Anything but Chardonnay: The Many Faces of a Misunderstood Grape
Chardonnay, that noble son of Burgundy who has traveled the world over. In whatever corner of the world you look, if wine is made, you’ll find Chardonnay. It’s one of the most planted varieties, and is found in more regions than any other wine grape. And more than any other grape, Chardonnay has been venerated and vilified. Its range of styles and expressions can cause confusion, because Chardonnay isn’t any one thing. Join us as we take a look at the history and controversy caused by this much-loved variety.
This green-skinned grape takes its name from the commune Chardonnay in the Macon region of southern Burgundy, a region that is to this day, dominated by Chardonnay plantings. It is the offspring of Pinot Noir and the nearly extinct Gouais Blanc, a grape believed to have originated somewhere in Central Europe, possibly Croatia, which was spread across the Continent by the Romans in their conquest for empire. During the Middle Ages, Gouais Blanc was the peasants’ grape, grown throughout northeastern France on plots ill-suited for the finicky Pinot Noir, whose wines were destined for the tables of lords and kings. Whether by intent or by chance, the lowly Gouais cross-pollinated with Pinot Noir to sire Chardonnay. The prolific union of these varieties also begat Aligoté, Sacy, Romorantin, Melon de Bourgogne, and a whole host of grapes most people who aren’t wine students would never bother to learn about. Or drink, for that matter. A more well-known sibling of Chardonnay is the Gamay grape of Beaujolais, famous for the nouveau wines released every November.
The 14th century Cistercian monks realized the relative ease with which Chardonnay could be cultivated. This, coupled with the grape’s natural vigor, led the Burgundian monks to propagate the vines in their vineyards. A result of this is as the they grew Chardonnay and Pinot Noir across different vineyard sites, the monks came to realize that certain plots produced better wine, and in this way the concept of terroir was born. It continued to be cultivated in Burgundy, where over generations, vintners mastered the art of making wine from Chardonnay and its noble parent Pinot Noir. Although Gouais Blanc fell victim to the phylloxera louse, Chardonnay survived and was transported worldwide as immigrants and would-be vintners alike brought vines with them to new lands. Faced with Temperance movements and Prohibition in several New World countries, winemaking suffered not taking off again until the 1960s in the US and Canada, or as recently as the 1980s in nations like Australia and New Zealand.
Decadence and Excess
During the decade of excess aka the 1980s, hordes of lower quality Chardonnay flooded the market. These were heavily oaked with a strong malolactic (read: butter and cream) signature, ripe to the point of almost being sweet – the so-called California-style Chardonnay. Here is a not so well-kept secret; mass produced wines are intentionally vinified with a higher level of residual sugar to appeal to the greater majority’s palate. People like sweet, and ocean of ripe, oaked Chardonnay was produced in the name of profit. Naturally, there were repercussions. Even the Beatles experienced a backlash at the height of their popularity. People all over declared they’d drink “Anything but Chardonnay.” The movement wasn’t particularly effective in spite of the vehemence with which the wine was met: Chardonnay remained popular, with a steady fan base amongst the general populous. However, perhaps the ABC movement did had some lasting impact; there has been a distinctive stylistic shift in recent decades, with more winemakers producing elegant, fresh Chardonnays while employing a judicious use of oak. Today, the butter bombs of the past seem few and far between. But the diversity in styles expressed by this one grape can lead to confusion. Chardonnay drinkers who prefer the oak-driven style often find themselves forever sending back their glasses when dining out:
I asked for Chardonnay.
…But this is Chardonnay replies the exasperated sommelier, after gently explaining for the fifth time that the Chardonnay on the wine list is not in fact, the oaky, buttery style the guest is looking for.
The Key to Success
What were the reasons behind Chardonnay’s international success? Versatility. Chardonnay is often called a neutral grape. Neutral is a deceiving term, because it does have distinct varietal characteristics. It’s not so much neutral as it is a chameleon. As the Cistercians first noted, Chardonnay readily takes on the attributes of its terroir, nuances of vintage, and perhaps most famously, winemaking techniques. Oak is the most widely associated application, and oaked Chardonnays can take on vanilla, hazelnut, baking spice, and smoke aromas and flavors. Using stainless steel as opposed to oak yield crisper, more mineral-driven Chardonnays. Lees aging imparts a yeasty or bread-like aroma, while malolactic fermentation, a process usually reserved for red wines, creates the characteristic butter and cream that many people associate with Chardonnay. Tart malic acid, like that found in apples, is converted into softer lactic acid, as in milk, which gives wines a rounder mouthfeel.
The other major region for Chardonnay’s success is that it’s a relatively easy grape to grow. It performs well in cool to moderate climates. Warm climate Chardonnay tends to be flabby and high in alcohol and the only thing they are good for is a boozy sangria. Depending on the climate, Chardonnay’s aromas and flavors can vary from tart green apple and lemon pith to ripe peach, grilled pineapple and melon. This ability to grow virtually anywhere, in addition to the fact the wines are easy to drink is a major reason also plays into some of the criticisms. Many winemakers in the heyday of Chardonnay-mania ripped up old vine and indigenous varieties to make way for the more profitable grape, the damage of which notable producers world wide are now trying to reverse by reintroducing these native grapes into their vineyards.
Chardonnay is the original international variety. Tropical expressions are found in more moderate climates. Chardonnay is a grape than ripens easily and risks losing its balancing acidity if left on the vine too long, but quality winemakers know when to harvest. Australia, Italy and Napa can produce riper styles. Burgundy is home of course, and unsurprisingly, Chardonnay does particularly well in cool climates. Cooler climate regions and those with chalk and limestone soils tend to produce more mineral-driven wines with higher acidity and more citrus and pomaceous fruits such as those found throughout parts of California, Washington Chile, and Canada. In Canada, the elegant, citrusy Chardonnays of British Columbia, in particular Okanagan Valley, helped bring the world’s attention to the fact there’s more to Canada’s wine industry than ice wine.
Chardonnay isn’t just the world’s favorite white wine; it’s an important component in Champagne and a host of other sparkling wines produced world wide: Cava, Franciacorta, American, Canadian, and English sparkling wines, as well as that of Argentina, New Zealand and parts of Australia, to name a few. Where Pinot Noir adds fruitiness and structure to a sparkling wine blend, Chardonnay adds elegance, finesse and longevity, in part due to the acidity it contributes.
Chardonnay is a gateway grape for both winemakers and wine drinkers, the one that can open up the entire world of wine to the uninitiated. Chardonnay is Montrachet, one of the greatest whites in the world. It is also the workhorse grape for countless supermarket wine brands. It’s dry and it’s sweet, oaked and unoaked, fat and elegant. This simple yet noble grape that is both so popular and yet so polarizing, is above all one thing: versatile.