Chardonnay is the dominant force in the white wines of eastern France, where it has resided, thrived and subsequently travelled far and wide since the Middle Ages. Easy to grow, hugely adaptable to blending and globally popular, Chardonnay is also a primary ingredient in Champagne - or the only ingredient in the case of a Blanc de Blancs - and it also produces Chablis and many other iconic white Burgundies.
The exact origins of Chardonnay are obscure but DNA fingerprinting suggests it is the result of a cross between the Pinot and Goulais Blanc grape varieties. The Romans have subsequently been credited for bringing the latter varietal from Croatia in order to cultivate it in Eastern France. The French also grew Pinot in close proximity to the Goulais Blanc, affording ample chance for cross grape breeding, and one of the resulting hybrids was the vigorous and now universally successful Chardonnay. For a long time it was thought that Chardonnay’s origins may be Middle Eastern and with Lebanese heritage.
Where is Chardonnay grown?
This most adaptable grape varietal is as versatile in the vineyard as it is in the winery and because of this, and coupled with its ability to produce premier quality wines with ageing capacity, Chardonnay is one of the most perpetually planted grape varietals in the world. From its homeland in Burgundy and to Chablis in Northern France, this resilient grape has subsequently saturated the winemaking world from California to various South American regions most notably Chile’s Casablanca Valley and Argentina’s Tupungato, to of course Australia, New Zealand and South Africa - the areas of Chardonnay’s areas of distribution are too numerous to detail. Skilled viticulturalists and indeed inferior ones, inevitably appreciate the ease with which they can coax high-yields from this vine in a variety of climates, although because it buds early, the coolest vineyards in Chablis and Champagne are often at risk from frost. Chardonnay can lose its pertinent acidity in the latter stages of ripening but in general winemakers love this green-skinned grape for its reliability, high ripeness levels and its malleability.
Wine styles of Chardonnay
In cool climates like Chablis, Chardonnay produces a leaner, steelier style of wine, with pronounced acidity that makes it perfect with seafood, while in warmer vineyards like those of Puligny-Montrachet; wines can develop honey and buttery characteristics. In the warmest climates of the new world, Chardonnay often boasts reams of tropical fruit flavours like pineapple, peach and mango although they often forsake the acidic levels of their Old World contemporaries. California is known for oaky, modern style Chardonnays, the Blackstone Chardonnay a prime example, while Australia perhaps produces more fruit driven Chardonnays than their American counterparts. At its best Chardonnay is one of the optimum grape varietals to reflect the terroir from which the vines were sourced, and when cultivated at its best all manner of flavours can come to the fore such as vanilla, tropical fruits, peaches, tobacco and tea amongst others.
When to drink Chardonnay
Chardonnay has a great affinity with oak and is one of the best white grapes for ageing. When aged in oak it tends to develop a rich, creamy, nut and fruit palate, backed with an integrated vanilla-oak finish. Nurtured under optimum conditions, when yields are not too high, acid not too low and treated with care by a skilled winemaker, Chardonnay wines have the capacity to improve in the bottle for decades. At the opposite end of the spectrum, young Chardonnay from over-productive vines can tend to taste almost water-like, while other basic Chardonnays may have a vaguely fruity albeit forgettable character.
Our top three Chardonnay wines under £15
The great white grape of Burgundy was a tardy arrival in California but it swiftly emerged as a popular dichotomy to Cabernet Sauvignon, and Monterey’s reputation for growing some of California’s finest Chardonnays is now well established. California was one of the leaders in producing fruit driven Chardonnays, but such is the adaptability of this varietal, they are equally adept at creating butterscotchy alternatives. The Blackstone Chardonnay is a seamless marriage of the two, with crisp, lively acidity matched with delicious tropical fruit aromas and a slight caramel and butterscotch flavour. 20% of the wine is barrel-fermented and the entire blend is aged for six months in a mixture of French and American oak barrels, which gives the wine a toasty finish.
Pouilly-Fuissé Les Ancolies 2010, E. Loron et Fils
The Pouilly-Fuissé appellation in the Mâconnais district of Burgundy is a hugely important area in terms of the production of great white wines and it is restricted to the Chardonnay grape. While perhaps not famed for producing wines of the elegance of those from the Cote de Beaune, they are no less rich, ripe and full-bodied and also have great ageing capacity. The wines from the chalky soils of this well-known appellation remain in great demand for their classic, fuller style and this dry yet rich white Burgundy is testament to the region’s enduring quality. It is a Chardonnay that combines honeyed peachy richness with a lime, citrus freshness. This is a great glass of Chardonnay from Pouilly-Fuissé but it is unusually affordable and represents fantastic value for money.
Salentein Reserve Chardonnay 2010
From Argentina’s most important and productive wine growing province in the far west of the country comes this light yellow, clear, limpid, and translucent Chardonnay that boasts aromas of good intensity and complexity, and a mineral citrus character. The high altitude of the Salentein vineyards enables the Chardonnay to thrive and this fine example is a cross between old and new world styles. The delicate floral notes of this Chardonnay are ably supported by a slight vanilla touch towards the end, as a result of barrel ageing in French oak.
CellarVie Wines’ best value Chardonnay
La Campagne Chardonnay 2010, Pays d'Oc
From arguably France’s best-value wine region in addition to being one of the country’s most productive, the Languedoc-Roussillon region has perhaps benefited from its relative freedom from vinous relegations when compared to the neighbouring appellations in France. A soft, green apple scented Chardonnay which demonstrates its unoaked nature with plenty of fruit on the palate. Whilst the grapes are grown in the relatively hot climate of southern France, modern production techniques have ensured this wine has a lively refreshing finish.
Did you know?
During the 1980s, such was the strength of demand for Australian Chardonnay that the area of Chardonnay vines increased more than fivefold during the decade. By the beginning of the 1990s it was the most planted white grape varietal in the country.
Chardonnay is also produced in Switzerland, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovenia, and Moldova amongst others, and such is its global popularity it is grown to a certain extent in climates as dissimilar as those of India, England and Uruguay. California has more Chardonnay grapes than anywhere in the world. The Chardonnay grape itself is very neutral. The vast majority of flavours commonly associated with the wine are actually derived from its terroir and oak influence.
What to eat with Chardonnay
The wide ranging styles of Chardonnay make it a hugely versatile and therefore popular addition with food. As aforementioned, Chablis is great with light delicate seafood dishes, while the fruit-driven New World examples are perhaps unsurprisingly ideal with the richer fish dishes common in Australia, California and South Africa. Oaky Chardonnays go well with very mildly spiced south-east Asian influenced foods or if that fails a lovely chicken Caesar salad. Full-bodied oaky Chardonnays from areas like New Zealand are perfect with eggs benedict or if you are feeling adventurous, steak béarnaise.
Perfect Chardonnay food match
A stellar example of a well-made Chardonnay and the epitome of the quality associated with Californian winemaking, this rich, fresh wine with buttery vanilla overtones from time spent in French and American oak is a lovely match with the creamy Carbonara because it is more than a match for the richness of the sauce. It has lots of tropical fruit, lemon and lime character to give just the right amount of balance on the palate, and will match other suitably heavy dishes.