in very marginal climates its early-flowering nature can make it prone to the effect of late frosts. This aspect of the variety can cause problems in the Champagne region in some years. In the winery its qualities suggest an almost teleological design to its creation such is its versatility. Chardonnay responds very well to a wide range of fermentation and maturation techniques. Temperature-controlled fermentation in stainless steel tanks produces elegant wines with a crisp, fresh character displaying minerality and fruits such as apples and citrus which are hallmarks of Chablis. Fermentation in oak barrels gives an altogether softer, broader palate with rich buttery flavours. In warmer climates the fruit takes on a more tropical note ranging from peach via melon to pineapple which qualities are very noticeable in wines from Australia and California.

History of the Chardonnay Grape

Research conducted by the University of California, Davis, studied the DNA of the Chardonnay grape to determine its history. Its genetics were found to be a mixture of Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, itself a mutation of the Pinot Noir variety, and an obscure grape called Gouais Blanc which today is to be found mostly in Germany. It is not inconceivable that the Gouais Blanc was introduced to France in areas where the Pinot Noir was already growing and that over a long period of many years natural cross-fertilisation occurred eventually giving rise to the Chardonnay grape itself. Further human intervention has created separate 34 clones by virtue of in-breeding to emphasise and stabilise specific qualities whether they be suitability to specific terroirs or certain desired fruit-flavour profiles. It seems probable that the name of the grape is derived from the area in the Mâconnais, Saône-et-Loire department, in southern Burgundy where, towards the end of the Roman Empire, the land was under the control of a Roman named Cardus, the area being known as Cardonnacum. This is thought to have been the birthplace and cradle of the Chardonnay variety and to this day there is a village of the same name in the area. An enterprising grape, it has travelled, and settled, far and wide and today is grown to make much very good, some even excellent, wines in California, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Italy, Australia and New Zealand.

Chardonnay Wines

Chardonnay is vinified to make a wide range of wines in a variety of styles - dry white wines from the green and crisp to rich, fat and buttery, sparkling wines from Champagne and elsewhere and even sweet botrytised examples. Chardonnay is made into wine with such diverse characteristics that a wine can be found to accompany almost any dish. While it is ideally suited to an array of sea food the bigger, oaked examples will not be over-shadowed by a good steak. The region of Burgundy itself serves as a paradigm for Chardonnay wines. Every style but sweet is produced there. From lean, steely Chablis in the Yonne department to the north, through the richer, oaked style of the Côte d'Or exemplified by the great wines of Le Montrachet and Meursault to the riper, honeyed fruit style of the Mâconnais in southern Burgundy. Even the sparkling Cremant de Bourgogne, or sparkling Burgundy, where it is often blended with Aligoté, Pinot Blanc and Melon de Bourgogne, the latter being better known these days as the grape from which Muscadet is made in the western Loire region.

The popularity of imported varietal wines in Europe has resulted in French producers outside of the most well-known appellations to produce single varietals and particularly good and inexpensive Chardonnay wines are available from the Languedoc as IGP wines (wines of protected origin) and also AOC Limoux from the foothills of the Pyrenees. Outside of France Australia produces some extremely good Chardonnay from e.g. d'Arenberg and very good cool climate wines are also produced in New Zealand. California, despite a recent rend for leaner, more elegant Chardonnays, still produces absolute block-buster wines with rich, buttery fruit. The best areas are regarded as being the Russian River in Sonoma, Santa Barbara and the Central Coast where Au Bon Climat (a toast to the good vineyard) has blazed a trail that others were quick to follow. Oregon and Washington states are also a source of good Chardonnay wines.

South Africa is another great success story for this grape variety.The style of South African wines falls somewhere between the ripeness of the New World and the clearly defined elegance of the best of France to produce very satisfying results. Such has been the success of Chardonnay on the international stage that the last decade has seen something of a backlash against the variety. This has been the result partly of consumers becoming tired of the mass-produced examples with their identical flavours derived largely from the same commercial yeasts but also of the all-to-human desire for industry leaders and writers to stay ahead of the curve and unearth the next big-thing. In fact the acronym ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) has passed into common usage. The thoughtful, discerning drinker, however, continues to find much to admire and enjoy in this most versatile of grapes and the often wonderful wines it inspires.

  1. 'Les Sarres' Domaine Rijckaert, Côtes du Jura, 2009

    'Les Sarres' Domaine Rijckaert, Côtes du Jura, 2009

    A delicious Chardonnay from the less well-known Côtes du Jura region in eastern France made by wine-maker Jean Rijkaert

    Details
    Colour White Wine
    Grape Variety Chardonnay
    Country France

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  2. Clotilde Davenne, Chablis, 2012

    Clotilde Davenne, Chablis, 2012

    Classic Chablis in a clean, fruit-driven style with no oak whatsoever with a layer of minerality as befits this appellation.

    Details
    Colour White Wine
    Grape Variety Chardonnay
    Country France

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  3. La Pucelle Domaine Roux, Saint-Aubin, 2011

    La Pucelle Domaine Roux, Saint-Aubin, 2011

    White Burgundy from the Côte de Beaune with tropical fruit, peach and a hint of cinnamon spice.

    Details
    Colour White Wine
    Grape Variety Chardonnay
    Country France

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  4. Maison Nicolas Potel, Auxey-Duresses Blanc, 2006

    Maison Nicolas Potel, Auxey-Duresses Blanc, 2006

    A light gold white Burgundy boasting citrus, orange and fresh almond with a stylish bouquet. The good attack on the palate develops delicious floral, nut and mineral flavours.

    Details
    Colour White Wine
    Grape Variety Chardonnay
    Country France

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  5. Terroirs de Courgis Patrick Piuze, Chablis, 2013

    Terroir de Courgis Patrick Piuze, Chablis, 2013

    Patrick Piuze makes fabulous Chablis and the 2013 Terroir de Courgis is a pale golden colour with a tropical fruit nose and a touch of yeasty bread aromas.

    Details
    Colour White Wine
    Grape Variety Chardonnay
    Country France

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  6. Claudie Jobard, Rully Blanc Montagne La Folie, 2010

    Claudie Jobard, Rully Blanc Montagne La Folie, 2010

    This Rully Blanc is delicately floral and provides delicious drinking in its youth mellowing and becoming richer and more complex after a few years in bottle. Great value for a white Burgundy.

    Details
    Colour White Wine
    Grape Variety Chardonnay
    Country France

    Out of stock

  7. Clotilde Davenne, Chablis, 2011

    Clotilde Davenne, Chablis, 2011

    If you prefer wines where the fruit is not allowed to be obscured by oak, then you should try the 2011 Chablis of Clotilde Davenne, since she avoids the use of wood completely in her cellar, thus allowing the wines a better chance of reflecting their individual ‘terroirs’.

    Details
    Colour White Wine
    Grape Variety Chardonnay
    Country France

    Out of stock

  8. Cuvee Claude Denogent les Cras, Pouilly-Fuisse, 2011

    Cuvee Claude Denogent les Cras, Pouilly-Fuisse, 2011

    Cuvee Claude Denogent les Cras is a superb southern Burgundy from the Maconnais region of Pouilly-Fuisse.

    Details
    Colour White Wine
    Grape Variety Chardonnay
    Country France

    Out of stock

  9. d'Arenberg The Lucky Lizard Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills, 2010

    d'Arenberg The Lucky Lizard Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills, 2010

    D'Arenberg has fashioned this deliciously creamy Chardonnay, which has lovely balancing acidity, at an extremely reasonable price point.

    Details
    Colour White Wine
    Grape Variety Chardonnay
    Country Australia

    Out of stock

  10. d'Arenberg, The Stump Jump Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills, 2011

    d'Arenberg, The Stump Jump Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills, 2011

    The Stump Jump is a charming, lightly-wooded Chardonnay from the famous d'Arenberg winery. The grapes are carefully crushed and basket pressed to produce a fresh, crisp white wine which is oaked to give a beautifully smooth finish. Lovely to drink on its own or a great accompaniment to a meal.

    Details
    Colour White Wine
    Grape Variety Chardonnay
    Country Australia

    Out of stock

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