What is Chardonnay and where is it found?
One of the wine world’s most well-known grape varieties, Chardonnay enjoyed a huge burst in popularity, particularly in the last two decades of the twentieth century and the number of hectares planted globally grew enormously. Its popularity has waned a bit in recent years as fashions have changed, with a renewed interest in lesser-known native varieties and consumers clamouring for "ABC" or "Anything But Chardonnay"! Even so, Chardonnay remains one of the world’s most planted white wine grapes, with more than 200,000 hectares of Chardonnay vines planted globally. It’s popular with growers in both Old and New Worlds, with 50,000 hectares in France, 43,000 Ha in the US and 21,000 Ha in Australia.
Chardonnay's main characteristics
One of the things about Chardonnay that winemakers and wine consumers have always loved is its versatility. People sometimes talk about Chardonnay as a ¨blank canvas¨ - by that, they mean it’s very chameleonic; an adaptable variety that can soak up the influence of the climate where it is planted or the techniques of the winemaker like few others. That’s why you can find it planted in so many wine-producing countries around the world – over 41 of them at the last count – with a range of styles that vary from place to place.
So as the white grape of choice in Burgundy in France, for example, it gives us a range of wines from the steely minerality of unoaked Chablis in the cooler north, down through the nutty and intense whites of the Côte de Beaune and further south to the more complex, riper styles of the Maconnâis. Then in the New World, it tends to be more opulent and exotic in countries like Australia and New Zealand, or California in the US.
Chardonnay is what’s termed a non-aromatic variety, which means it combines very well with oak - whether old or new, French or American – absorbing some of the flavours of the wood to give richer style wines with hazelnut and buttery flavours. It’s also one of the key grapes used in Champagne, and in Spain you can sometimes find it blended in Cava or even on its own in other sparkling wines.
What does Chardonnay taste like?
Chardonnay is an early ripening grape, with moderate acidity and alcohol, which adapts well to different climates. In terms of flavour, in cooler climates depending on how it is made it’s usually associated with melon, apple or grapefruit flavours, while the warmer you get it can take on more tropical fruit notes of peach, mango, pineapple or lime. Barrel-aging Chardonnay emphasizes the buttery notes in the wine and tends to bring out more intense fruit flavours like orange peel or apricot. Sometimes winemakers will also stir the lees, or dead yeast cells, during the ageing process to enhance texture and bring out the nuttier notes in the wine.
Where can I try some Chardonnay?
Thanks to its adaptability, in Spain you can find Chardonnay planted in DOs like Somontano in Aragon, and Rioja, as well as regions like Castilla La Mancha, Catalunya, Navarra, and Valencia. Alongside Viura (Macabeo) and Malvasia, it’s one of the grapes that goes into the Solarce Blanco white wine from the Casa la Rad winery in DOCa Rioja. Solarce is made from estate-grown grapes, selected and picked by hand, fermented and part aged for 6 months in 500 litre French and American oak barrels. It’s an attractive straw yellow with green hues, with a subtle and elegant nose with a touch of minerality coupled with white flowers and white fruit like pears thanks to its ageing on its fine lees. On the palate, this is a fresh wine with great body, well-balanced acidity and a long finish. Try it with grilled white fish or shellfish, white meats like chicken, or sushi, pasta or rice dishes.