The mofo guide to chardonnay
Chardonnay is the white wine for red drinkers. It may have fallen out of favour due to the excess of the 1980s, but the new wave of chardonnay has cemented its place as one of the great Australian styles. Whether it’s the leaner styles coming from the Yarra (elegance and citrus), or the fuller-bodied Hunter Valley beauts, to the icons of WA - the possibilities are endless. A fan of grigio or savvy b? Go for unoaked styles. Need something bolder? Look to WA, Hunter and Mornington. The King of white grapes is a complex, divisive and crowd-pleasing drop that's definitely worth exploring.
A brief history
Chardonnay originated in the Burgundy wine region of eastern France and has been around for a very, very long time with wine historians dating it back to around 1330. Celebrated as one of the most iconic white wines in the world, it’s hard to summarise chardonnay’s impact on the wine world. It can be found in every winemaking region globally and is the 5th most planted grape, with 198,000 hectares planted globally.
There is no grape that has been more of a victim of fashionable trends than chardonnay (remember ABC, Anything But Chardonnay?), but at the same time such a worldwide phenomenon. It’s used as the base wine for excellent bubbles, from Champagne, to the the Yarra Valley. It’s also a great mid-week quaffer and a wine that will age beautifully. It's also a representation of the vineyard, the climate and the winemaker more so than any other white wine, so it’s definitely worth trying a whole bunch of them (any excuse right?) and finding your favourite style. From the crisp, tart, lean wines of cool climate Chablis, to the creamy and buttery, oak bombs of California - there's a lot on offer.
Australia's premier wine regions
Yarra Valley, Victoria
A cool to moderate maritime climate with huge variation of soil, and altitude, chardonnay from the Yarra is generally a bit more lean. They use a bit of oak, and there is occasional partial malolactic fermentation (which makes it buttery). Generally, the wines have bright citrus flavours, lemon, grapefruit with a bit of minerality and medium to light bodied. They have a bright acidity that makes them refreshing and food friendly. Usually, if pinot noir excels in a region, chardy won’t be far off and the Yarra is no exception. Plus, they make some killer bubbles here in the traditional method.
Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
Similar to Yarra, Mornington has a cool to moderate maritime climate, with variations in the landscape impacting the warmth of the vineyards. In addition, the wineries here are boutique and small scale so they tend to be a lot more variable. Again, home to excellent pinot. Chardonnay from Mornington generally sees a bit more new oak used, so it's a touch more on the nose. Citrus fruit again, but more toward the grapefruit styles rather than lemon. Stone fruit also plays a part as well as apple and pear. They tend to be more medium bodied, and have high acidity which is softened by malolactic fermentation.
Margaret River, Western Australia
Arguably the most famous region (globally anyway) for chardonnay. A warm maritime climate, the fruit here gets riper. Stone fruit like peach, and nectarine dominate the nose, and usually there's a pretty decent amount of oak on the nose. Malolactic fermentation softens the vibrant acidity here, although not always. Chardy from Margies is concentrated, collectable and generally delicious.
Hunter Valley, New South Wales
The hot and humid climate of the Hunter produces a more unique style of chardonnay, more akin to the old school style, although some unoaked wines do come from here. Expect medium to fuller bodied wines, that have had a bit of barrel fermentation in french oak, ripe citrus and stone fruit on the nose, with hints of vanilla and creamy on the palate. If you’re into that fuller style, Hunter is probably the closest to that richer style.
Adelaide Hills, South Australia
A moderate climate and higher altitude than most of the wine growing areas of South Australia (generally vineyards are planted above 400m). Punchy chardonnays with peach, citrus and generally a touch of oak, these wines are refreshing and quaffable. A climate more suited to produce a more elegant style, Adelaide Hills chardonnay is ripe, fresh and medium bodied.
The jewel in Australia’s cool climate wine scene, expect excellent quality chardy with characteristic acidity, ripe citrus and mineral, silky textures. Tassie makes light to medium bodied chardonnay with hints of flinty, struck match character. But, I reckon the best way to enjoy it, is in a sparkling blanc de blanc, or any champagne method sparkling. It’s premium, and you’ll pay a bit more compared to other regions.
Other regions worth a look
Chardonnay is the most planted white grape in Australia, by quite a significant amount. You’ll find it in every region, and it’ll taste different in each one of them. Other South Australian wine regions are warm and chardonnay from these regions will be a bit bolder in flavour, with more tropical fruit and a creamier texture. Victorian wine regions produce so many different styles, with richer examples like those from Beechworth. If you’re feeling really adventurous, try some chardy from all over the world. No matter how you go about it, I guarantee you, there's a style and region that’ll suit your palate, even if you (think you) hate chardonnay.
5 Fun Facts
- Ever wondered what makes some chardies soft, round and buttery? It’s MLF, which isn’t what you’re thinking. MLF is short for malolactic fermentation, where malic acid (think green apples) is converted to lactic acid (think milk). Buttery, nutty flavours are a happy by-product.
- Chardonnay is pinot noir’s daughter. Yet the blending of the two is commonplace for Champagne and quality sparkling. Yep. It’s like Game of Thrones all over again (too soon?). A chance crossing of pinot noir with gouais blanc, chardonnay’s other siblings include gamay and blaufränkisch.
- Chardonnay was born in Burgundy. In the village of Chardonnay (‘Cardonnacum’ – meaning ’thistle-covered place – if you’re a Roman, but, you know… we’re not in Rome). It’s like the chicken and the egg, but the chardonnay and the Chardonnay. But which came first? Chardonnay, obviously.
- If reds give you a headache, chardy might too. Some chardonnays have heavy oak treatments, like many reds. This can raise levels of histamines, which make some mofos’ noggins hurt. If red keeps you in bed, beware the chardy at the party, too.
- Emperor Charlemagne’s fourth wife, Luitgard, was so disgusted by her husband’s red wine-stained white beard, that she ordered a section of their vineyard ripped up and replaced with chardonnay. Perhaps you’ve heard of Corton-Charlemagne? (If not, it’s considered one of the greatest white Burgundies around.) Praise Luitgard!
Start the chardy party
Chardonnay is the winemaker's wine because they choose every other aspect of the wine style beyond the grapes on the vines. If you like buttery chardonnay, ask about malolactic fermentation. If you’re after an oaky style, ask about the maturation time and what kind of oak. There are countless possibilities when it comes chard, so jump in and explore. Get started with our Around the World with Chardonnay mixed pack here.