Region: Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Chardonnay is the world’s most famous white wine grape and is behind the finest white Burgundies. It is also one of the most widely planted varieties, although it is generally acknowledged that the best expressions of the grape are found in France, the USA and Australia.
There are myriad descriptors for the aromas and flavours of Chardonnay. Common aromas range from butter and toast through to tropical notes of banana, pineapple and guava. It is also often described as having mineral properties, such as crushed seashells or metal. Its flavour profiles are equally diverse and include grilled nuts, creamy apples, peach, marzipan, mango and even wet stones.
In Canada, Chardonnay is produced as a dry white wine, but also as a viscous and sweet ice wine. Certain regions of Australia and New Zealand are noted for the butterscotch and golden syrup flavours of their botrytis Chardonnays.
While Chardonnay has its own intrinsic flavours, it is perhaps more appreciated as a vehicle for other influences, particularly the oak in which it is fermented or matured. Chardonnay that has been both fermented and matured in barrels, particularly when left on its lees, tends to show more finesse and more aromatic integration. It is also likely to have greater stability and therefore better ageing potential, making such wines suitable for cellaring and as an investment.
Chardonnay sold without the influence of oak is often specifically labelled as ‘unoaked/unwooded Chardonnay’, which indicates just how common the oaked style is. The obvious exception to this is the steely, zingy, mineral-fresh Chablis. But even Chablis is increasingly being made with an oak influence, as demand for the toasted brioche flavour increases.
There is huge variation between the different types of Chardonnay produced. Those from the cooler climates of Chablis and the lower Loire Valley tend to be elegant and refined, and are often associated with aromas of grilled nuts and a mineral palate. The ‘blockbuster’ Chardonnays from the warm vineyards of California and Australia, however, are high in alcohol, body and flavour – usually with aromas of tropical fruit and sweet vanilla. The grape is also used for sparkling wines in both Champagne and Alsace. Paired with its parent grape, Pinot Noir, it is employed in the majority of sparkling wines in every corner of the winemaking world.
Chardonnay is popular with both wine producers and consumers. It produces high yields, will grow in a broad spectrum of climates and can be made into wine of acceptable quality with relative ease. As a variety, it presents few viticultural problems of any great significance, although in overly warm conditions it can lose its natural acid/sugar balance, resulting in flat, overblown wines.
Also, Chardonnay buds and flowers early, so more severe spring frosts have been known to destroy entire crops. Vignerons in Burgundy (particularly in Chablis) have traditionally mitigated this by using braziers to warm the air between vines; the phenomenal potential of Chardonnay grown in cooler climates means that Burgundians are likely to find novel ways to address any environmental challenge.