Jeff Flowers on August 18, 2017 1 Comment Oh Chardonnay, noble child of Burgundy — what a long, strange trip it’s been. This is a truly world-dominating grape, which has crossed the globe and which is grown in every wine producing country there is. Chardonnay vines are found in more wine regions than any other varietal; they’ve been the bedrock of some of the finest Old World wine regions, and they’ve taken New World countries to new heights. But on top of this, Chardonnay has been vilified and venerated more than any other grape – it has gone through peaks and troughs, and has been at the fickle mercies of fashion and taste unlike anything else in the world of viticulture. Why? Because here we have a truly versatile fruit, capable of great expression, and able to adapt to many styles. Let’s take a look at the history of this controversial – but much loved – grape, and uncover the secrets of its high and low points. The Origins of Chardonnay Chardonnay is a green-skinned grape which takes its name from a commune — also, named Chardonnay — in the Mâconnais region found in the southernmost parts of Burgundy. To this day, the town of Mâcon, and the surrounding region, is dominated by fine Chardonnay plantings, and it is here where you still find some of the most awe-inspiring uses of this grape today. Chardonnay is one of the noble grapes, and its origins are very old indeed, stretching back almost a thousand years. Only recently did scientists uncover the fascinating history of this vine, something which was shrouded in mystery until genetic testing arose and unlocked many of the secrets of oenology. This grape varietal is a crossbreed; half Pinot Noir, half Gouais Blanc – a fruit which is believed to have originated in Croatia, and which was spread throughout the Roman empire by those great viticultural pioneers around two thousand years ago, before slipping to near extinction. The Birth of the Chardonnay Grape During the Middle Ages, Pinot Noir was considered a fine, but tricky grape. Difficult to grow, full of juicy softness, and a regular feature in the goblets of the landowners and the aristocracy. Gouais Blanc, on the other hand, was the peasant’s choice, due to its high yields and hardiness, and simple flavors which wouldn’t challenge even the simplest of palates. Somewhere along the line — whether intentionally or purely by chance — these two vines cross-pollinated, and the Chardonnay grape was born. Interestingly, these two ‘parent grapes’ sired many more varietals over the years, including Sacy, Aligote, Melon de Bourgogne, Romorantin and the more famous and widely celebrated Gamay grapes of Beaujolais. How Cistercian Monks Brought Chardonnay to the Modern Age Now, Chardonnay was a good grower, and was quick to delight the farmers of the time. It had the hardiness of the Gouais Blanc and the finesse of the Pinot Noir, meaning it was almost immediately popular with vintners who wanted to make good wine, and plenty of it. It’s generally believed that the grape’s first champions were the Cistercian monks, who in the 14th century set up the first Chardonnay vineyards where the sole emphasis was on the development of this particular species of vine. Indeed, it was these monks who also first recognized that different vineyards planted with the same grapes produced different results, due to variations in microclimate and soil type — the concept of terroir was born with them and their Chardonnay grapes, it seems. Chardonnay continued to be cultivated and vinified in Burgundy, and probably went through several transformations which have been lost in time. As is the case with almost all of the wines which were made before wine records began. We do know that it was here in Burgundy, however, where Chardonnay was first blended with its parent grape Pinot Noir in order to produce Champagne, a momentous event which helped Chardonnay become one of the most in-demand varietals in the world and inspired sparkling wines forever after. Modern Day Chardonnay Closer to the modern day, the phylloxera virus almost completely wiped out Gouais Blanc. Chardonnay survived, and was taken overseas as one of the leading New World grape varietals, transported by immigrants with a mind to set up wineries in Australia and the Americas, with a fast-moving rate of success which typified New World wine production from then on. The 20th century was a rocky one – temperance movements, prohibition and war all stunted the wine industry, and it wasn’t really until the 1960s that things took off again in North America, and even more recently in the lands down under. No matter, though – Chardonnay was definitely at the forefront of this new age of wine. The Era of Decadence & Excess The 1980s was an age of excess, and from Sydney to Boston, London to Moscow, wine drinking was in fashion in a way it had never been before. During this decade, Chardonnay wine production was seriously big business, as the huge multinational wine conglomerates first began to raise their heads and flood the supermarkets with affordable bottles. The Backlash of “Big Business” Chardonnay Big business means bigger profit margins, which means less care and attention… and the Chardonnays of the ’80s were not the refined wines they once were. Heavily oaked, packed full of creamy, buttery malolactic character, Chardonnay was becoming almost a sweet wine due to the amount of residual sugar being kept in the bottle. There was a reason for this; people like sweet, ripe, uncomplicated things, and Chardonnay was leading the profiteering revolution designed to get the mass populous drinking wine. Chardonnay became, as I call it, wine for people who don’t really like wine. As with anything which becomes widely popular, there was a sudden and harsh backlash. People starting associating Chardonnay with a low class, ignorant sort of wine drinking, and this vehemence even ended up with its own acronym: ABC – ‘Anything But Chardonnay’. Despite the viciousness of the campaign against Chardonnay, the grape still remained popular and kept a devoted fan-base, but the damage was done when it came to more serious wine-drinkers. Chardonnay was off the finer menus of the world. How Wineries Adjusted to ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ It wasn’t long before the ABC ideology reached the wineries themselves, who must have been saddened by the negative press their wines were beginning to receive. Their response was to begin to experiment with different ways of presenting this grape, and ways to justify their belief in their fruit. This was a fine, old noble grape, after all – it deserved a better reputation, and its character deserved to be expressed properly in the bottle. As such, we began to see a new wave of Chardonnay hit the shelves over the past fifteen years or so – less oak, more elegance, freshness and acidity, allowing the best features of the fruit to come forward. The butter bombs of the past are now rare to find, as the fashion today is for dryness, minerality and sharp, steely characteristics which pair beautifully with food. Growing Regions & The Versatility of Chardonnay The Chardonnay grape was the first, truly international varietal, and its flexibility and versatility was only really first revealed when it was moved to different climes. In moderate climatic conditions, plenty of tropical fruit character tends to come forward, but too much heat and the grape ripens too quickly, thus losing its balances. Vintners have to be very careful when working with Chardonnay, as this is an easily-ripening varietal which needs precise timing when it comes to harvest. Just a couple of days too late, and the grape produces flabby, lifeless wines with no acidity or bite. When you think about where Chardonnay comes from, it really is no surprise that this is a grape which reaches its zenith in cooler climates. Burgundy is a drizzly, cold corner of France, and it is in regions which have similar climatic conditions to its home turf where Chardonnay tends to do best. Being a highly expressive grape, soil type also plays a key role when it comes to defining the character of the wine. Limestone and chalk soils bring out a beautiful minerality to Chardonnay, along with a citrus sharpness which is very much the flavor of the moment. Stunning results are currently coming out of slightly unexpected wine regions around the world – Canada’s British Columbia is producing some astonishingly good Chardonnay at the moment, as is the east coast of England. Chardonnay: The Gateway Grape? All in all, Chardonnay is what vintners want it to be. This highly flexible, beautifully elegant and acidic grape has influenced the world of wine over many centuries, lending finesse to Champagne and balance to plenty of other white blends you see today. And, it continues to impress now, in the 21st century, in single varietal wines. This is essentially a gateway grape — for wine makers and drinkers alike — one which opens the doors of wine to the world. It swings between the finest of the fine – Montrachet, for example: one of the greatest white wines on earth – to the supermarket plonk which graces the tables of every New Year’s Eve party from Brisbane to Bristol. It can be bone dry or sweeter than sweet, it can be oaked and unoaked, it can be buttery and flabby, or long and elegant. Popular, polarizing, adored and despised — Chardonnay is certainly one thing above all others; it is versatile, and never unable to elicit an opinion.