C is For Chardonnay – Exploring Chardonnay’s History & Wine Styles
Sublime chardonnay. The grape that launched a thousand champagnes and lends itself well to a variety of growing conditions, saw increased interest as it started to reach outside of France, and suffered a minor setback with the over-enthusiastic application of oak barrels but is happily in recovery. It’s the grape that’s seen a resurgence in popularity, thanks to us getting to know its place in newer world growing conditions and how we can best do justice to this noble grape on its journey as a solo singer.
The defining characteristics of Chardonnay are what make it versatile for winemakers and growers. This is a neutral grape, requiring flavors and nuances teased out through terroir and in how it’s handled in the cellar. Vineyards, growing conditions, barrel or stainless steel, types of fermentation – all influence and can help craft wines from bold and robust to lean and crisp. Newer world applications and warmer climates can elicit tropical fruit tones, and cooler regions bringing bright acids and citrus flavors to the forefront. Chardonnay is a chameleon. It’s a blank canvas with so many colorful secrets hiding just beneath the surface. Find them.
An Older World History
Before diving in, let’s take a moment to thank Burgundy and Champagne because today’s chardonnay is ultimately a child of France. Researchers have theorized that chardonnay had relatives in pinot (noir or blanc), could be a descendant of a wild grape connected to muscat, maybe came from the Middle East, or perhaps originated in Cyprus. DNA profiling now suggests chardonnay is part pinot (noir) and something the Romans brought over from Croatia back in the day. It’s nice to think this adventurous grape hails from such a storied past and that resilience is part of its genetics.
Djion is responsible for much of the chardonnay in France thanks to clone development at the University of Burgundy. It’s no coincidence that viticultural research happens at the source, with this being the second most widely planted white grape variety in all of France. Historically, chardonnay has made its home in Burgundy, Champagne, the Loire Valley, the Jura, and Languedoc with a smattering of other regions. The bar was set high for this adventurer when it embarked on new world exploration.
The Newer World
While chardonnay made its way around the globe well before reaching California, we can thank the sunshine state for illuminating a big step in its new world adventures. First plantings date to the 1940s with commercial production at Wente Vineyards. It was the wild west of winemaking where anything was possible and expectations got shelved – which can be a beautiful thing. Wine enthusiasts will know 1976 The Judgment of Paris, where Steven Spurrier coordinated blind tastings of chardonnays and red wines from France and California. It put California on the map and helped to increase wider acceptance of new world wines.
Australia welcomed chardonnay in the 1800s but didn’t see much traction until the middle of the twentieth century in South Australia, New South Wales, and Victoria. Warmer climates translate to challenges in maintaining acidity in ripe grapes; after going through some similar hurdles faced by California, vineyard management has an important role. In New Zealand, chardonnay took root on the east coast of the North Island even if it lives in the shadow of popular sauvignon blanc. And after a somewhat bootlegged introduction, South Africa is making a name with the Western Cape.
Cooler climate regions in Canada and the United States have also embraced chardonnay, with brilliant new wine voices popping up from the Finger Lakes to Nova Scotia and Washington to British Columbia.
Old world or new, lean or robust, we owe it to ourselves to rediscover the beauty that is chardonnay. Because of its history, its present, and its future. Because of beautiful champagnes with delicate mousse and bubbles that dance on your palate; because of lean minerality and the brightest of acidity that makes your mouth water; because of subtle softness and overwhelming nuances that can make us wonder what’s in this glass.
Or, as a dear friend puts it: because #Chardcore.
Try These Different Styles of Chardonnay
- Chablis: the northern part of Burgundy and a cooler climate that results in wines with shiny acid, leaner flavors, and signature flinty/steely tones for an example of an original cooler climate wine region.
- Champagne: northeast France, with a challenging growing environment and chalky sub-soils that make the grapes work for it; find a smaller producer like Lebeau-Batiste, because they’re out there and are brilliant. And champagne.
- California: classic Wente Vineyards Riva Ranch, just because.
- Ontario: cool climate growing with some pressures from moisture, where tenacious growers are doing good things; try Tawse Winery.
- British Columbia: cool climate yet some seriously high summer heat units and a wide variety of growing regions; try Quails’ Gate Rosemary’s Block.