Chardonnay is the world’s most popular white wine. It originated in Burgundy, France, where for centuries it has been known by the name of either Bourgogne (French for “Burgundy”) or by the village or place that produces it, such as Chablis, Montrachet or Meursault.
From there, Chardonnay found its way into Champagne – both the region and the bottle. It is one of three grapes, along with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, used to make the famous bubbly. Aside from sparkling wine, Chardonnay is rarely combined with other varieties, although you will occasionally see it blended with Semillon, Colombard, Chenin Blanc or Viognier.
Chardonnay’s global popularity is relatively recent. Until the 1970s, the grape was scarcely cultivated outside of Burgundy or Champagne. A famous international blind tasting competition, however, cast this noble grape into the limelight. At the 1976 Judgement of Paris, four California Chardonnays outscored top white Burgundies from France – catapulting California’s wine industry onto the world’s radar and revealing the grape’s potential outside of France.
Chardonnay plantings in California quadrupled and, by 1988, overtook France’s acreage. Wineries all over the world began to plant Chardonnay and label the wine by its varietal name rather than by its place of origin. According to the International Organization of Wine and Vine, more than 520,000 acres are planted to Chardonnay worldwide. The California Wine Institute points out that a good chunk of those, or more than 90,000 acres, resides in California.
Chardonnay’s fame spread for several other reasons. As grapes go, it’s easy to grow and can thrive in a wide range of climates and soils. Although it buds early and is susceptible to spring frost, it ripens early and produces abundant fruit. In fact, it can be so fruitful that vineyard managers often will restrict its yield through crop thinning.
Chardonnay is also appreciated for how well it reflects its terroir. Cooler regions, such as Chablis (Burgundy’s most northern region), Champagne, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, or California’s coastal appellations, foster green fruit, such as apple, pear or citrus in Chardonnay. Chardonnay from more moderate areas, such as further south in Burgundy, tends to show more stone fruit like peach and apricot. Hotter zones, such as inland California or Australia, engender tropical notes of banana, pineapple, mango or fig. Wine lovers will say they can detect chalky minerality and crushed seashell notes in Chablis, where the soil is composed of ancient oyster beds.
Chardonnay's Remarkable Stylistic Range
Chardonnay is perhaps most valued for its impressive stylistic range. The grape, with its neutral flavor profile and non-aromatic character, is known as the "winemaker's grape" because it is highly sensitive to a winemaker’s craft.
A winemaker who wants to create a Chardonnay with a mouth-filling palate might choose to harvest the grapes when they are riper and use warmer fermentations and newer oak vessels to vinify the wine. To create richness and complexity, a winemaker will allow Chardonnay to undergo malolactic fermentation (“malo”), a secondary fermentation that occurs naturally and converts tart, malic acids into creamy, lactic ones. That buttery note you sometimes taste in a Chardonnay? It’s due to diacetyl, a byproduct of malo. Conversely, winemakers aiming for a crisper style might pick earlier, then ferment and age the wine at cooler temperatures and in stainless steel or neutral oak. They can also block malo from occurring by chilling the wine and other methods.
Oregon winemakers will often bridge these two styles by using both stainless-steel tanks and oak barrels for fermentation and aging. The result? A Chardonnay with a mesmerizing palate of juicy acidity, creamy texture, and subtle hints of toasted oak. If you haven't tasted Oregon Chardonnay, it's a must!
During the 1980s and 1990s, consumers craved bigger, oakier, buttery Chardonnays. The pendulum has since moved back toward lighter or medium-body styles with medium to higher acid, lower alcohol, subtler use of oak, and more pronounced fruit. But the great thing about Chardonnay is that you can find a style and flavor profile that matches your preference.
YourWineStore carries a delicious spectrum of Chardonnays. Here are just a few examples and how they are made:
- Kendall-Jackson’s Avant Unoaked Chardonnay is cold fermented in stainless steel, resulting in a lively, lean, elegant wine with citrus, green apple and mineral notes.
- Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay is fermented and aged in French and American oak, which impart toasty notes and complexity to the wine. The wine is aged on its dead yeast cells or lees, and those lees are stirred monthly to create its signature velvety texture and creamy pineapple, vanilla and mango flavors.
- In between these two styles is Gran Moraine’s Yamhill Carlton Chardonnay, which is aged in a combination of French oak barrels and stainless steel tanks – resulting in a delicious tension between acidity and creaminess, echoed in its Meyer lemon and starfruit flavors.
- A bubbly produced exclusively from Chardonnay is called a Blanc de Blancs. Try this exquisite version from La Crema, which is made in the Champagne method and bursts with flavors of Granny Smith apple and lime, with hints of pie crust.
With its huge stylistic range, Chardonnay goes with a world of cuisines. When pairing, consider matching the weight of the wine with the weight of the food and degree of spiciness – lighter, unoaked expressions of Chardonnay with lighter, spicier dishes, and vice versa. Here are three surefire pairings:
- Diatom Santa Barbara County Chardonnay with shrimp tacos
- Kendall-Jackson Camelot Highlands Chardonnay with triple-cream Brie cheese
- Gran Moraine Sparkling Brut Rosé (a bubbly made predominantly with Chardonnay) with fried chicken
No wonder Chardonnay is the world’s most popular white wine: There’s a style for every taste and a match for every dish, at a price for every preference. The possibilities only continue to grow and evolve, as winemakers experiment with new techniques and technologies.