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Chardonnay

photo of Chardonnay by Tim Ramey.Rich is the word that best both describes Chardonnay and explains its popularity. Its aroma is often appealing, yet delicate, difficult to characterize, easier to recognize. Like sponges, chardonnay grapes tend to soak up the influences of both vinification technique and appellation of origin.

Chardonnay might smell like apples, lemons, peaches or tropical fruits. Its delicacy is such that even a small percentage of another variety blended into a Chardonnay will often completely dominate its aroma and flavor. Oak commonly takes over Chardonnay if the wine is fermented or aged in new barrels or for too long in seasoned ones.

In spite of any variance in style, Chardonnay is unmistakable in the mouth because of its impeccable sugar/acid balance, its full body, and its easy smoothness. Chardonnay's intrinsic blank canvas quality also allows its flavors to be dramatically affected by differences in soil, climate, and vineyard practices.

In the Chablis region of France, it is the only grape permitted and it renders a "crisp, flinty" wine. In the Meursault appellation, chardonnay takes on a lush, ripe, "fleshy", "buttery" quality. Even in quality sparkling wines and French Champagne, it is the major variety used. California Chardonnay is every bit as variable and possibly even more exciting because of the effusive varietal quality it develops there.

 

Researchers at the University of California at Davis used DNA profiling in 1999 to prove that chardonnay originated as a cross of an obscure, ancient, and nearly extinct variety called gouais blanc with a member of the "pinot" family, quite likely pinot noir (although ampelographic research has not yet been able to pinpoint this).

Unfortunately, chardonnay vines are shy-bearing and susceptible to a myriad of maladies. Not uncommon among wine grapes, the chardonnay vine also has a tendency to mutate and research has identified over 400 clonal variants. Each clone has chardonnay family traits, but displays individually specific tendencies in such characteristics as length of ripening cycle, crop load, berry and cluster size, acid retention, etc., therefore producing wines with various flavor differences.Chardonnay leaf (photograph).

Chardonnay buds early and needs a moderately long growing season, but responds best to cool locales and is considered a Winter-hardy variety. Chardonnay vines are naturally vigorous and consistently produce fairly large crops, but overcropping results in bland-tasting wine. Berries are relatively small, thin-skinned, fragile, and oxidize easily. This makes chardonnay somewhat more sensitive to winemaking techniques and more difficult to handle from harvest to bottling than most other grape types.

Vineyards in France are commonly planted with an intermingling of chardonnay and pinot blanc vines, so that "pinot" was often incorrectly prefixed to chardonnay. In spite of its heritage, chardonnay is not considered a member of the "pinot" grape family (pinot noir, pinot blanc, pinot gris, pinot meunier, etc.).

California has achieved real success growing chardonnay and earned considerable consumer popularity for the wine produced. Australia has also had Chardonnay success and also at times misnamed it "pinot chardonnay".

Chardonnay is so commercially popular and so malleable in the winery that it is grown and produced worldwide in areas where marginal climate conditions might not grow the best fruit. Colorado, Idaho, New York, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, and Washington states, as well as Argentina, Chile, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, New Zealand, South Africa, and Yugoslavia all produce Chardonnay.

The widespread popularity of varietally-labeled Chardonnay wines spurred many new California plantings in the early 1970s. The most commonly planted clone was the "Wente" clone (UCD 2A) and, later, clone 108, isolated at UC Davis from vines grown in Carneros. Due to this grape's blank canvas nature and the proliferation of new vineyard sources using essentially only two clones, regional variations in Chardonnay wines became more apparent than perhaps in any other varietal wine in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In the 1990s, California vintners began paying much more attention to matching, not only varieties but also clones, to specific microclimates and vineyard sites. Many new vineyards and re-plantings since then, especially in cooler regions, have propagated the "Dijon" clones (particularly 75, 76, 78, 95 and 96), the "Espiguette" clone (352) or, in fewer locations, "Champagne" clones.

Different wine making techniques produce wide variances in the Chardonnay flavor profile. Such techniques as extended skin contact, whole cluster fermentation, barrel fermentation, level of barrel toasting, proportion of new to old cooperage, lees stirring, and partial, complete, or prevention of malolactic fermentation generate controversy and lively discussion among winemakers.

The most common (but not exclusive) smell and/or flavor elements found in chardonnay-based wines include:

*Typical Chardonnay Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques. This list therefore is merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

Stone Fruits: apple, pear, peach, apricot

Terroir: flint, mineral, mint

Citric Fruits: lemon, lime, orange, tangerine

Malolactic: butter, cream, hazelnut

Tropical Fruits: pineapple, banana, mango, guava, kiwi

Oak (light): vanilla, sweet wood, coconut

Floral: acacia, hawthorn

Oak (heavy): oak, smoke, toast, lees, yeast


(see our Tasting Notes)

Two popular trends keep California Chardonnays from reaching the level of respect given to those from France: one is to satisfy consumer lust for any wine labeled "Chardonnay" with bland but inexpensive "cookie-cutter" wines; the other is to overwhelm any varietal personality or microclimatic subtlety with lavish amounts of oak barrel fermentation and aging.

Although California appellations have a shorter history than those of France, distinct regional characteristics emerge with the passage of each vintage. Eventually, proper site and clone matching and judicious production techniques may allow California AVAs to consistently show Chardonnay with distinct regional flavors.

The nominees for Best Supporting Appellation in a California Chardonnay are: Russian River Valley, shared by Sonoma and Mendocino Counties (apples, pears & peaches); Carneros, shared by Sonoma and Napa Counties (flinty); Monterey County (citric, lemony); Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County (pineapple, tropical); Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo County (apricot, fleshy).

Challenges and difficulties in growing Chardonnay and higher production costs from barrel treatments, combined with increasing popular demand over the past decades, contribute to making chardonnay-based wines one of the most expensive on the shelf or winelist.

by Jim LaMar


RESOURCES
1. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

2. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

3. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996

4. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

5. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983

6. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

7. Gerald Asher, Vineyard Tales - Reflections on Wine, (Chronicle Books: San Francisco) 1996


 

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Page created January 24, 2002; last updated July 24, 2011
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