Better Know A Varietal – Chardonnay

This post starts a new feature were I pick a grape variety and explain a bit about its history, characteristics and most frequent use.  There are over 1,800 varieties of grapes so I shouldn’t have a problem keeping this one going.

Chardonnay is a white grape that originated in Burgundy, France.  Now Chardonnay is the most widely planted wine grape in the world.  It is the premier white gape in California and Australia, so much so that many people don’t realize that it is a French grape.

This is easy to understand.  Chardonnay is an easy to grow grape but it is sensitive to where it is grown.  Being so popular, it also gets handled in a lot of different ways.  It can be hard to wrap your head around the vast number of different styles of Chardonnay.  Here are some general guidelines that can help.

Chardonnay grapes grown in warmer climates, such as most of Australia and California, tend to ripen earlier and have higher sugar content.  This translates in the bottle to having more fruit flavors and higher alcohol.  The aroma is frequently of tropical fruit such as oranges, pineapple, or even bananas.  Some producers, particularly in Australia, tend to make Chardonnay’s that have a bit of sweetness to them.  California ones are more likely than not pretty dry.

In cooler climates such as Burgundy or the Pacific north-west tend to make Chardonnay’s that are less fruity and have more mineral flavors.  The aroma tends to smell like flower, mushrooms or cheeses (in a good way).

The way the grapes are made into wine can make a big difference too.  There are two major technique decisions a wine maker has with Chardonnay.  The first is whether to allow malolactic fermentation.  See for a discussion of malolactic fermentation.  Chardonnays that have undergone it tend to be big, buttery and very smooth.  Wines that haven’t tend to have a bit more acidity and be more refreshing.  Almost all Australian Chardonnay has undergone malolactic fermentation.  Chablis is a classic example of wines that have not.

The second decision is whether to age the wine in oak or not. See for a discussion of the practice of aging wine in oak.  Oak tends to have a strong impact on Chardonnay.  Higher alcohol wines tend to handle oak better than lighter wines.  Thus oaked styles of Chardonnay are popular to make in warmer wine growing regions.  Once again, almost all Australian and California Chardonnays have been aged in contact with oak.  Most French ones have too, but usually less aggressively.  There is a growing trend to age Chablis in oak but many are not.

A final word on blending: With the notable exception of Champagne and other sparkling wines, it is not common to blend Chardonnay.  It is such a characterful grape that it tends to stand best on its own.


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