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.
Australian chardonnay regionsChardonnay 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.”
Chardonnay characteristicsFor 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.
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.
FranceChardonnay 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.
ItalyChardonnay, 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 AmericaCalifornia 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 ZealandWhile 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 chardonnayA 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 foodGiven 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.