Regular readers might accuse us of saying some hurtful things about chardonnay – that buttery oak syrup of a wine so often found in cheap magnums on the kitchen counters of the quietly desperate.
But really, we like chardonnay. At least some chardonnay.
Okay, so maybe we do hate a LOT of chardonnays.
But really, we do like chardonnay, the grape. We just can’t stand what a lot of lazy winemakers do to it.
For chardonnay, on its own, doesn’t have a strong flavor profile – which makes it, at once, one of the most versatile wine grapes, while also the most abused.
More on that in a moment. But first… How much sugar is added to your wine?
This week, resident wine expert Julien Miquel gives us the facts on added sugars in wine… from old (bad) winemaking habits… to current regulations… wine regions that allow added sugar (and why that’s ok)... and the secret sweet ingredient in “dry” champagne…
The wine we love to hate (Continued)
This week we stay in France, and plunge down a brief rabbit hole into Burgundy’s white grape, chardonnay.
(Notice that we don’t capitalize the “C” in chardonnay. It’s not the name of a place or appellation like, say, Chianti. Would you capitalize the “m” in maple tree?)
Chardonnay is the closest a white grape can get to producing a red wine. Like reds, chardonnays tend towards a bigger body with a more complex flavor profile. Unlike many whites, they can also improve with age (try a 2013 or 2016 Chablis).
Longtime Partnership members may remember our Moutard champagne (French Collection, 2019), or our Corpinnat sparkler from cava exiles Torelló (Spanish Collection, 2021), or our Sonoma Coast Durell (American Collection, 2020), or the Landy Sonoma Coast (Alta California Collection, 2021).
All chardonnays. The Californians we remember fondly, as they had none of the oak butter bomb qualities we often associate with Californian chardonnays. Being from Sonoma, specifically the bit sitting closest to the cool, foggy coastline, those wines took their cues from Burgundy, producing leaner, more mineral wines higher in acidity.
Chardonnay’s origins have been the subject of speculation. Could it be related to pinot noir or pinot blanc (due to its links to Burgundy and the shape of its leaves)? Or is it, rather, a cousin of muscat? Did it once grow in Syria and Lebanon, its name derived from the Hebrew sha’har Adonai (meaning “gate of God”)?
DNA analysis now tells us that chardonnay’s parents are pinot noir and a white grape called gouais blanc. You’ve likely never heard of the latter. Almost no one grows it anymore. Before the 19th century phylloxera blight wiped it out of France entirely, gouais grew as a peasant wine in Burgundy, in close proximity to the pinot noir enjoyed by aristocrats. The two did not cross just once to produce chardonnay but had an ongoing affair producing a big family of hybrids, including aligoté. (Gouais got around. A cross with the German grape traminer produced riesling.)
While chardonnay’s origins are now known, the mystery and speculation continue with its parent gouais. In the 3rd century, the Roman Emperor Probus rescinded a decree from his predecessor Domitian banning grape cultivation north of the Alps. As part of the deal, he gifted the Gauls grape vines of an indeterminate varietal. “Ampelographers” (grape vine historians) guess the varietal might have been gouais, brought from either the Mediterranean’s eastern fringe or Croatia. Alternatively, gouais may have originated in central Europe and simply migrated west.
Today gouais has almost entirely disappeared. Phylloxera destroyed the plots in France. There it exists only as a specimen at an institute in Montpellier. A few vineyards persist in Switzerland, along with one in Australia. We considered tracking down a bottle, but as gouais never had a great reputation even at the height of its production, the effort likely wouldn’t be worth the pay off. Still, if we find one, we’ll let you know.
A century or so after gouais disappeared, chardonnay’s fortunes began to rise. In the mid 20th century, chardonnay barely existed outside Burgundy. But after Californians and Wall Street “Masters of the Universe” developed a taste for heavily oaked and buttered chardonnays in the 80s (Jordan being the white wine of that era), the varietal took off in the US and Australia. (European vineyards tend to be constricted in what varietals they can plant by their appellation’s rules.)
Today chardonnay is the 5th most planted varietal in the world, and the 2nd most planted white after airén (don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it, airén is only found in Spain). The preference for oak and butter continues to dominate with winemakers oaking their wines with reckless abandon.
Oak chips in chardonnay
Winemakers love chardonnay – firstly because it grows well in almost any winegrowing region (provided enough sun exposure), and secondly because chardonnay is kind of like a balloon animal. Its juice can be bent into all manner of shape by the winemaker, from ultra-oaky and buttery to lean and crisp. (The butter comes from malolactic fermentation whereby sharp malic acids convert to soft lactic acids.)
For the best of chardonnay, we would refer you to the style made in Burgundy, specifically Chablis (with its limestone kimmeridgian soil), which uses no oak. Outside of France, look southern facing plots in cooler weather climates, where heavy helpings of fog settle over the vines in the morning then burn off over the course of the day (e.g. the fog that drifts in from the Pacific on the Sonoma coast). A wide day/night temperature swing (like those found at high altitudes in Argentina) can achieve a similar effect.
Yes, here at the Partnership chardonnay is the wine we love to hate. But at its best, chardonnay is perhaps the most rewarding white grape in the world.
Until next week,
The Wine Explorer
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