What is Chardonnay?
Chardonnay originated in Burgundy, France, but is now grown everywhere wine is made, from the south of England to New Zealand. For centuries, Chardonnay was the principal white wine of the Burgundy and Chablis regions. However today Chardonnay is a widely grown grape variety internationally, in part because it can acclimatise to both warm and cool conditions and is relatively easy to grow.
The Chardonnay grape itself is neutral in flavour. It is popular due to its chameleon-like ability to take on flavours from external influences such at terroir and oak. Winemakers love Chardonnay because it responds so well to winery manipulation. It can be made with heavy or light oak influence to provide weight, flavour and power. Or it can be made with no oak at all. It can be put through varying percentages of malo-lactic fermentation to convert the sharper malic acids into softer lactic acids giving the wine a creamy texture. And there’s yeast lees stirring to give the wine more complexity, nuttiness, yeast flavours and texture.
Varieties of Chardonnay
There are two main styles of Chardonnay: the full-bodied, toasty, buttery style popular through the 80s and 90s, and the leaner, crisper, more acidic style more popular today.
Chardonnay is grown widely across New Zealand and Australia, with both countries making world-class examples favouring balance, elegance and freshness over boldness. Chardonnay, along with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are the grapes most widely used in sparkling wines.
Chardonnay’s neutrality and ability to take on flavours means descriptors are extensive and include apple, pear, stonefruit, lemon, lime, tangerine, pineapple, mango and floral notes. Flinty mineral notes can reflect the soil. Light oak adds vanilla, coconut, and even crème brulee. Heavier oak use shows smoke and toasty notes. Malolactic fermentation brings buttery, creamy, yeasty, nutty flavours.
Pairing with food
The variety of Chardonnay styles means there are no rules when pairing it with food. White meats like chicken and fish pair readily with Chardonnay. Creamier sauces also work well with aged Chardonnays. Spicy Asian food is a better match for leaner, more restrained Chardonnays with their characteristic acidity. Less complex, more accessible Chardonnays offer crisp, clean taste and work well with salads and can provide relief from the deliciously sticky textures of barbecued meats.
Notable Countries for Chardonnay
New Zealand - during the 1990s, at its peak in popularity, plantings of Chardonnay surpassed every other grape grown in New Zealand. Today, you’ll find it in every region. Chardonnay’s versatility makes it the perfect varietal with which to experiment, and a wide range of styles are made in New Zealand. New Zealand Chardonnay is refined and mouth-filling with concentrated citrus and tropical fruit. You can choose from fruit-driven, unoaked wines to rich, complex, elegant wines with a touch of oak.
Australia - Chardonnay first came to Australia with James Busby in 1832, but only really became popular in the 1950s. One of the first commercially successful Chardonnays was produced by Murray Tyrrell of the Tyrrell Dynasty in the Hunter Valley in 1971. Other NSW regions include Mudgee, Orange and Tumbarumba. Warm inland regions like the Murray Darling, Riverland and Riverina regions produce the majority of good quality, well-priced Australian Chardonnay, displaying ripe, tropical and stone fruit characters. These may often be multi-regional blends labelled with the origin as South Eastern Australia (SEA).
France: Burgundy, Chablis and Champagne.
USA: California, Oregon, Washington, New York.
Italy: Almost every region, including South Tyrol, Piedmont, Tuscany.
South Africa: Western Cape.