Types of Wine: Chardonnay

Wine with Tim Vandergrift

One of the most widely-planted major wine grape varieties in the world with 400,000 acres under vine. Chardonnay is a reliable, hardy and prolific vine whose only real vulnerabilities are to frost and uneven development of the fruit. It's planted virtually everywhere in the world where it is warm enough to ripen and even in some places where it isn't (like Champagne, in France). It's practically a given that any up-and-coming wine region will plant Chardonnay as its entry into the international winemaking market. Chardonnay had a huge surge in popularity in the 1980's spreading to all corners of the wine growing world. This lead to a push back against a perceived 'globalization' of winemaking, but actually did little to stop the popularity of this versatile grape.

Wine with Tim Vandergrift: Chardonnay Grapes

Chardonnay in History

The true origin of this vine has been muddled throughout its history. For most of this century it was thought to be associated with Pinot Noir or Pinot Blanc, with some scholars asserting it was related to Muscat and still others saying it wasn't related to any other variety, and some who wanted to claim a bit of prestige saying it was an ancient grape from the Middle East, brought to France by Crusaders. It finally took DNA testing to sort out. In the early 1990s research conducted at the University of California at Davis revealed a common heritage between Chardonnay and a crossbreeding of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc, a variety traced back to Croatia and brought to France by the Romans. The two grapes were grown side-by-side and had plenty of opportunity to crossbreed and make this vigorous new variety.

Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne and California

The complicated and inscrutable region of Burgundy is most closely associated with the greatest Chardonnay in the world, with names like Montrachet, Corton-Charlemagne and Pouilly -Fuissé attracting hundreds of dollars per bottle for their deeply concentrated flavors and aromas. Hundreds of years of careful selection for terroir and winemaking style turn out white wines that can age for years, improving all the time.

Chablis has been long associated with quality white wine, so much so that the name has been (mis)used on labels around the world, on wines that don't contain any Chardonnay at all, much less the amazing, sparky, green apple, honey and 'gunflint' notes of great Chablis from France.

Chardonnay is one of the three major grape varieties planted in the Champagne region, and is responsible for the Blanc de Blancs style that has so much finesse and delicacy. The cool climate prevents the grapes from ripening fully, leaving them sizzling with acidity and lean fruit character, perfect for great sparkling wine.

California is where Chardonnay let down its hair and took on a completely different identity. The reliably hot climate and long growing season makes for ultra ripe grapes and a rich opulent style. The climate is so amenable that by the 1970's California Chardonnay was rivaling the greats of France. The movie 'Bottle Shock' is about the events surrounding the famous 1976 Judgement in Paris tasting, where California's Chateau Montelena beat the wines of Burgundy in a blind tasting.

Wine with Tim Vandergrift Glass of Chardonnay

Chardonnay's Character

For such a widely-planted and well thought of grape Chardonnay lacks much of a distinctive character-- it's actually a relatively neutral grape, most of its distinctness coming from factors such as terroir, vinification techniques and oak additions. California’s loam soils and even climate tend to yield ripe, tropical fruit scented wines, whereas the classic lean, minerally quality of Chablis is a direct reflection of a cool climate and austere, chalky soils. In the Côte d’Or’s chalky clay, the wines are more rounded and elegant, with structure, complexity and longevity. Other regions, including New York, Washington State, Canada and Australia all have similarly distinctive effects on their grapes.

Vinification techniques like malolactic fermentation, wherein some or all of the tart malic acid is transformed into softer lactic acid, position the wine on the crisp-to-fat spectrum. Bâtonnage (periodic stirring to return the lees into suspension in the wine) increases complexity and creaminess of texture, giving a ‘fat’ mouth-feel.

Barrel fermentation and/or oak aging, if can shift the wine between a clean, purely fruit-driven personality and a rich toast/vanilla-scented one, even evolving into a spectrum of caramel, creaminess, clove, cinnamon and vanilla.

Master Vintner Chardonnay Recipe Kits

Master Vintner Winemaker's Reserve: Dry to medium-dry with pear, apple, tropical and citrus fruit notes. Master Vintner™ Chardonnay makes six gallons of crisp and fresh wine, with a rich bouquet of citrusy fruit blending into aromas of peach and pineapple-melon.

Sommelier Select Chardonnay: This is an elegant, ripe wine with warm-climate character of tropical fruit notes layered with honeycomb and hints of citrus. It's highlighted by crisp, ripe apples that taste like they came right off of a tree. This complex aroma underlines honeyed notes of vanilla and toasted oak for a satisfying, smooth finish.

Master Vintner Weekday Wine Chardonnay: A big, bold white wine, bursting with fruit flavors and always ready for fun. Keep a bottle well-chilled in the fridge. It’s perfect for takeout (everything from sushi to sliders), all sorts of pasta and guilty pleasures like chips and buttery popcorn.