Grown on 200,000 hectares worldwide, Chardonnay is maintaining its place at the top 5 of the most planted wine grape varieties in the world (1). In fact, if we choose to ignore Airén (mostly destined for the production of Brandy), Chardonnay is the most widely planted white grape variety in the world. From its botanic birthplace in Bourgogne, Chardonnay has conquered the world's wine lovers, winemakers and vine growers. Here is story of the grape, where it grows, how it's turned into wine, how it tastes and where to find fine examples.
The Birth of Chardonnay
Once upon a spring day, a long long time ago, in a Burgundian field blend of vines planted "en foule", la "bise", the local northerly wind, gently blew on Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir's flowers and voilà: Baby Chardonnay was conceived ! Flowers became berries, berries accumulated sugar, water and seducing perfumes, they became attractive to local birds and wild boars who ate them and pooped out the seeds nearby. As Chardonnay's seed survived its first winter, it became a tiny vine, and grew strong. After a few years, it was yielding such beautiful crop, that a Monk took notice and decided to propagate cuttings of its woods in the local vineyard. Pretty soon, Chardonnay-based wines were served everywhere in Bourgogne and beyond. (Okay, it might not have happened exactly like that, but you get the idea: wind-induced cross-pollinization of Pinot & Gouais, which seeds were animal-dispersed, grown into vine & propagated through clonage).
Story of its expansion & where it grows
From its power base in Northeast France, Chardonnay took hundreds of years to expand in Bourgogne and Champagne, Jura... and more recently all over the world. Today, France still bears 23 percent of the world's plantings with 47,000 ha. It is closely followed by the US with 41,000 ha, Australia and Italy each have around 20,000 ha followed by Chile, 11,000 ha while Spain, South Africa, Argentina and China each have a little over 6,000 ha. But the list of Chardonnay producer is long: Moldova, Russia, New Zealand, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Austria, Ukraine, Germany, Serbia, Canada... all have a thousand hectare or more. Growers like it because of its ability to reasonable give yields of healthy crops almost anywhere. Winemakers like it because the grape let them express their creativity through a variety of techniques. Businessmen like it because of its market appeal... even if too much low quality Chardonnay eventually led to the A.B.C. movement (Anything But Chardonnay)
Chardonnay is happy go grow under a variety of latitudes, climates and soils. Different clones (Dijon, Chardonnay Musqué, Mendoza, Wente) are chosen according to their adaptability to the local terrain. In the coolest climates of Champagne and Tasmania, large crops of just-ripe grapes are often destined to the production of sparkling wines. This is because to make the base of sparkling wines, delicacy is more important than concentration of sugar and flavors. In the cool climate of Chablis, grape grown on the warmest chalky south-facing hills tend to give the best wines exhibiting delicate flavors, minerality and moderate levels of alcohol. In the warmer regions of Australia, South Africa, Chile and California, growers look for the coolest spots to slow the ripening, develop aromas and flavors, hold sugar accumulation and retain some mouthwatering acidity . It is often said that Chardonnay grown on calcareous soils will yield wines that are more tense and mineral in character. Clay is supposed to gives more depth and body (like in Meursault), but Chardonnay is also grown on stony or sandy soils. To hold back Chardonnay's vigor (and tendency to over crop) growers might plant at high density, choose low-vigor rootstock or use a variety of canopy management techniques.
In the winery, Chardonnay lends itself to a variety of winemaking techniques, depending on the desired style sought after. If a classic "Burgundian" style is to be achieved, techniques such as barrel fermentation, malolactic conversion and lees stirring will lead to the toasty, nutty & buttery flavors and round texture. If a fruit-forward style is the aim, anaerobic winemaking, with skin maceration, cold fermentation and carefully selected yeasts is the way to go. Of course, most winemakers will combine several of these techniques to make their mark.
France: If you are looking for a sparkling, then the obvious choice is a Blanc de Blanc from Champagne, but you can also look for Crémant de Bourgogne made exclusively with Chardonnay. You can expect a subtle nose of white flowers and citrus and orchard fruits, with increasing yeast-derived "toastiness" with late disgorgement, showing scents of brioche and croissant after six to ten years on lees typical of prestige cuvées. Chablis, being the northernmost -and therefore "coolest"-Burgundian region, offers great choice from the cheap & cheerful (Petit) Chablis to the classy Premier and Grand Crus. The best examples offer moderate intensity of citrus and orchard fruit aromas; the wines are dry with freshness, flavors of blossom, lemon, apple pear, wet stone and honey with age. Only a few Grand Crus producers use new oak, so vanilla and other woody notes are uncommon.
The Côte de Beaune is home of Le Montrachet (both "t" are silent, by the way) and many other famous names: Puligny, Chassagne, Meursault are just a few example. The wines have more depth in color than in Chablis, with more body and creamy texture, more noticeable oak flavors but can still have great minerality and complexity with age.
Further South, the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais produce all levels of quality, from lean to fleshy, more or less fruit-forward and with marked oak or not.
Chardonnay is also grown in the south of France (actually it's accepted in all regions except Alsace and Bordeaux), but most of it doesn't match the quality of Bourgogne.
Chardonnay is the most planted grape variety of California. Inexpensive bulk wines are made from irrigated vines of the hot Central Valley but quality wines are more likely to come from the cooler Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara Counties. The style of these better wines used to display pronounced tropical fruit flavors and obvious oak on the nose, rich mouthfeel, with a lil' sweetness on the attack, moderate levels of acidity, high alcohol and full body. Recently; however, it seems that producers are moving away from this style and proposing more restrained versions to the market. The best sparkling are produced in the coolest Sonoma Coast and Carneros. Chardonnay is found elsewhere in the USA, noticeably in Washington State and Oregon, many of which are very Burgundian in style.
In Australia too, it is possible to find every style of Chardonnay from inexpensive to premium. For the best examples, look for provenances such as Margaret River, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Adelaide Hills and Eden Valley. For Sparkling, Tasmania, Geelong and the Macedon Ranges are much cooler and therefore suitable for the production of this style.
Rest of the World: Chilean Chardonnay, especially coming from Casablanca, San Antonio or Leyda are some of the best value for money on the market today. New Zealand's Chardonnay is not as famous of Sauvignon Blanc, but shouldn't be overlooked. South Africa's coolest spots such as Walker Bay, Elgin or Hemel en Aarde are home to fine examples.
As you see, from Bourgogne to almost every vineyard of the New World, Chardonnay has travelled far. It is so versatile that he has this ability to produce sparkling and still wines of great value for money at every price point. It can translate provenance very precisely or simply be a blank canvas to the artistic winemaker. If you are looking to celebrate Chardonnay's International Day (On May 26th) check out our "find wines" page and get in touch with our preferred distributors. To learn more about grape varieties, join our next WSET Level 2 Award in Wines.
Anderson K. & Nelgen S. (2020) Which Wine grape Varieties Grow Where? A Global Empirical Picture Revised Edition Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press
Clarke, O. & Rand, M. (2015) Grapes & Wines. New York: Sterling Epicure
International Organization of Vine and Wine. (2017) Distribution of the world’s grapevine varieties Paris: OIV
Robinson, J. (2015) The Oxford Companion to Wine. New York: Oxford University Press Inc
Robinson, J., Harding & J. Vouillamoz, J. (2013) Wine Grapes London: Harper Collins Ltd.