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 version 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 of 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" was firmly planted. In the mid-1960's, the French botanist, Pierre Galet, released his seminal work, "Cepages 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 more often than not blended in a neutral (un-oaked) vessel with such typical Rhone grapes as Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier or even Grenache Blanc, achieving a more fruity, light-to-medium-bodied melange 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 barrels, fermentation vessels, whether or not to allow malolactic fermentation, 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.) The United States:
Chardonnay is by far the most widely planted white grape variety, particularly in California.
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 Country (with, among others, the Santa Lucia Highlands) to Santa Barbara County with its Santa Rita Hills and Ballard Canyon appellations. Washington State has a vibrant wine industry, and Chardonnay is very important here, 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! From the West Coast, the drop-off in 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 really 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 Franciacorta sparklers. Sicily also has a serious number of quality Chardonnay producers.
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 more crisp 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 also the northwestern areas of Galicia, along the Atlantic Ocean. 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.