What is Chardonnay Wine?
Chardonnay is one of the most popular white wines in Australia. Originating in the famed French wine region of Burgundy, this green-skinned grape is known for its versatility, being cultivated from regions as diverse as the South of England to New Zealand’s South Island.
Terroir influences the characteristics of the wine but the methods used by winemakers are equally significant. Chardonnay’s neutral flavour profile acts as a blank canvas and is a boon to growers and makers alike. The result is a wine so varied that the appropriate response to the claim ‘I like Chardonnay’ is ‘Yes, but what kind?’
The 1980's saw a gold rush of Chardonnay in Australia. Generous oak exposure made for complexions of deep yellow, butter on the palate and toffee on the nose. This rich style, or perhaps its popularity, led to some wine lovers pinning their colours to the ‘Anything but Chardonnay’ (ABC) movement.
This period was followed by an oversupply of adventurous Chardonnay as producers responded to a growing consumer market. The result was too many two-dimensional wines lacking the kind diversity and complexity that Chardonnay can achieve. Today Australia makes world-class Chardonnay favouring balance, elegance and freshness over boldness.
Common Chardonnay Wine characteristics
Owing to the versatility of the grape, the flavours and aromas of Chardonnay can change from region to region and winemaker to winemaker. Chardonnay can be divided into three subcategories: oaked, unoaked and somewhere in between.
Before tasting and smelling the wine, oaked Chardonnay can be apparent through its slightly darker, more golden colour. The age of the oak and the duration of exposure changes the wine, imbuing it with vanilla or cedar characters and great textural complexity.
Unoaked Chardonnay has a lighter, clearer complexion. The presence of steel barrels during winemaking allows the wine to retain the taste of fruit as well as its characteristic acidity. The winemakers of Chablis in France favour this method.
Then there’s the third way – somewhere in between. Owing to partial barrel fermentation and greater restraint from winemakers, this style of Chardonnay can result in stronger, full-bodied wines with great character and complexity.
Pairing food with Chardonnay Wine
The variety of Chardonnay styles means there are no rules when pairing with food. There are however some guidelines and the “white with white” approach has some resonance. White meats like chicken and fish pair readily and well with Chardonnay. Creamier sauces also work well with aged Chardonnays.
Spicy Asian food is a better match for leaner, more restrained Chardonnays with their characteristic acidity. Less complex, more accessible Chardonnays offer crisp, clean taste and work well with salads and can provide relief from deliciously sticky textures of barbecued meats.
Notable Chardonnay Wine regions
Cooler climates such as Yarra Valley, Tasmania, Eden Valley and Limestone Coast (Mount Benson, Padthaway, Coonawarra) tend to produce more austere wines with cleaner finishes of white fruit. Warmer regions like the Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley and Riverina produce riper fruit thus more rich and decadent wines with characteristics of tropical fruit, toast, honey and spices. Margaret River, Great Southern and Frankland River in Western Australia produce powerful yet restrained Chardonnay.
New Zealand, mainly Marlborough, favours big, bold, fruity Chardonnay. Often, the liberal application of oak makes the wines from this region more ephemeral but offer greater complexity at a younger age.
France, more specifically Burgundy, is home to some of the best Chardonnays in the world, commonly known as White Burgundy. The wines from Cotes du Beaune are sublimely complex, elegant and age gracefully. Champagne is of course, one of the most famous wines to use the Chardonnay grape.
The future of Chardonnay Wine
Australian winemakers are changing preconceptions about Chardonnay in the best way possible; by producing quality wines like the expressive cooler-climate varieties reflecting region and season. The industry is challenging wine lovers to ask more about and demand more from Chardonnay. Australia’s most popular white wine grape will continue adorn tables at home and abroad.