Is chardonnay the world’s most popular white wine? The numbers suggest as much. One of the most diverse and widely planted wine grapes, chardonnay is grown everywhere from Argentina to Australia, South Africa and Germany.
Australian chardonnay regionsChardonnay is planted in almost every wine-producing region in Australia. Its versatility is such that James Halliday says chardonnay is: “The most malleable and compliant of all the great white wine grapes, giving the impression it would even grow up a telegraph pole in the centre of Sydney or Melbourne and produce a more than half-decent wine.”
Chardonnay characteristicsFor a long time, the reputation of Australian chardonnay was mired by the butter-yellow, toffee-scented chardonnays produced in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, more appropriate environments and less heavy-handed winemaking have created examples that are lighter and more restrained.
There are two primary styles of chardonnay, and fans tend to prefer one or the other. There is the classic rich, buttery, oak-influenced style, and the one that is lean, citrusy and fresh. In Australian chardonnay today, more wines have found a middle ground, offering the best of both worlds.
FranceChardonnay first appeared on winemaking records around the 12th century. The styles in France differ between regions and subregions, for example, there are three types of white Burgundy: unoaked and crisp, lightly oaked, and heavily oaked and intense. The typical aromatics of white Burgundy include apple, hazelnut, toffee and white blooms.
United States of AmericaCalifornia has the lion’s share of chardonnay in America, particularly the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, Carneros, and the Edna, Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys. Oregon and Washington State also have chardonnay plantings. Much like in Australia, there is a spectrum of chardonnay styles found around this sprawling place. Those from the Napa Valley are typically lush and often with oak, while Sonoma Valley chardonnays tends to show brighter acidity, as just one example.
New ZealandChardonnay makes up a small percentage of New Zealand’s plantings, but there are several regions of the North Island that champion it, including Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay. Waiheke Island also produces some premium examples of high-quality, complex chardonnay.
History of chardonnayA native of Burgundy in France, chardonnay has flourished in the Australian wine industry. James Busby brought the first cuttings to Australia in the 1830s, but it took more than a century until the variety grew to prominence. Initially, the production of Australian chardonnay was limited to a smaller scale and the domestic market largely consumed the wines produced.
Cue the 1980s, and robust Australian chardonnay began to flex its muscles. International wine lovers soon began devouring these rich, ripe and buttery styles. As the next decade-and-a-half rolled around, however, winemakers and viticulturists recognised that public tastes were changing, with the demand for crisper white wines growing. This threat to the traditional style of chardonnay was emphasised by the emergence of New Zealand’s Marlborough sauvignon blanc; a zesty, high-acid alternative to chardonnay’s fruit-filled oak flavours.
Australian winemakers began to look for new avenues of producing chardonnay – not an impossible task given chardonnay is a variety that readily submits to the whims of its makers. Thus, the current style of Australian chardonnay, considered among the best in the world, was born.