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
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
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.
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).
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 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.
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.).
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.
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.
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.
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.
common (but not exclusive) smell and/or flavor
elements found in chardonnay-based wines
Chardonnay Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
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.
Fruits: apple, pear, peach, apricot
Terroir: flint, mineral, mint
Fruits: lemon, lime, orange, tangerine
Malolactic: butter, cream, hazelnut
Fruits: pineapple, banana, mango, guava, kiwi
(light): vanilla, sweet wood, coconut
Floral: acacia, hawthorn
(heavy): oak, smoke, toast, lees, yeast
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
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.
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).
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.
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