America’s Favorite White Wine: Chardonnay, By A Landslide
by Don Clemens
OK, to be clear, Chardonnay is the leading candidate (the outright winner in a landslide!) to be the most widely planted Vitis Vinifera grape variety in the world. Of the seven continents, we can be fairly certain that it is NOT planted in Antarctica. Otherwise - it's EVERYWHERE!
And virtually anyone who likes to drink wine is fond of some versions of Chardonnay. It can be austere and steely-dry, as in some French Chablis examples; it can be less austere and medium-bodied, with hints of apple, pear, and vanilla, as in some French Meursault or Walla Walla Chardonnay examples; or it can be redolent of toasted oak, honey, vanilla, and full-bodied powerhouses that some versions from California's Sonoma County and Napa Valley can offer. And, lest we forget, it is usually an essential component of great sparkling wines, such as French Champagne and most of America's top-shelf bubblies.
So, where to begin?...
First, I suppose, is the "ORIGIN" story. Ampelographers (those whose botanical study is focused on the identification and classification of grapevines) generally agree that all our wine-making grapes originated with a version of Muscat that appeared in the Middle East, thousands of years ago. From that point, it is supposed that the many travelers seeking trade from Syria (for example) to what would become France and Germany brought with them various cuttings from their local vines. Over the succeeding generations, these vines were planted, and, over time, they mutated into the varieties that we now use all over the winemaking world. For many older wine drinkers, memories of a grape called "Pinot Chardonnay" were firmly planted. In the mid-1960's, the French botanist, Pierre Galet, released his seminal work, "Cépages et Vignobles de France,” a four-volume catalog of French wine varieties. His work proved that "Pinot Chardonnay" was NOT a Pinot family member. It is uniquely its own, and so today, all over the world, this grape is now called simply "Chardonnay.”
Next, we need to consider the incredible variations of STYLE that Chardonnay displays. In France, where it is fair to assume that our much-loved Chardonnay grape really emerged, it is planted as far north as the cooler regions of Champagne and as far south as the Languedoc-Roussillon region bordering the Mediterranean Sea. In France alone we can experience an extremely wide variation of style: from Blanc de Blancs Champagne, which are normally austere, un-oaked and steely and crisp, to Chablis, whose crisp, citrusy aromatics and high acid style are nominally in the Burgundy region, but stylistically very different from its warmer neighbor, the Cote d'Or in Burgundy. Normally, we think of these wines as generally "buttery" and medium-bodied with a clear oak-barrel influence. Then, on to the Languedoc-Roussillon region, where it is often blended in a neutral (un-oaked) vessel with such typical Rhone grapes as Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier or even Grenache Blanc, achieving a fruitier, light-to-medium-bodied mélange of flavors.
Much of the reason for such style variation is that Chardonnay grows in such diverse climates and can achieve wine-making ripeness in so many places. (In some ways, it is a testament to the stubbornness of those who continue to plant less easily ripening vines in areas where Chardonnay happily provides healthy, ripe fruit that could easily be turned into profitable wines. For example, the Cote d'Or in Burgundy.)
It is axiomatic that "Chardonnay is a winemaker's grape.” Malleable, susceptible to the influences of various levels of toasting of oak barrels, alternative fermentation vessels, the decision as to allow or not allow malolactic fermentation, choosing the brix (sugar) level at harvest, fermentation on the skins or not - the choices are seemingly endless and all of them impact the final version. And, one supposes, that for these reasons, we might find Chardonnay endlessly fascinating - and confusing!
So now, a brief overview of the major Chardonnay-producing regions of the world. We've already discussed France, so on to other players.
1.) North America (the U.S. and Canada):
Chardonnay is by far the most widely planted white grape variety, particularly in North America’s Pacific Northwest, including parts of Canada.
The most highly regarded areas are in California's coastal regions, ranging from Mendocino, Lake, Napa, and Sonoma counties in the north, to the San Francisco Bay area, which includes the Santa Cruz Mountains and Livermore Valley, to Monterey County (with, among others, the Santa Lucia Highlands) to Santa Barbara County with its Santa Rita Hills and Ballard Canyon appellations. Sonoma County is blessed with several appellations that consistently produce exceptionally compelling Chardonnays: Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Chardonnays are among the most highly regarded appellations. Napa’s Chardonnays are best in the cooler and/or higher altitude zones such as the Los Carneros District AVA, the Spring Mountain District AVA, the Howell Mountain AVA, the Mount Veeder AVA, the Oak Knoll AVA, and the Wild Horse Valley AVA.
Washington State has a vibrant wine industry, and Chardonnay is very important there, as well. Its most significant growing area is in the Columbia River area.
Of particular interest is the renewed focus on Chardonnay growing in Oregon. A major overhaul of clonal selection (more cool-climate clones such as Dijon) has changed the atmosphere about the quality of Oregon Chardonnay; goodbye warm-climate California, hello cool-climate Chablis and Cote d'Or! The results have been stunning.
As one heads to the West Coast, the drop-off in Chardonnay production is dramatic. High quality but limited production is found in New York's Long Island and Finger Lakes District. Virginia's historic wine growing areas are showing new life, although red grapes still dominate.
Australia, with its southern coastline dominated by cool Antarctic Ocean currents and plenty of sunshine has discovered plenty of space to grow many different wines. Chardonnay is no exception. From the cooler parts of South Australia to Victoria and Tasmania on the eastern sides to the southern sides of the continent to Margaret River on the western edge of the continent, Chardonnay has found a real home. A bit of a warning: good Chardonnay isn't cheap, no matter WHERE it originates! So don't become enamored by cute little animals or fish on the label. Do a little research. It's worth your time. Also, be aware that twist-off/screwcap closures are commonplace with Australian (and New Zealand) wines. Some of their very finest wines have such closures.
Possibly because the United States is such a significant importer of all kinds of Italian wines, it was inevitable than wine growers in Italy would experiment to see if they could find the right areas to develop good Chardonnay for their best international customer. Currently, the most promising areas seem to be in the northern climes of Italy: Alto Adige, Trento and Lombardia. Chardonnay is a very important component of the best Lombardian Franciacorta sparklers. Sicily also has a serious number of quality Chardonnay producers, especially around Mount Etna’s slopes.
4.) The Best of the Rest:
New Zealand is best known for its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, but there is also a significant amount of good Chardonnay being produced. Typically, leaner, and crisper than one might find from neighboring Australia, these are worth seeking out.
South Africa produces some fine examples of Chardonnay, particularly from Elgin and Walker Bay at the southern tip of the country, just off the Cape of Good Hope.
Spain grows only a little Chardonnay but is taking advantage of the cooler zones of Catalonia, north of Barcelona and the northwestern areas of Galicia, along the Atlantic Ocean. It is a significant addition to Spain’s Cava bubblies, which can be excellent.
In South America, Chile has some very nice growing areas for Chardonnay. Look for the cooler Costa regions, such as Casablanca and San Antonio; also, Limari and Aconcagua. Argentina has some interesting Chardonnay being produced in the far southern regions of Patagonia; there is also production in Mendoza at the higher altitudes; also growing in importance is the Salta region, higher up in the Andes Mountains.
Closer to home, we shouldn’t ignore Canadian wines. Just to the north of Washington State, the Canadian province of British Columbia has proven to be a successful producer of fine wines, especially in the Okanagan Valley. Further to the east, Ontario has also shown great potential for quality winemaking near the shores of Lake Huron, especially on land near the Niagara Escarpment (close to Niagara Falls).
As I began this article, I stated that there currently is NO Chardonnay planted in Antarctica. BUT the way things are going with warming oceans, glaciers melting, and El Nino getting bigger and stronger, I wouldn’t say that “this is written in stone”! So, the message is: find some Chardonnays that you enjoy, and drink up!