Who hasn't tried Chardonnay? While it is the first wine that many of us ever taste, at its pinnacle, it is also the wine that many connoisseurs consider the single greatest white wine in the world. Think of Chardonnay as a set of pearls: versatile enough to wear with your favorite pair of jeans and elegant enough for the most formal, black tie affair.
Over the past century, no other white grape has captivated the world's attention as Chardonnay has. But what are its roots, where did it originate, and how do I make sense of the wine? After a recent trip to France, I took it upon myself to give a you a little more insight into these questions. First off, did you know that Chardonnay can describe three very different types of wine?
The rolling, sunlit hills of the village of Solutré-Pouilly, boasting wines of finesse and minerality.
Where Did Your Chardonnay Actually Come From?
Native to the Burgundy region of France, Chardonnay (aka "White Burgundy") is the basis for virtually all of the white wines produced within this region. The unique geology and geography of the Burgundy region provides a basis for a varied range of styles of Chardonnay. The ancient limestone and clay soils provide structure and vibrant acidity, while the inland, northerly (albeit volatile) climate forces the grapevines to struggle for nutrients, yielding wines of character and complexity.
Although grapes have been grown in Burgundy for thousands of years, the pivotal point in its history arrived with the arrival of the Cistercian monks around the 11th century. These record-keepers and stewards of the land catalogued many of the best vineyards, and these notable sites exist virtually unchanged to this day.
Chardonnay grapevines, ripening in the Mâconnais, overlooking the town of Solutré, population 200, mostlly growers of grapes. For my Chardonnay exploration, I was conveniently based in the city of Mâcon, close to all of the major grape-growing areas.
There Are 3 Distinct Styles of White Burgundy
With such a long history of producing Chardonnay, virtually every subsequent region in the world where Chardonnay is planted and produced has looked to Burgundy for inspiration. Over time, three primary styles have emerged within Burgundy, based upon both the subtle climatic differences and the regional traditions.
Just after the flowering stage, in mid-May, these small, green Chardonnay grapes are destined for the glass.
1. Un-oaked and vibrantly crisp
This style is exemplified by the Chablis region in the northern reaches of Burgundy. The cold climate and northerly latitude barely allow the Chardonnay grapes to ripen, ensuring a leaner style with higher acidity that does not lend itself to intensive oak aging.
The Un-Oaked Style: Wines to Try
Chardonnay is planted in almost every wine-making region; however, it thrives in the clay and limestone soils found in Burgundy.
2. Subtle oak and a more approachable style
This style is most commonly found in the regions of the Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais. Most Americans know this style to be associated with the famous village of Pouilly-Fuissé, where a very balanced and value-driven style of Chardonnay is produced.
The Subtle Oak Style: Wines to Try
- Château-Fuissé, Tête de Cru, Pouilly-Fuissé, 2012, $30
- Cave de Viré, Viré-Clessé, Mâconnais, 2011, $17
- Domaine Faiveley, Mercurey Blanc, Côte Chalonnaise, 2011, $20
Chardonnay, resting in a dimly-lit, underground cave in French oak barrels, at Château Fuissé.
3. Rich oak and deep concentration
The Côte d'Or region of Burgundy produces some of the most complex and longest lived white wines in the world from the Chardonnay grape. Only the most intense Chardonnay grapes can stand up to this style of oak barrel maturation, but the resulting wines are at the pinnacle of the world's great whites.
The Rich Oak Style: Wines to Try
Tasting Notes on Chardonnay
In general, the Chardonnay from Burgundy is leaner in texture and higher in acidity than Chardonnay from other places in the world, as a result of the dramatic climate there. The typical Chardonnay aromatics of golden apple and citrus are coupled with notes of hazelnuts, truffles, and white flowers, very often with intense mineral undertones.
Try White Burgundy with Recipes from The Kitchn
One of my most memorable experiences on my trip to Burgundy was taking a guided tour of the Rock of Solutré with Hervé Josserand, "guide de pays," country guide. Almost everyone we encountered along the path sported a smile, once they spied his donkey in tow. Walking the land and viewing the vineyards gave me the best perspective of why the Chardonnay tastes the way it does.
→ Quick Resource: Having trouble deciphering a Burgundy wine label? Do you want to learn more about the wines of Burgundy, their characteristics, and the myriad appellations? Bourgogne Wines is an exceptional resource for further exploration.
7 More Things You May Not Know About Chardonnay
- Chardonnay is a major component in many of the world's sparkling wines, including Champagne. Want to enjoy bubbles from Burgundy? Look for value and quality in Crémant de Bourgogne.
- Chardonnay is malleable, expressing the characteristics of its environment and the winemaker's tendencies.
- Chardonnay noses and tastes its best at the right temperature: Un-oaked or light-bodied: 45-50 ºF, Oaked or full-bodied: 50-55 ºF.
- Chardonnay inspires many other products, aside from wine. Try Bissinger's Chardonnay Salted Caramels, Napa Soap Company's Chardonnay Soap, or Rewined soy wax Chardonnay candles.
- Chardonnay makes a great alcohol-free wine. Try Fre Wines' alcohol-removed Chardonnay, which preserves the grape's delicate aromas and flavors, sans buzz.
- Chardonnay makes a mean dessert wine. For a late-harvest treat, try the Stump Jump "Sticky" from D'Arenberg, "Joy" from Rombauer, or Steele's late-harvest Chardonnay.
- Chardonnay plays well with friends. Try the "Blindfold," a rich and sultry blend from the Prisoner Wine Company, made from Chardonnay and Rhône varietals.
(Image credits: Jayme Henderson)