Chardonnay is an international white grape variety that has enjoyed great success around the world because of its ability to adapt to many different climates and soils.
Chardonnay most likely originated in Burgundy, where it is still used to produce some of the world’s best white wines, and its name comes from the village of the same name located in the Haut-Mâconnais.
In the past very often confused with Pinot Blanc, it is actually the result of a cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc, a now-extinct white grape variety that appears to be the ancestor of as many as 80 European grape varieties. What is interesting is that Gouais is such a mediocre grape variety that during the Middle Ages, there were even attempts to ban its cultivation in Europe. Gouais, moreover, comes from the adjective “gou,” a term of derision in Old French, which would indicate precisely the poor quality of the grapes.
But, to no one’s surprise, it is precisely the great genetic diversity between the noble Pinot Noir and the humble Gouais that may be the cause of the development of the excellent quality of Chardonnay grapes.
Chardonnay’s extreme adaptability has led it to be one of the most widely grown grape varieties in the world, with an area planted to around 210,000 hectares.
In France, its homeland, it is grown mainly in Burgundy and particularly in Côte d’Or, Côte de Beaune and Chablis where, on the famous clay known as “Kimmeridge,” Chardonnay finds some of its best growing soil. It is also found in Champagne where, especially in the Côte des Blancs area, it gives wonderful, elegant and fine wines. Here exceptional Blanc de Blancs are produced from Chardonnay vinified in purity.
Around the world, the grape variety has found its place in all the major wine-growing regions. In Italy it is cultivated almost everywhere: the most widespread is in Sicily followed by Trentino where it seems to have arrived as early as 1800 and where it is used for the production of classic method sparkling wines.
The same use is made of it in Franciacorta and the Langhe, where it is blended with Pinot Noir and other grape varieties. Moving down the peninsula, Chardonnay is found in almost all regions where it is used to make many DOC and DOCG wines.
In the United States, the most famous wines come from Sonoma, a district north of San Francisco, and Napa Valley, but Chardonnay is also grown in Oregon and New York state. The grape variety is also widely planted in Canada, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Chardonnay is a fairly vigorous and fairly productive grape variety. However, it tends to sprout early, which exposes it to spring frosts. It has good resistance to diseases and pests although it is quite susceptible to flavescence dorée, esca disease, powdery mildew and botrytis.
During heavy rainfall and major temperature changes during the flowering period, it may show partial or total run-off and, in some cases, millerandage. Although it is adapted to a myriad of different soils, it gives its best results in calcareous or calcium, carbonate or sulfate-rich soils.
Chardonnay leaves are medium, orbicular, entire or hinting at five lobes, dark green in color; the cluster is medium, cylindrical-conical, compact and with two wings; the berry, small and spherical with a thin, pruinose skin, is green-yellow but tinged with a wonderful golden color as it approaches ripeness.
Very different wines can be made from Chardonnay grapes, and not only because it can be produced in different types (still, sparkling, passito) but also because its aromatic makeup is profoundly influenced by the climate, the soil in which it grows, and the winemaking and aging techniques that are used. For this reason, making a generic description of wine made from Chardonnay grapes becomes a rather complex undertaking.
It tends to be straw yellow in color with greenish hues when young and golden yellow for wines aged and aged in wood.
In warm climates, its grapes yield rich wines with good flavor persistence and hints of ripe, tropical fruits such as pineapple, mango, banana and melon. In countries with cooler climates, the wines are fresher and more mineral, with floral aromas of white (acacia) and yellow (broom) flowers and fruity aromas of apple, lemon, pear and grapefruit. A temperate climate makes it possible to produce full-bodied, smooth wines with aromas of white fruits such as peach and citrus.
The high concentration of sugars in the grapes accompanied by high acidity makes Chardonnay a wine suitable for aging, and its neutral aromatic complement goes well with aging in wooden barrels or barriques thanks to which it acquires hints of honey, butter, toasted hazelnuts, caramel and vanilla.
Being very diverse, wines made from Chardonnay grapes can be paired with numerous dishes. Widely used for aperitifs, they go well with all fish, shellfish, stuffed pastas, vegetable risottos and lean white meats. Their good acidity makes them perfect with fatty dishes such as salmon or greasy ones such as mixed fried fish. Again, thanks to their acidity, they go well with savory dishes such as cured meats and cheeses but also with sweet-tending foods such as shellfish.