Wine varietals and styles

Chardonnay

This chameleon white wine comes in many styles, providing something for every taste.

Is chardonnay the world’s most popular white wine? The numbers suggest as much. One of the most diverse and widely planted wine grapes, chardonnay is grown everywhere from Argentina to Australia, South Africa, and Germany.

Go to section: Australian regions | Chardonnay characteristics | International styles | History of chardonnay | Pairing with food | Choosing glassware

Chardonnay Halliday Wine Companion

Australian chardonnay regions

Chardonnay is planted in almost every wine-producing region in Australia. Its versatility is such that James says, “Chardonnay is the most malleable and compliant of all the great white wine grapes, giving the impression it would even grow up a telegraph pole in the centre of Sydney or Melbourne and produce a more than half-decent wine.”

Hunter Valley

It is a testament to the resilience of chardonnay that it should withstand and thrive in the Hunter Valley’s climate, which is warm and humid at times, rain-sodden at others. Stone fruit flavours, and creamy cashew, spice and nut from oak maturation are common characteristics. Some Hunter Valley chardonnay does well with age, deepening in its yellow hue and developing a richer flavour. For a Hunter Valley chardonnay, optimum drinking is between two and five years of age.

Orange

Orange’s cooler climate shows in its chardonnays, which are delicate and with citrus, melon and apple flavours. These examples have good natural acidity.

Adelaide Hills

The impact altitude has on quality becomes evident when looking at chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills. Wines here are produced from a lower yield and offer great structure, intensity and length. Adelaide Hills chardonnay cellars well and this characteristic will only get better as the region’s vines continue to age.

Yarra Valley

Chardonnay is one of the Yarra Valley’s flagship wines (the other being pinot noir). Despite the region’s diversity of soil types and terrains, Yarra Valley chardonnay is collectively noted for its elegance, length on palate and aftertaste. Use of new oak is restrained, with low levels of toast. Bottles are capable of ageing for 10-plus years.

Mornington Peninsula

This region produces many fine styles of chardonnay. As ever, site selection is important. Flavours range from melon through to stone fruit, with high natural acidity, especially from the cooler estates.

Great Southern

This region might be better known for riesling, but it also produces high-quality chardonnay. Its cooler subregions lend themselves to fine, citrus-leaning styles, and structure and intensity increase as one migrates north to Frankland River and Mount Barker.

Margaret River

Margaret River is one of Australia’s foremost chardonnay regions. Climate plays a pivotal role, with mild winters and cooling maritime breezes courtesy of the Indian Ocean. James describes Margaret River chardonnay as combining: “An almost shocking voluptuousness with an iron-clad structure, intensity with generosity, and sweet fruit with flowing natural acidity.” Margaret River chardonnay ages well, developing in complexity with time.

Chardonnay characteristics

For a long time, the reputation of Australian chardonnay was mired by the butter-yellow, toffee-scented chardonnays produced in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, more appropriate environments and less heavy-handed winemaking have created examples that are lighter and more restrained.

Chardonnay flavours
There are two primary styles of chardonnay, and fans tend to prefer one or the other. There is the classic rich, buttery, oak-influenced style, and the one that is lean, citrusy, and fresh. In Australian chardonnay today, more wines have found a middle ground, offering the best of both worlds.

International styles

France

Chardonnay first appeared on winemaking records three centuries after pinot noir. The styles in France differ between regions and subregions. For example, there are three types of white Burgundy: unoaked and crisp, lightly oaked, and heavily oaked and intense. The typical aromatics of Burgundy chardonnay include apple, hazelnut, toffee and white blooms.

Italy

Chardonnay, and perhaps white wine in general, is not as much of a focus in Italy. Although there are some older chardonnay vines scattered around, and renewed interest in the variety piggy-backed on the success of Australian chardonnay. Some of the better examples come from Sicily and Umbria.

United States of America

California has the lion’s share of chardonnay in America, particularly the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, Carneros, and the Edna, Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys. Oregon and Washington State also have chardonnay plantings.

New Zealand

While chardonnay was once an important part of New Zealand’s wine production, it now only represents three per cent of its plantings. That said, Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay still champion it. Waiheke Island also produces high-quality, complex chardonnays, although these tend to have a high price point.

History of chardonnay

A native of Burgundy in France, chardonnay has flourished in the Australian wine industry. James Busby brought the first cuttings to Australia in the 1830s, but it took more than a century until the variety grew to prominence. Initially, the production of Australian chardonnay was limited to a smaller scale and the domestic market largely consumed the wines that were produced.

Cue the 1980s and robust Australian chardonnay began to flex its muscles. International wine lovers soon began devouring these rich, ripe and buttery styles. As the next decade-and-a-half rolled around, however, winemakers and viticulturists recognised that public tastes were changing and the demand for crisper white wines was growing. This threat to the traditional style of chardonnay was emphasised by the emergence of New Zealand’s Marlborough sauvignon blanc; a zesty, high-acid alternative to chardonnay’s fruit-filled oak flavours.

So, Australian winemakers began to look for new avenues of producing chardonnay – not an impossible task given chardonnay is a variety that readily submits to the whims of its makers. Thus, the current style of Australian chardonnay, considered among the best in the world, was born.

Pairing with food

Given its many guises, the world is your figurative oyster when it comes to chardonnay and food.

A young, unoaked, cool-climate chardonnay is the perfect complement to delicate dishes such as steamed fish and grilled chicken. It also works with fattier dishes like pasta with cream sauce or seafood chowder. When matching this style of chardonnay to cheese, look to comte or gruyere. As the oak and fruit flavours in a chardonnay increase, one of the ultimate food matches is roast chicken. Chardonnay with heavy oak can be enjoyed with the richest of dishes: pork belly with crackling, salads with creamy dressings, and buttery and cheese-laden risottos.

Choosing glassware

To enhance the complex profile of both medium- and full-bodied white wines such as chardonnay, opt for a larger bowl and wider opening to allow the wines to breathe and be in balance.
Plumm WHITEb glassware
WHITEb glass by Plumm