Strewth, it’s hard to condense even the smallest amount of information about a grape into a single post! Let’s start with some basics and elaborate from there once we’ve got a bit of information behind us.
Chardonnay is the first noble grape we are going to look at and it can be found, well, everywhere. Literally. It is the meal ticket to international markets for developing wine regions and hence is grown pretty much wherever wine is produced.
Why so? Firstly, Chardonnay is one of the easiest grapes to work with, in so far as it is quite a neutral grape that responds strongly to the influences of the vineyard (e.g. soil type) and winemaker (e.g. oak aging). Chardonnay also happens to be much easier to pronounce than many other varieties!
The other key reason for its popularity however, is the outstanding wines that it can produce. Chardonnay’s versatility enables it to yield good quality wine pretty much wherever it is grown and along with the famed whites of Chablis, Chardonnay is also one of the principle grapes used in the production of Champagne, not to mention a handful of other French classics, such as Pouilly-Fuissé and Montrachet. ‘Nuff said.
Located in Burgundy in the northeast of France, Chablis (pronounced Shab-lee) is the home of Chardonnay. It is believed to have been created down the road in the village of Chardonnay, in the Mâconnais, whether by accident or design by Cistercian Monks crossing the Pinot and Gouais Blanc vines in the 14th century. Jumping forward 700 years (history lesson over), most traditionalist wineries in Chablis use stainless steel tanks, which impart no flavour on the wine. The cool climate results in a subtle fruit profile and the chalky soils of Chablis imparti a flinty or mineral quality to the wine (we’re getting into terroir here – better ease back and cover this later!).
Conversely, look to New World and you will see how differently Chardonnay responds to warmer climates. The additional ripeness the grapes can attain typically leads to more tropical fruit character and higher alcohol content. Add malolactic fermentation, aging in oak and on the lees into the mix (all explained below) and it is easy see how diverse wines made from Chardonnay can be.
Along with her fantastic, detailed blog, I love the diagrams that Miss Wakawaka from WakawakaWineReviews.com has put together, to demonstrate the varietal characteristics of a number of grapes.
Some classic treatments of Chardonnay any self-respecting wino should be aware of:
Most are aware of the vanillin, toasty effects of oak barrel aging on Chardonnay. The process takes place after fermentation and is simply a period of maturation in oak barrels, which have been charred (literally) on the inside. Other than the age of the oak in use, it is the level of charring that determines the characteristics picked up by the wine during the aging process. Oak chips (or even powders) are much cheaper alternatives that naturally have their critics and supporters.
MLF is the process of converting the naturally occurring tart and green apple-like malic acids into softer, more milky lactic acids. This creates a richer, buttery character to the wine, as opposed to the more acidic, apple-like quality of malic acids. The process takes place during, or just after fermentation and is usually initiated through the addition of the requisite bacteria to the wine.
The lees of a wine are simply the dead yeasts and other sedimentary particles that are filtered out of wines before bottling (think of turning a cloudy stock into a sparkling consommé). Mostly used in the production of Chardonnay or Muscadet, the lees may be stirred through the wine during fermentation, or even bottled with the wine, as is the case with Champagne. The effects of increased contact with a wine’s lees is a fresher, creamier wine with more body. Look for “Sur lie” on your wine label (if you’re lucky enough that the production methods are detailed).
It is easy to see how early New World Chardonnay vintners from Australia and California in particular got excited by and combined many of these treatments in their rush to create world-renowned wines form their own vineyards. Thankfully, a maturing industry, coupled with innovation that Europe can’t touch and an absence of the restrictive regulations that govern wine production in Europe have enabled warmer climate wine makers to ease things back a bit.
As I found out in Disliking Chardonnay: As easy as A, B, C?, it is now harder in Australia to find the dominating, overpowered Chardonnays of the early Nineties, than it is to lay your hands on a more traditional, crisper Burgundian style. And those winemakers not looking to ape their Old World counterparts are creating very distinctive wines in their own right, whilst still retaining freshess and vibrant appeal.
Try Mount Macleod Chardonnay 2010 ($17.99, Dan Murphy’s) (reviewed here), or ask your local bottle shop guy for a recommendation (the happy, cheerful one that is, not the grumpy one that is trying to turn your kids into alcoholics…)