Chardonnay is arguably one of the most popular grape varieties, and is grown all over the globe. It also makes some of the best quality wines, and is an important component in sparkling wines. Chardonnay is also an incredibly versatile grape, and can grow across a range of climates, adapting to any sort of soil.
However, expressions of Chardonnay vary depending on where they are grown. Grapes grown in cooler climates will usually have aromas and flavours of lime, lemon, green apple, pears, and lots of minerality like wet stones.
Chardonnay grown in moderate climates tend to have aromas of stone fruits like peaches, apricots, and tropical fruits. Meanwhile, those that grow in warm climates are very tropical fruit forward, with notes of banana, pineapple, mango, and warm ripe fruits. The body, alcohol, and acidity of a Chardonnay expression also depends on where it grows. Cooler climates will have more leaner styles of Chardonnay, and warmer climates see more fuller, fleshier styles.
Chardonnay winemaking techniques
Chardonnay also adapts very well to various winemaking techniques. Some producers like to use lees ageing, which results in more complex, savoury notes.
Chardonnay is also adaptable to malolactic fermentation, and when it goes through this, it creates buttery, dairy-like, more complex notes.
Some producers also like to use oak ageing, to which, once again, Chardonnay is very adaptable during both fermentation as well as barrel maturation. In both instances, Chardonnay expressions show aromas and flavours of vanilla, toast, butter, clove, and spice.
Chardonnay and its regions
Burgundy - Chardonnay originates from France, and some of the most valued expressions of Chardonnay come from Burgundy. Chardonnay is made across Burgundy, starting from the very northern, cool climate regions like Chablis, passing through the more moderate climates of the Côte de region (Côte de Beaune, and Côte Chalonnaise). Then we move all the way down to the more tropical, slightly warmer climates of the Mâconnais region down south.
Let’s take a closer look at the different styles of Chardonnay made in Burgundy.
The word ‘Bourgogne’ is seen on many Chardonnay labels. ‘Bourgogne’ is another word for Burgundy, and portrays that the said expression could be made from grapes that are picked from anywhere across the Burgundy region. Typically, you’ll get aromas and flavours that are very simple, fruity, like lemon, melon, and a bit of peach.
Chablis - Chablis has its own appellations, where you get Chablis, Premier Cru, and Grand Cru within Chablis. A simple Chablis will be something that is unoaked with a bit of minerality, lime, lemon, and wet stones.
When you go into Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards, which are more south and south east facing, they have maximum sun exposure, so you’re likely to see riper examples, where flavours go more towards tropical and stone fruits with a bit more complexity. These are also wines that go through some oak ageing, and are usually much broader and complex in nature.
Côte d’or regions - Some of the best expressions of Chardonnay come from the southern part of the Côte d’or region, which is Côte de Beaune. Important appellations to remember are Meursault, Puligny Montrachet, and Chassagne Montrachet. This is where some of the best Premier cru and Grand cru vineyards are located and some of the most valuable priced Chardonnays come from these regions.
Mâconnais - More down south, Chardonnays from the Mâconnais region will typically carry the word Mâcon on the label. Here you’ll find simple, fruity, and inexpensive styles of Chardonnay that may or may not see any oak ageing. The aromas of lemons, pears, and apples are fresh and vivid. An important appellation in the Mâcon region is Pouilly Fuissé. This is where you find more riper, slightly better examples of Chardonnay because it has steeper vineyards and vineyards that are facing directly towards sun exposure.
The New World
Some very delectable expressions of Chardonnays come from the new world. Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent new world regions for Chardonnay.
California - Premium examples of Chardonnays come from the more coastal areas of California, like Carneros, Sonoma, and Santa Barbara County, which enjoy moderating influences from the sea breezes that come from the Pacific ocean. When this happens, Chardonnay is able to retain its freshness and acidity, and produce very vibrant wines which are not sloppy or lacking in acidity.
When you go slightly more inland, in Napa Valley, where it can be a bit hotter, this is where you get more robust, richer expressions of Californian Chardonnay where they see a lot of oak, and tropical fruits with a lot of vanilla and oakiness coming through on the wines.
Oregon - Moderating influences here create Chardonnay with lots of acidity and a broad range of flavours.
Australia - Some great expressions of Chardonnay in Australia come from the Adelaide Hills, where the climate is moderated by altitude, and Yarra Valley in Victoria, which enjoys ocean breezes. Both these factors have a moderating influence and are able to produce Chardonnays that are refreshing with a lot of acidity with a broad range of flavours that may range from stone fruits to tropical fruits.
Margaret River from the Western part of Australia also makes some Chardonnay, which is very high quality, very premium. This is where Chardonnay will see oak ageing, and a lot of award-winning Chardonnays actually come from the Margaret River.
New Zealand - New Zealand enjoys a lot of ocean sea breeze influence, which has a moderating influence on climate. This again is where a lot of good quality Chardonnays are made with a range of flavours from stone fruits to tropical fruits. Some of the most prominent regions in New Zealand for Chardonnay are Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay.
Chile - Chile is very warm for Chardonnay, and can create flabby styles. However, good quality Chardonnay comes from the Casablanca region in Chile, because of the coastal area with lots of sea breeze influence - resulting in much fresher styles.
South Africa - In South Africa, inland vineyards are in the Western Cape, which result in styles that are much fuller bodied and fleshy with tropical fruit. But if you’re looking for more premium, elegant examples of Chardonnay, then Walker Bay, due to its coastal sea breeze is where the slightly more premium Chardonnays come from.
Chardonnay food pairings
Chardonnays are very versatile with a broad spectrum of flavours so it's safe to say that there is a Chardonnay for every occasion.
Leaner, cooler styles of chardonnays which have minerality and are very high in acidity and pair well with light foods like salads, cream cheeses, and light shellfish food like oysters or prawns.
Slightly heavier, richer premium styles of Chardonnays work well with smoked fish, roast turkey or Southeast asian dishes.
Oaked chardonnay is an impeccable accompaniment to tandoor foods, and any kind of smoky rich flavoursome robust dishes.
Originally published August 23, 2022