Chardonnay has humble beginnings. Like many grapes, it has its origins in France. In fact, everything about the group originates from Burgundy, France, including its name, history, and rise to fame. The grape is believed to have first been produced in a village called “Chardonnay” in Mâconnais, Burgundy. Chardonnay is the child of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. The grape is one of the most produced, sold, and loved varietals around the world with numerous countries producing it.
New-world Chardonnay has similar origins as new-world Cabernet Sauvignon. At the Judgement of Paris, California’s Cabernet Sauvignon was not the only grape to make a name for the state. Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay ranked first out of all the famous French and lesser-known American white wines. Other California Chardonnays ranked unexpectedly well too. Chardonnay has a history all around the world as well include places such as Spain, Australia, South Africa, and even Argentina in recent years.
Chardonnay heavily differs by region, particularly between warm and cool wine regions. For example, if you compared a Chardonnay from Napa, California and Chablis, Burgundy, you might think they were completely different grapes.
While nearly all Chardonnay will undergo Malolactic Fermentation, there is a stark contrast between unoaked and oaked Chardonnay. This will largely depend on the region and climate. Cooler climates, such as France, tend to avoid using oak in Chardonnay, while warmer climates such as California rely heavily on oak. Unoaked, cooler-climate Chardonnay tends to reflect the fruit notes, while its oaked, warmer-climate counterparts tend to reflect oaky notes.
Common fruit tasting notes and aromas include warm apples, pineapple, melon, pear, and peach. Other common notes and aromas include wet stones, lemon zest, honeysuckle, floral bits. if it is oaked Chardonnay, there will likely be an undertone of butter, vanilla, creme brulee, and other rich, cream notes.
Bourgone (Burgundy), France
This is the home of Chardonnay and also home to some of the most expensive wines in the world. The three primary Chardonnay subregions here include Chablis in the north; Côte d’Or in the center; and Mâconnais in the south. Each of these is fairly distinct with different styles.
Chablis tends to produce fragrant citrusy fruit-forward chardonnay with a lot of minerality and salinity. Its climate is significantly cooler than its southern neighbors and is more akin to Champagne’s climate. Cote d’Or on the other hand, produces fuller-bodied wines with a nice balance of fruits, minerals, and oak. Some of the most famous Burgundy wines are produced here such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, more commonly referred to as ‘DRC’. Cote d’Or is also home to some of the region’s most famous villages such as Meursault and Montrachet. Finally, there is Mâconnais, which is the southernmost region of Burgundy. While it produces other white grapes, it still predominantly produces Chardonnay. It’s known for producing great value Chardonnay, particularly in Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Véran.
Champagne – The region of Champagne also produces a significant amount of Champagne, though it is all used for the region’s famous sparkling wine.
California, United States
California is still the dominant player in American Chardonnay. While Napa still maintains its prestige and quality, other California regions have begun to catch up. Sonoma has been producing world-class Chardonnay in the past couple of decades as well, particularly in Russian River, Alexander Valley, and Chalk Hill.
California Chardonnay tends to be big and bold and heavily fruit-forward. This is balanced with heavy undertones of toasty, oaky notes such as vanilla, creme brulee, and butter.
Australian Chardonnay is similar to California with big, fruit-driven wines with tons of oak. The grape has been grown here since the 19th century, but it didn’t get big until the 1970s. While it soared alongside its California counterpart during the 1970s and 1980s, Australian Chardonnay has not been able to keep up. Into the 1990s and early 2000s, the markets largely turned their backs against new-world Chardonnay. New Zealand’s world-class Sauvignon Blanc gaining traction also contributed to this. In recent years, though, Australia has been reemerging with greatly improved Chardonnay.
Argentinean Chardonnay has only gained traction in the past decade or so, but this rising style of grape is no mistake. While the grape has been grown throughout the country’s wine history, it has only recently just started to reemerge. Argentina is normally considered a new-world region, but its Chardonnay is more reflective of old-world Burgundy, particularly in Chablis. It is mostly grown in the cooler areas around the Andes Mountains, and this translates into beautiful mineral and saline-driven Chardonnays. Many producers here take advantage of oak, while many others do not.