The Art of Tasting Wine with James Flewellen: Spotlight on Chardonnay Grapes
Just as Pinot Noir is Burgundy’s queen of red grapes, so Chardonnay is Burgundy’s king of whites. Although originating from Burgundy, Chardonnay is so widely grown around the world it is now considered to be an ‘international variety’.
Chardonnay is often described as a ‘winemaker’s grape’ in that the primary qualities of the grape are overwhelmed by the winemaking procedure, meaning the winemaker has an essentially blank canvas upon which to work. I take exception to this somewhat in that there is certainly something about Chardonnay that makes it ‘Chardonnay’, it’s just that this quality may vary depending on location and climate.
The typical flavour profile of the grape is green apple and lemon if grown in cool places like Chablis in France, moving through to ripe red apple, peach and melon in warmer climes and eventually to tropical pineapple, mango and even banana notes in hot climates such as California and parts of Australia. Wines from hotter places tend to have a fatter, heavier texture, lower acidity and higher alcohol, whereas those from cold climates can be lean, austere and steely.
Chardonnay and oak go together like a hand in glove. Although there are many ways of integrating oak flavours with those of the grape, some winemakers in the past have chosen to overwhelm the natural expression of the grape with an unsubtle whack of oak. This has led to the association in many people’s minds that Chardonnay “tastes like wood.” Judicious use of new French oak adds butter, toast, nutty aromas and flavours to the wine, while new American oak brings a slightly ‘sweeter’ coconut or white chocolate profile. While some very fine wines can be profoundly ‘oaky’, to my mind this should always work with the available fruit flavours rather than overwhelm them. There is a recent movement in new world countries such as Australia and New Zealand to produce leaner, more mineral Chardonnays with very little new oak influence, while this has been practised as the norm in Chablis, in particular, for decades.
Fine white Burgundy (which is almost always exclusively Chardonnay) hails from Chablis in its coolest, most restrained incarnation. Slightly further south on the Côte d’Or, one can find some of the most expensive and sought-after white wines in the world, from appellations such as Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault and Corton-Charlemagne. However, Burgundy also produces some good value Chardonnay from Mâconnais region. Being slightly warmer, the wines from this region have a riper fruit profile.
Elsewhere in France, Chardonnay is used as a major component for blending in champagne, and Chardonnay can also be found in vineyards of southern France, in Spain and in Italy. Around the world, other regions have developed their own unique expression of this grape. Chardonnay wines of California tend to be bigger than those of France, with a richer texture, higher alcohol levels, more tropical fruit flavours and generous lashings of oak. Those of Australia now range in style from the mineral, Chablis-impersonators from Tasmania and the Adelaide Hills to big, oaky wines from elsewhere in South Australia. Producers in Mornington Peninsula and Margaret River, in particular, have upped their game in recent years, creating very smart wines along the lines of the very best from Burgundy. New Zealand Chardonnays can often be differentiated by a yogurty, lactic note on the palate and a bright peach-like core of flavour. South Africa, Chile and Argentina are also producing their own styles.
Chardonnay is now certainly a ‘world grape’, although refreshingly, there is not a generic ‘world style’. The grape’s adaptability to many climates and countries has seen it take on expressions of the environments in which it is grown. While it is a relatively blank canvas with which winemakers can work, the grape’s core fruit expression, relatively high natural acidity and rich texture should all come through on a well-made wine – and be identifiably ‘Chardonnay’. The simplest wines can be enjoyed with a wide range of dishes and on any occasion; the best of these wines can last for decades and be a source of unending complexity in the glass.