Chardonnay: the queen of versatility
May 22, 2021
There are good reasons why Chardonnay is among the world’s favourite white wine varieties: it can produce generous amounts of grapes, grow well in different types of soil and climate, and be made into many styles of wine. So it’s hardly surprising that it’s the world’s second most-planted white vinifera grape variety and fifth most-planted overall. In fact, there are few wine-producing countries that do not have at least some Chardonnay planted and, in regions like California and Burgundy, it’s the main white variety. Here in Chile, it’s the second most-planted white variety (after Sauvignon Blanc) and 11,000 hectares or 30% of all the white wine grape varieties planted here in 2018 were Chardonnay.
What words best describe Chardonnay?
- Lean, with taut acidity and subtle aromas of green apples and citrus fruit along with wet stones?
- Full-bodied and creamy with flavours like peaches, apricots, toast and butterscotch?
- Dull, everyday white wine with no particular smell?
- Still or sparkling wine?
The answer is it can be all of these things. This is such a versatile variety that it’s difficult to generalize. It varies greatly depending on where and how it’s grown and what the winemaker decides to do with it.
So how is Chardonnay wine affected by where it comes from?
When grown in a cooler climate, Chardonnay tends to have high acidity, lean body and green and citrus fruit aromas (apples, pears, lemons, limes), although this is not an especially aromatic grape. Here in Chile and over the Andes in Argentina, you’ll find lots of examples of Chardonnay from cooler locations at altitude or near the coast which have these characteristics.
Chardonnay wines that come from a warmer climate conditions often have a more stone fruit profile, like peaches, apricots and quince, and maybe even melon. This riper, sunkissed fruit tends to be higher in sugar too, which means more body and higher alcohol. When the grapes are very ripe, the acidity will also be lower so they lack that taut, sharp acidity you can find in cooler-climate wines. However, some winemakers add tartaric acid to correct the acidity level. Chilean wines labelled Central Valley may well have this riper profile.
Soil and location also have their impact on the wine. Chardonnay seems to especially shine in soils with some chalk or limestone content. For instance some of the world’s most renowned Chardonnays are from Burgundy in France, where the climate is only just warm enough to ripen grapes and the soils in many areas have a chalk or limestone content. Here in Chile, the team at Tabalí in the Limarí Valley were quick to recognise the potential of the limestone soils and cool coastal climate in the Talinay area of the valley and plant Chardonnay there. This area now produces some of Chile’s finest Chardonnays: fresh, lean wines with complex layers of aromas including wet stones and a saline hint.
However, this is not the whole story. While some winemakers take a hand’s-off approach so that their wines reflect the climate and soils of the place they come from, others use a whole range of techniques to give the wines a different style.
How can the wine be influenced by the winemaker?
Here are just a few of the techniques the winemaker can choose.
- If you leave the skins in contact with the juice for a little while before pressing the grapes and putting the juice into the fermentation tank, it adds a different texture and some aromas and can add a little bitterness.
- If you ferment and/or age the wine in oak containers, this will add body and texture to the wine.
- If some or all of the oak is new (not previously used), you will add a layer of extra aromas and flavours to the wine, like vanilla, cinnamon and cedar.
- Some winemakers like to work with the sediment in the wine, known as lees. By stirring this up regularly, suspending it in the must, the wine will become creamier and gain some yeasty or even lactic aromas.
- Some winemakers are now fermenting some of their Chardonnay in concrete eggs because the shape keeps the wine moving and hence the lees remain suspended in the wine.
- All winemakers have to decide whether or not to let the wine go through partial or full malolactic fermentation (MLF), where lactic acid bacteria convert the sharp malic acidity (which is like tart, unripe green apples) to a more lactic flavour profile, with notes of cream and butterscotch.
Chardonnay is an obliging variety that can take any and all of these techniques, which would overpower some other white varieties. For a couple of decades big-bodied, oaked, butterscotchy, high alcohol Chardonnays were all the rage, sometimes with a hint of sweetness. And it was these wines, particularly some of the hugely popular entry-level ones that provoked the snobbish backlash known as ABC (Anything But Chardonnay).
Things have moved on and these days there is a Chardonnay to suit everyone’s taste. And let’s not forget that Chardonnay is one of the classic varieties used to make Champagne and many other sparkling wines around the world, including here in Chile. Chardonnay truly is the queen of versatility
All in all, those 11,000 hectares of Chardonnay vines in Chile are certainly being put to good use. If you’re wondering where to start, here are just a few Chilean Chardonnays worth checking out:
At the premium end:
Pandolfi Price in the Itata Valley is a small-scale producer making very two very fine Chardonnays: Trabun (unoaked) and Los Patricios (oaked). Click here to visit their website.
Tabalí in the Limarí Valley has a good range of Chardonnays but the pick has to be the creamy, fresh and vibrant Talinay. Check out their website here.
Villard Fine Wines‘ Le Chardonnay from the Casablanca Valley shows lovely balance and is a very fresh, restrained style of wine that would pair well with many different types of cuisine. Click here to visit their website.
Kingston Family Vineyards, also in the Casablanca Valley, makes two super Chardonnays – CJ’s Barrel and Sabino. Check out their website here.
Lower budget but still intesting:
Veramonte Ritual Chardonnay from the Casablanca Valley. This is their website.
De Martino Legado Chardonnary from the Limarí Valley. Check out their website.
What style of Chardonnay do you like best?