Is chardonnay the world’s most popular white wine? The numbers seem to say yes. One of the most diverse and most widely planted wine grapes, chardonnay is grown everywhere from Argentina and Australia, to New Zealand, South Africa, the United States and Germany.
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.”
The home of Australian chardonnay. It is a testament to the resilience of chardonnay that it should withstand and thrive in the Hunter Valley’s strange climate: warm and humid at times, then rain-sodden at others. Fruit flavours are dominated by stone fruit, and examples matured in barrel present creamy cashew, spice and nut flavours. Some Hunter Valley chardonnay does well under ageing, deepening in its yellow hue and developing a strong honeyed flavour. For a Hunter Valley table chardonnay, optimum drinking is between two to five years of age.
Orange’s cooler climate reflects in its chardonnay: delicate yet intense, with citrus, melon and even apple flavours. These examples have good natural acidity.
The difference altitude has on varietal quality becomes evident when looking at chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills. Examples here are produced from a lower yield, which in turn creates a wine with great structure, intensity and length. It also provides the winemaker with a plethora of paths during the winemaking process. Adelaide Hills chardonnay cellars well – often better than many of its Australian counterparts – and this characteristic is set to continue as the vines from which the grapes are grown continue to age.
Chardonnay is one of the Yarra Valley’s flagship wines (the other being pinot noir). Despite the region’s diversity of soil type, altitude and rainfall levels, 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, thanks to the introduction of screw caps.
The region produces fine chardonnay, with many styles and expressions reflected by its wineries. As ever, and much like other Australian wine varietals, site selection is important for the production of chardonnay here. Fruit flavours from melon to stone fruit are strong, with high natural acidity, especially in grapes grown on cooler sites.
The region may be better known for riesling and its powerful red wines, but Great Southern also produces balanced, high quality chardonnays. Its cooler subregions lend themselves to finer, citrus and passionfruit-laced wines, while structure and intensity increase as one migrates north towards Frankland River and Mount Barker.
Margaret River is one of Australia’s foremost regions for producing chardonnay. Climate may have much to answer for this prowess: mild winters and good maritime breezes courtesy of the Indian Ocean. These conditions help explain why chardonnay bursts into new growth in August, not even two months after the leaves from the previous vintage have been shed. James describes Margaret River chardonnay as combining, “an almost shocking voluptuousness within an iron-clad structure, intensity with generosity, and sweet fruit with flowing natural acidity.” Margaret River chardonnay ages well, developing in its complexity while not compromising its varietal characteristics.
For many decades, the idea of Australian chardonnay was shaped by the butter-yellow, toffee-scented chardonnays produced in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, cooler climate conditions and less heavy-handling on the grapes has created examples that are lighter and more restrained.
There are two primary styles of chardonnay and wine lovers tend to fall into the camp of preferring one above the other. There are those connoisseurs that prefer the rich creaminess of classic oaked chardonnay, while other wine drinkers gravitate towards lean and dry chardonnay wine. A riper chardonnay has a tropical fruit flavour profile – pineapple, passionfruit, mango – while a just-ripe example tends to have crisper notes of green apple and light lemon.
Chardonnay first appeared on winemaking records three centuries after that of pinot noir. Styles differ between regions and subregions. There are three styles of white Burgundy: un-oaked and crisp; subtle tones of oak; heavily oaked and intense. Typical aromatics of Burgundy chardonnay are golden apple, hazelnut, toffee and white blooms.
Chardonnay, and perhaps white wine in general, doesn’t excel the way red varietals do in Italy. Although there are some older chardonnay vines scattered around Italy, renewed interest in chardonnay piggy-backed upon the success of Australian chardonnay. The better examples are seen from some producers in Sicily and Umbria.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
California takes 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.
While chardonnay was once an important part of New Zealand’s wine production it now only represents three per cent of its viticultural plantings. It is still an important grape in Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay, however. Waiheke Island also produces high quality, complex chardonnay, although these tend to have a high price point.
HISTORY OF CHARDONNAY
A native of Burgundy, chardonnay is a varietal that has flourished under the attentions of the Australian wine industry. James Busby brought the first cuttings to Australia in the 1830s, however it took more than a century until Australian chardonnay grew to any 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 tweaked and began devouring the rich, ripe and buttery styles being produced. As the next decade-and-a-half rolled around however, winemakers and viticulturists recognised that public tastes were changing and the demand for a crisper white wine was growing. This threat to traditional chardonnay characteristics was enhanced with the emergence of New Zealand’s Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc; a zesty, high acid challenger to chardonnay’s fruit-filled oak flavours. The reputation of chardonnay also took a battering in the media.
So, Australian winemakers began to look for new avenues of producing chardonnay – not an impossible task given chardonnay is famed as a white wine varietal that readily submits to the whims of winemakers and viticulturists. Thus, the Australian New World style of chardonnay – elegant, restrained, lean – was born.
PAIRING WITH FOOD
Given its range of flavour, complexity and structure, the world is your figurative oyster when it comes to matching chardonnay with food.
A young, unoaked, cool-climate chardonnay is the perfect complement to light, delicate dishes such as pan-cooked seafood, steamed fish, and grilled chicken. It also works with fattier dishes, such as pasta with cream sauce or fish chowder. When matching this style of chardonnay with cheese, look to comté or gruyere. As the oak and fruit flavours in a chardonnay increase, one of the ultimate food matches is roast chicken. It also goes well with slightly heavier and richer dishes, including cheese-based salads and milder curries. 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.
Whichever style of chardonnay you select, there are some overarching rules on what foods to avoid. Typically, steer away from bitter foods, or dishes made with an abundance of chilli and strong spices such as turmeric. These flavours will clash with the wine rather than complement its subtleties.
To enhance the complex profile of both medium- and full-bodied and oaked white wines, such as chardonnay, opt for a larger bowl and wider opening to allow the wines to breathe and be in balance.