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photo of Chardonnay by Tim Ramey.Rich is the word that best both describes Chardonnay and explains its popularity. Its aroma is often appealing, yet delicate, difficult to characterize, easier to recognize, although it is often masked by heavy-handed winemaking and aging techniques.

Chardonnay might smell like apples, lemons, peaches or tropical fruits. Its delicacy is such that even a small percentage of another variety blended into chardonnay will often completely dominate its aroma and flavor.

Oak commonly takes over chardonnay if the wine is fermented or aged in new barrels or for too long in seasoned ones, especially when full malo-lactic fermentation is allowed or encouraged. Many consumers that claim to like Chardonnay are misdirected; the aromas and flavors that they find appealing are actually the influences of oak. This preference is so prevalent that many inexpensive offerings of Chardonnay are flavored with oak chips, oak powder, or other methods to introduce this component, since the cost of processing in oak barrels prohibits lower retail prices.

Chardonnay tend to soak up flavors of the vineyard soil and vinification, more so than most other white grape types, making vineyard site selection a critical factor.

In spite of any variance in style, Chardonnay is unmistakable in the mouth because of its impeccable sugar/acid balance, its full body, and its easy smoothness. Chardonnay's intrinsic blank canvas quality also allows its flavors to be dramatically affected by differences in soil, climate, and vineyard practices, as well as those in the winemaking process.

In the Chablis region of France, chardonnay is the only grape permitted and it renders a "crisp, flinty" wine. In the Meursault appellation, chardonnay takes on a lush, ripe, "fleshy" character. Even in quality sparkling wines and French Champagne, it is the major variety used. California chardonnay is every bit as variable and possibly even more exciting because of the effusive varietal quality it develops there.


Researchers at the University of California at Davis used DNA profiling in 1999 to prove that chardonnay originated about the beginning of the modern era as an inadvertent cross between pinot blanc and an obscure, ancient, and nearly extinct variety called gouais blanc. The Roman Emperor Probus (b 232 AD -d 282 AD), probably introduced gouais blanc, a native grape from his Croatian homeland, to Bourgogne.

Chardonnay was named for a village in the Macon region, where it has grown at least since early records of it in the late 1600s. Vineyards in France are commonly planted with an intermingling of chardonnay and pinot blanc vines, so that "pinot" was often incorrectly prefixed to chardonnay. The two varieties have quite similar plant structures, so their confusion was common prior to modern methods of ampelography. In spite of its heritage and some resemblance, chardonnay is not considered a member of the "pinot" grape family (pinot blanc, pinot gris, pinot meunier, pinot noir, etc.).

Chardonnay leaf (photograph).Early budding makes chardonnay vines susceptible to frost damage in the Spring. Although it also ripens fairly early, quality improves over a moderately long growing season. It responds best to cool locales and is considered a Winter-hardy variety, successful over a fairly broad seasonal temperature average of between 56° and 65° F. Chardonnay vines are fairly easy to grow, naturally vigorous, and can consistently produce fairly large crops. Overcropping, however, results in bland-tasting wine.

Unfortunately, chardonnay is susceptible to a myriad of maladies, including powdery mildew, shatter and uneven fruit set. Clusters are compact, so botrytis bunch rot is of concern when late summer rains occur. Berries are relatively small, thin-skinned, fragile, and oxidize easily. This makes chardonnay somewhat more sensitive to winemaking techniques and maybe more challenging to handle from harvest to bottling than most other grape types.

Not uncommon among wine grapes, the chardonnay vine also has a tendency to mutate and research has identified over 400 clonal variants. There are more than two dozen clones officially authorized in Burgundy. Each clone shares chardonnay family traits, but displays individually specific tendencies in such characteristics as length of ripening cycle, crop load, berry and cluster size, acid retention, etc., therefore producing wines with various flavor differences.

California has achieved real success growing chardonnay and earned considerable consumer popularity for the wine produced. Australia has also had chardonnay success and also at times has misnamed or mislabeled it as "pinot chardonnay".

Chardonnay cluster color plate from Ampelographie (Victor Vermorel & Pierre Viala, 1901)Chardonnay is so commercially popular and so malleable in the winery that it is grown and produced worldwide in areas where marginal climate conditions might not nurture the best fruit. Chardonnay is ubiquitous in nearly every wine-producing country and region. Colorado, Idaho, New York, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, and Washington states, as well as Argentina, Australia, Chile, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, New Zealand, South Africa, and Yugoslavia all grow and produce wine from chardonnay.

The widespread popularity of varietally-labeled Chardonnay wines spurred many new California plantings in the early 1970s. The most commonly planted clone was the "Wente" clone (UCD 2A) and, later, clone 108, isolated at UC Davis from vines grown in Carneros. Due to this grape's blank canvas nature and the proliferation of new vineyard sources using essentially only two clones, regional variations in Chardonnay wines became more apparent than perhaps in any other varietal wine in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In the 1990s, California vintners began paying much more attention to matching, not only varieties but also clones, to specific microclimates and vineyard sites. Many new vineyards and replantings since then, especially in cooler regions, have propagated the "Dijon" clones (particularly 75, 76, 78, 95 and 96), the "Espiguette" clone (352) or, in fewer locations, "Champagne" clones. These clones have perhaps increased the range of aromas and flavors, but also somewhat suppressed "terroir" identities.

Different wine making techniques produce wide variances in the Chardonnay flavor profile. Such techniques as extended skin contact, whole cluster fermentation, barrel fermentation, level of barrel toasting, proportion of new to old cooperage, lees stirring, and partial, complete, or prevention of malolactic fermentation have shown success while they generate controversy and lively discussion among winemakers.

The most common (but not exclusive) smell and/or flavor elements found in chardonnay-based wines include:

*Typical Chardonnay Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques. This list therefore is merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.

Varietal Aromas:

Processing Bouquets:

Stone Fruits: apple, pear, peach, apricot

Terroir: flint, mineral, mint

Citric Fruits: lemon, lime, orange, tangerine

Malolactic: butter, cream, hazelnut

Tropical Fruits: pineapple, banana, mango, guava, kiwi

Oak (light): vanilla, sweet wood, coconut

Floral: acacia, hawthorn Oak (heavy): oak, smoke, toast, lees, yeast
Mouth Feel / Texture:

smooth, creamy, rich, fleshy

Two popular trends keep California Chardonnays from reaching the level of respect given to those from France: one is to satisfy consumer lust for any wine labeled "Chardonnay" with bland but inexpensive "cookie-cutter" wines; the other is to overwhelm any varietal personality or microclimatic subtlety with lavish amounts of oak barrel fermentation and aging.

Although California appellations have a shorter history than those of France, distinct regional characteristics emerge with the passage of each vintage. Eventually, proper site and clone matching and judicious production techniques may allow California AVAs to consistently show Chardonnay with distinct regional flavors.

The nominees for Best Supporting Appellation in a California chardonnay are: Russian River Valley, shared by Sonoma and Mendocino Counties (apples, pears & peaches); Carneros, shared by Sonoma and Napa Counties (flinty); Monterey County (citric, lemony); Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County (pineapple, tropical); Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo County (apricot, fleshy).

Challenges and difficulties in growing chardonnay and higher production costs from barrel treatments, combined with increasing popular demand over the past decades, contribute to making chardonnay-based wines one of the most expensive on the shelf or wine list.

by Jim LaMar

1. Julia Harding, Jancis Robinson and José Vouillamoz. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours (pages 221-27) London: Allen Lane/Penguin and New York: Ecco/Harper-Collins, 2012

2. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

3. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

4. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996

5. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

6. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983

7. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

8. Gerald Asher, Vineyard Tales - Reflections on Wine, (Chronicle Books: San Francisco) 1996

9. History-- A Brief History Of Wine © 2008 A&E Television (DVD)


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