Chardonnay, the most international and glamorous white

The Chardonnay grape is the queen of the white varieties and the most planted grape in the world, even more so than the Spanish Airén. It originates in the French region of Burgundy, close to the town it shares its name with, Chardonnay, where the Romans started cultivating it. The strain was known as Chaudenet or Chardenay until the Ampelographic Congress in Chalon-Sur-Saône in 1896 set the name that it carries today.

Studies show that Chardonnay is a product of cross-pollination between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc grapes, the latter of which is currently almost extinct.

Chardonnay

This is the official version but the quality and international presence of the grape have given rise to various myths and legends about its origin such as the one that claims that the strain came from vineyards in Lebanon, Syria or that it is perhaps a native vine of Cyprus, and that it was brought to Europe by fighters returning from The Crusades.

In those times in Jerusalem there were eight gates, among them the “Gate of the Tower of David” or “Gate of God” where the road leads to the port of Jaffa, in the Mediterranean, that is, the gate the pilgrims came through when they arrived from Europe. Vines grew on both sides of this road, and their golden fruit won over the palate of the warriors who came to participate in The Crusades.

The Hebrew name for this gate, “Shaar Adonay”, and its pronunciation “Shardonnay”, could have given the strains along the path their name until it became what it is today: Chardonnay.

Many of the knights who came to fight in the Crusades were noblemen who belonged to the Order of the Poor Companions of Christ and the Temple of Solomon (Order of the Temple). In fact, Hugo de Payns, its founder, was related to the Count of Champagne, so it would not be difficult to imagine that this strain could have travelled from the East to Champagne, where it is considered a flagship grape and one that has made the region so well known.

The story might end with this romantic twist that says that Theobald IV “The Troubadour” , who was the Count of Champagne and Brie, was in love with Blanche of Castille, queen consort and later the wife of Louis VIII “Saint Louis”, King of France and mother of King Louis IX.

To demonstrate his loyalty to the king, Theobald joined The Crusade in 1239.

When the Count of Champagne returned to his homeland he did so with two treasures: a Damascus rose and an unknown strain that is considered to be the predecessor of the Chardonnay variety. This contribution has since linked him to one of the most famous houses in Champagne: the Maison Taittinger, where they make a cuvée, the Comptes de Champagne, as a tribute to the Counts of Champagne and specifically to Theobald IV whose image appears on the seal around the neck of all the bottles made there.

What is the Chardonnay grape like?

This strain offers small and compact clusters of oval grains with fine, yellow-green skin.

It emerges early, which could endanger it during spring frosts, but it nevertheless copes very well with the rigours of winter.

Because the clusters and berries are small, it has great potential for quality that allows for the production of high quality wines and in very diverse styles ranging from dry white to sparkling wines to sweet liqueur wines.

If it is vinified without time in a barrel, it creates wines that offer hints of pineapple, apple pie, lemon and sometimes pear, peach, or passion fruit, depending on the area where the vines are grown.

When it is harvested early it offers little body and some acidity, so it is excellent for the production of sparkling wines such as Champagne.

When the clusters are harvested at their optimum ripening point, they can offer wines with hints of freshly prepared pastries, butter or hazelnuts.

The Chardonnay variety by itself is very neutral, offering the aromas and flavours usually associated with grapes. This quality also makes it an expert in expressing the character of the terroir it comes from and the influence of the winemaking and aging processes, so it is perfect for fermenting and aging in oak where it acquires body and the aromas balance well with those of the wood, revealing notes of vanilla, caramel butter (toffee), lemon, smoke, cream, toast, butter or even coconut, clove and cinnamon. These wines usually improve after resting in the bottle for three to five years.

On the palate it is subtle, with no aggressive acidity and no particularly strong taste of its own. It offers us flavours that make us think of apples, citrus fruits, melons, pears, honey, wax, caramel and hints of some mineral notes depending on the area where it was grown.

What can we drink Chardonnay wines with?

Wines made with this variety moderate the sensation of intense spices in some dishes and intensify creamy textures and flavours. They are the perfect wines to accompany lobster, for example.

Barrel-aged Chardonnays, like some from Burgundy, Australia and California, are bolder wines that go well with crab, pasta with seafood or clams, fish such as halibut, and even with pork dishes. Vegans will find a good pairing with vegetables with a high starch content like corn or pumpkin. It would also go very well with mushrooms.

Wines that have not been aged, like some from Chablis, Chile, New Zealand and some parts of France and Spain, combine wonderfully with raw seafood, sauteed fish, poultry, pâtés and dishes like sushi or vegetable risotto.

And one of the best pairings is Chardonnay and cheese, especially cheeses like Brie.

Why has the Chardonnay grape been so internationally successful?

The Burgundy white grape is more versatile than Pinot Noir and has been able to grow and ripen without difficulty almost everywhere except at the edges of areas suitable for viticulture. Although it adapts to almost all soils, it usually prefers those with chalk, clay and limestone, such as those in its native Burgundy.

However, wines that are made with it in cold climates are more sought after than those from warmer areas. With cooler climates the strain maintains acidity while ripening but in warmer areas the Chardonnay loses that acidity and produces fruity wines but with less structure.

The flavour is subtle, which makes it the most popular white wine grape in the world. Not having such high intensity works perfectly with fermentation and aging in oak barrels.

Its success also lies in the fact that wines made from this variety have an “easy entry” into the commercial world for new winemakers or developing winemakers.

Do you want to know some interesting facts about this highly international white?

The Chardonnay grape is so captivating and elegant that some of the most expensive white wines in the world are made with it.

It is the most planted grape in California, and you would think it also dominates in France. But there it takes second place, behind the Ugni Blanc variety.

This strain destroys myths because the low oxygen allows production of white wines with ample aging capacity which, after a few years in the bottle, can be even more spectacular than their young versions.

The wine that is made with it is better known as “Chardonnay” than by the designation of origin where it is produced. Its name, especially in New World wines, such as those from California, sells itself.

As well as that, the strain is the only one that is known as the same thing all over the world. It does not just have synonyms as with other varieties that are known by different names depending on the area where they are grown.

It is used to being the undisputed protagonist of hundreds of wines but it is also part of coupages where, being considered a noble variety, it is used to enhance, if possible, the virtues of the final product.

Its fame has spread so much that Chardonnay is even used in the United Kingdom as a baby name, thanks to one of the characters from the television show “Footballers’ Wives”.

Today there may be around 160,000 hectares of the Chardonnay variety planted around the world.

 

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