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A neutral white that gets many of its traits from external factors, chardonnay has long been the backbone of Australia’s white wine industry. Its popularity and influence continues to be just as pronounced today as it has ever been.
Chardonnay is seen as a rite of passage for developing wine regions; the simplest way for a new locale to make itself known to the world. And it’s for this very reason that chardonnay was initially planted in New World regions such as Australia. But as our winemaking pedigree has evolved, so too have our chardonnays.
It’s a surprise for many to learn that as a grape, chardonnay is actually very neutral; it doesn’t have much inherent flavour at all. Its depth and complexity comes predominantly from external sources, such as terroir (the effect of the soil on the vines) and the barrels in which the wine is stored. It can be thought of as a blank canvas onto which a winemaker can paint whatever they choose.
It’s the most widely distributed variety of all, found in almost every wine growing region in the world. And it’s this combination of regional diversity and natural neutrality makes chardonnay such a truly unique and exciting varietal.
Of Croatian extraction
Until the introduction of modern DNA profiling the origins of chardonnay were a mystery. Lineages from Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus were argued, parallels were drawn between pinot blanc and muscat, and many vintners told stories of cuttings returning from the battlefields of the crusades.
The DNA evidence told a different story, however. Chardonnay, as it turned out, was a cross between French Pinot Noir and a little known Croatian grape gouais blanc, imported to Eastern France by the Romans.
An Australian love affair
Chardonnay, like many of Australia’s most famed varieties, landed on southern shores in the company of famed winemaking pioneer James Busby in 1832. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the grape began to come into its own. From experimental wines made in South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria. These beginnings - comparatively early when compared to the rest of the world – meant that Australian chardonnays were established enough to capitalise handsomely on the global chardonnay boom of the 80s and 90s.
During this time Australian chardonnays garnered global praise for their mix of commanding fruit notes and easy drinkability. During the boom the amount of chardonnay vines planted in Australia increased five-fold, and it remains our second most planted variety after only shiraz.
''A less ripe grape will give the wine fresh, crisp flavours, such as citrus and granny smith apple, while fruit picked later will have the fuller tones of guava, mango, peach and nectarine.''
A vine of versatility
Chardonnay can handle all manner of soils and climates, and is planted in some of the world’s coolest wine regions as well as some of the hottest. As a grape with a neutral flavour, it tends to take on different characteristics depending on where it is planted and how it is produced.
Thanks to the wide range of conditions in which chardonnay is planted, and the variety of unique techniques that are employed in the wine production processes in each of these locales, the breadth of flavour that different chardonnays of the world offer is incredible.
A flavour to savour
One of the biggest contributing factors to the eventual taste of chardonnay is when the grape is picked. A less ripe grape will give the wine fresh, crisp flavours, such as citrus and granny smith apple, while fruit picked later will have the fuller tones of guava, mango, peach and nectarine.
The oaky flavours that most people associate with Australian chardonnays are introduced by the barrel in which the wine is aged. This oak can express itself via hints of coconut, praline, biscuit and butter.
Acidity can range from medium-low for the oaked chardonnays of warm climates (the wines of Australia being the perfect example) to medium-high for unoaked chardonnays of cool climates (like the traditionally made French wines of Chablis and Loire). In Australia, however, wineries are favouring less oaked chardonnays in line with changing preferences.
Ideal food pairings include fresh, herby fish, lightly dressed green salads and soft cheeses.
- Chardonnay’s first big break came in 800 AD, when the wife of French Emperor Charlemagne, sick of red wine staining her husband’s white beard, ordered that white vines be planted in their Burgundy vineyard.
- The famous ‘Judgement of Paris’ wine competition was a blind tasting held in 1976. Confident of their superiority, French wine merchants put their finest wines, including chardonnay, up against those of America. The French lost every single category.
- The chardonnay boom of the 80s and 90s was counterbalanced with an anti-chardonnay movement. Organisations like ‘Anything but Chardonnay’ (ABC) enjoy committed membership bases to this day.
- Chardonnay currently makes up over half of Australia’s white wine production, accounting for 406,000 of the 808,000 tonnes of white wine grapes crushed in 2016.
- The story goes that famed Hunter Valley chardonnay pioneer Murray Tyrrell actually stole chardonnay clippings from Penfolds by jumping a fence. These went on to produce his famed Vat 47 Chardonnay.