“Wine, one sip of this will bathe the drooping spirits in delight beyond the bliss of dreams. Be wise and taste.”
~ John Milton (1608-74)
You”ll find Milton”s famous quote on the back label of Acacia Carneros ”98 Chardonnay bottles. For many wine lovers, a good Chardonnay is indeed the bliss of dreams.
The Chardonnay grape is a delicate, sensitive, diminutive grape. It”s expensive to produce, vulnerable to temperature variations and a veritable chameleon of flavors. It”s a fairy princess with gossamer wings — hard to pin down but easy to recognize, distinctive and special.
Chardonnay Origins and Regions
Chardonnay grapes hail from the Burgundy area of France where their vines are the most numerous of all the varieties planted. They”re the only grape permitted in the Chablis region and the Chardonnay grape is also the major varietal used in making Champagne.
The origins of Chardonnay grape vines are difficult to trace, but wine historians believe they were a product of cloning the ancient and little-known Gouais Blanc grape with some type of Pinot grape. This is not to say that Chardonnay is even a close relative of the Pinot — a mistake that”s often made in describing categories of grapes.
Chardonnay grapes are small, thin-skinned and fragile and therefore expensive to grow, harvest and age. They require warm climates with cool nights, although warmer regions have had success growing the vines as well. The temperamental grape is affected by climate and soil variations, so a wide range of flavors and aromas distinguish wines made from Chardonnay grapes.
The 1970s was a period of unprecedented growth for the industry as new plantings came to California, particularly in the Carneros district. Australia”s climate is also good for growing Chardonnay grapes. Recently, Chardonnay grapes have found a home in New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and South Africa. All of these regions produce excellent Chardonnay wines.
Chardonnay”s variations offer something for every palate, from the most sophisticated to the most pedestrian. A good Chardonnay is most often described as “buttery.” It derives this characteristic from aging in oak barrels. Citrus and apple flavors are typical of chardonnays, although some also carry pineapple, mango, melon, pear, apricot and banana hints. The oak barrel aging can also impart a vanilla tone.
The cooler climates in which Chardonnay grapes are grown account for the grape”s contribution to the citrus taste and fruity flavors. Those grown in warmer climates can yield flavors redolent of honey or butterscotch.
An exception to this palette of flavors is Naked Chardonnay, which is deliberately aged in stainless steel rather than oak. While these wines give up the buttery taste, they enhance the fruit aromas and yield a sharper, edgier, more acidic wine.
The broad range of methods used to produce Chardonnay wines accounts for a wide array of flavors as well as an astounding variance in price. A decent California Chardonnay comes in under $10, while the French award winners easily top $100.
American vintners have responded to the public”s appetite for Chardonnay by producing affordable wines. This, in turn, has sparked criticism and tends to elevate French Chardonnays to a superior status. North American Chardonnays, though, have won their share of awards on the world stage.
If you”d like to stock your wine cellar with a variety of Vin Blanc Chardonnays, you”ll find plenty of choices from all over the world. These countries have some of the best known labels and award winners:
- Australia: Cullen”s Chardonnay
- California: Napa Valley”s Aquinas and Monterey Estancia
- Canada: British Columbia”s Jackson Triggs Okanagan Estate Chardonnay
- France: Pouilly-Fuiss