Dominic Rippon explains why this adaptable white grape is so popular.
When former British Prime Minister John Major declared his wine preference as ‘ABC’ – anything but chardonnay – many believed they had heard the death knell for the variety. Widely planted in the rapidly expanding New World vineyards, chardonnay began to attract a stigma in the 1990s as ubiquitous, often clumsily oaked, plonk favoured by the unsophisticated drinker. But when the University of Adelaide published the first ever database of global vineyard plantings in 2013, it showed that chardonnay had grown to become the world’s fifth most planted grape by 2010. In 1990, it had not even been in the top ten.
Chardonnay’s colonisation of the world’s vineyards is partly thanks to its impressive adaptability. Easy to grow, it behaves like a chameleon in the vineyard, taking on the character of its surroundings – which in warm, high-yielding commercial vineyards, tends to produce peachy, even tropical, flavours. This flavour profile makes warm-climate chardonnay the perfect initiation to dry white wine. If the grape has a defining characteristic, it is its unmistakeably rich mouth-feel, often described as buttery, which can be accentuated by barrel fermentation or oak ageing, for which chardonnay has a well-known natural affinity.
Although chardonnay seemingly makes decent wines wherever it is planted, there are only a few corners of the world where it really shines, and nowhere more than in the clay and limestone soils of its home region of Burgundy. It is a fledgling wine connoisseur’s rite of passage to declare triumphantly to a chardonnay doubter that fine chablis is made from the grape.
At the pinnacle of the French wine hierarchy, the Côte d’or vineyard that makes the most expensive white wines on the planet, Grand Cru Le Montrachet, is given over entirely to chardonnay. It grows wines of exquisite balance, nerve and elegance, especially in the hands of legendary producers such as Domaine Leflaive; a pleasure which, sadly, precious few ever get to enjoy.
The other emblematic region where chardonnay sets pulses racing is Champagne. In most champagne, chardonnay is blended with the red grapes pinot noir and pinot meunier, which (unless champagne rosé is sought) are pressed immediately after picking to ensure that the juice is not stained by the grape skins.
But chardonnay comes into its own on the east-facing chalky slopes that stretch south from the region’s wine capital, Épernay, where the Grand Cru villages of Cramant, Avize, Oger and Le Mesnil-surOger are planted exclusively with chardonnay. The blanc de blancs champagnes produced from these vineyards, known as the Côte des Blancs, show
a deliciously fresh minerality that develops into biscuity complexity with age.
Given the Jura vineyards’ proximity to those of Burgundy (they are now part of the same region, the newly created Bourgogne-franche-comté), it is unsurprising that chardonnay made the journey from its heartland into the Jurassic hills at some point in the Middle Ages. The grape, which is known locally as melon d’arbois, is an ingredient in most of Jura’s white wines, including sweet vin de paille; although it is excluded from the region’s famous take on dry sherry, vin jaune, which is made from the savagnin grape.
Chardonnay in Jura is often bottled as a single varietal wine, generally giving fresh, floral whites but sometimes vinified with more oxygen contact than elsewhere in France, which adds savoury, sometimes nutty flavours, which help it to pair well with food.
Everywhere from Burgundy and Jura to the Loire Valley (although not Bordeaux), chardonnay lends appellation d’origine bottle-fermented bubblies – the crémants – a touch of the champagne magic; perhaps nowhere more than in crémant de Limoux, from vineyards that cling to the lower slopes of the Pyrénées, in western Languedoc.
Chardonnay is a recent immigrant to the Limouxin vineyards, which historically grew mauzac grapes for the production of blanquette de Limoux, the world’s oldest bottle-fermented sparkling wine (it predates champagne by about a century). But in the early 1970s, chardonnay was introduced to add body and finesse to Limoux bubblies. At the same time, winemakers began to experiment with still, barrel-fermented chardonnay, with impressive results. In 1993, the appellation d’origine for Limoux’s white wines was revised to include chardonnay as a permitted grape, alongside mauzac and chenin blanc.
Today, the white wines of Limoux have the peculiarity that they must be fermented or aged in oak in order to qualify for their appellation. Jancis Robinson MW has praised Limoux as France’s “most interesting chardonnay vineyards outside Burgundy”, and estates such as Château RivesBlanques, nestling in the cool, windswept Pyrenean foothills, show how the grape thrives in these higher-altitude vineyards, making mineral-scented, buttery whites that can bear an alluring resemblance to pricier white burgundy.
Chardonnay’s famous adaptability, combined with its noble pedigree, has earned it a popularity that shows no signs of waning, even as the fashion for less well-known grapes sweeps the wine media. Many drinkers are returning to chardonnay’s varied, food-friendly flavours, having tired of the reliably gooseberry-perfumed sauvignon blanc or more ethereal bottles of pinot grigio. Although the choice on offer covers the entire wine world, for now at least, no other country can hold a candle to France’s best chardonnays.
Dominic Rippon has many years’ experience in the wine trade, both in the UK and France, and now runs the wine merchant business Strictly Wine.
FAR LEFT: Pickers at Domaine Leflaive in Burgundy harvest chardonnay grapes in the ChevalierMontrachet
Grand Cru vineyard; BELOW: Wine tasting in a Limoux vineyard in western Languedoc