Chardonnay (Vitis vinifera var ‘Chardonnay’)
A neutral white grape variety, the Vitus vinifera Chardonnay originated in Burgundy, France and is now planted all over the world.
Experience / Tasting Profile Of Chardonnay Grape Variety
Appearance of Chardonnay Wine
Chardonnay wine is one of the most popular and diverse wines on the planet, making its general appearance difficult to pinpoint. Clear, bright, straw yellow to gold, medium to full bodied. Clues to identify a Chardonnay are more easily sensed in the aroma and taste profile, although even this can be difficult due to its malleability and wide range of styles and regions.
Aroma, Flavours & Mouthfeel of Chardonnay Wine
Depending on region and terroir, Chardonnay can exhibit a wide range of aromas and flavours. On its own, it is fairly neutral, but is highly versatile and adaptable and takes on the flavours of its container, be it a steel cask (mineral tones, slate, wet rocks) or oak barrels (vanilla, coconut, toast, biscuit). Climate is indicative in its profile, cooler climate (Canada, Chablis France) Chardonnay have apple and pear, while warmer climates (Mornington Peninsula Australia, Marlborough New Zealand) show more citrus and melon, and hot climate (Central Coast USA) exhibit tropical fruits like banana, pineapple, and mango.
Chardonnay is one of the few white grape varietals that takes oak really well, and this has an enormous effect on the wine. Another technique used often with Chardonnay is malolactic fermentation.
Characteristics of Oaked Chardonnay
Popular for many years, oaked Chardonnay is synonymous with the varietal. If you like butter with your popcorn, you’ll like a buttery Chardonnay from California. Oak barrels are used to age the wine, allowing oxygen in to the wine slowly over time, while the toast in the barrel (the amount of charred wood inside) flavours the wine with scents of vanilla, coconut, and oddly – dill. The oak influence also tones down the acidity and produces a smooth, full mouthfeel. Prepare to pay a little more for these wines, as the oak barrel ageing adds to the overall winery costs, passing along those costs to your wallet…but well worth it!
Characteristics of Unoaked Chardonnay
Due to popular demand and changing palates, unoaked Chardonnay has become more prevalent in recent years, thanks to winemakers in Chablis, France (and the many followers since). These wines are fermented in steel casks and either bottled right away or aged further in steel barrels or neutral-oak barrels (basically oak barrels that have been used so many times that they no longer give off the “oak” flavours or effects on the wine). These wines smell and taste very “green” – green apple, green plum, pear, citrus. These wines are dry and crisp and have similarities to Pinot Gris/Grigio.
Chardonnay Wine affected by Malolactic Fermentation (MLF)
Almost all oaked Chardonnay receives this treatment, while not all unoaked do. It is a process done in the fermentation cask after the first fermentation, with the introduction of certain bacteria to convert the harsh malic acid to lactic acid, making the wine more smooth with an “oily” texture. It can be hard to tell the difference between an MLF wine that has a creamy texture to an oaked one that is buttery. If your wine is oaked, it’s most likely received MLF, if it’s unoaked and crisp with higher acidity, it probably hasn’t received MLF.
The Terroir of the Chardonnay Grape Varietal: In What Conditions Does Chardonnay Grow?
Known as one of the easier grapes to grow, it thrives in almost all conditions conducive to grape/wine production.
Wine profiles are far more dependant on winemaker preference and terroir than specific varietal characteristics.
The vine produces vigorous leaf coverage, which can inhibit the sun from reaching the grape clusters, leaving a green, grassy, vegetal flavour to the wine. Most vineyards/winemakers prune these leaves back to encourage more sun to hit the grapes, leading to fruitier wines.
An interesting technique used to ensure the best grapes reach maturity and become fully ripe is a pruning method developed in Burgundy, France. Vineyards will aggressively prune back the green foliage just prior to budburst in the spring. This essentially shocks the vine in to thinking it’s still too early to produce fruit. It allows budburst to happen later giving the fruit more time in late spring sun to develop and ripen a little later than it naturally would have.
The early ripening does come in handy, in cooler regions like those in Canada, Germany, Northern France, and New Zealand. Harvesting the grapes earlier before the first frost and autumn mists form help to protect the grapes from becoming frozen or rotten (although Chardonnay grapes are very hearty and not easily susceptible to rot bacterias).
Chalk, clay, and limestone soils are Chardonnay’s preferred soil. The large variety of these types of soils all over the world lead to a huge array of potential aroma and flavour profiles.