As part of the French Winophiles group this month, we are celebrating Chardonnay wine and the anniversary of the Judgement of Paris (May 24, 1976).
Many joke that Chardonnay is the chicken of wine grapes. In fact, like chicken, this white variety has a rather neutral, mild character, that serves as a good base for some creativity. Winemakers do all kinds of things to it to give it a character – malolactic fermentation, batonnage (lees stirring), and barrel aging. And perhaps because of this flexibility Chardonnay is one of the most widely grown grape varieties in the world with over 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares) planted in 42 countries.
While Chardonnay originates from France, much of its popularity in the U.S. comes from California. Contrary to what many might think, first plantings of Chardonnay were not in Napa, but outside of San Francisco in Palo Alto, Livermore Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, and Sonoma. Pioneers such as C. H. Wente, Robert Livermore, Charles Wetmore and Paul Masson planted Chardonnay in the late 1800s into early 1900s.
There was not much varietal labeling of wines back then, with one of the first being a Wente 1936 Chardonnay.
After prohibition, prominent East Coast wine broker Frank Schoonmaker was influential in having his selected wines labeled with founder name, grape variety, producer and region. His portfolio included Wente, Martini, Inglenook, Paul Masson plus others. He thought about educating consumers and developing brand awareness back then!
The Chardonnay-based wines from the Chablis region of France were also popular in the U.S. Capitalizing on this name recognition, Beaulieu Vineyard produced their Beaulieu Chablis in Napa, although it was made from Melon de Bourgogne and Aligoté (called Chardonnay in Napa early on), Chenin Blanc and Riesling.
Beaulieu Chablis was such an important wine it was served to Winston Churchill and his son on a trip through Washington into California. Photo courtesy of UC Davis Digital Library Special Collections.
In 1953 Ambassador James Zellerbach established Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma where he planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir after traveling through Europe and becoming a fan of Burgundy wines. He was the first one to import French wood and develop Burgundian winemaking techniques – use of temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks and a small amount of new oak barrels for fermentation, malolactic fermentation (ML), and aging in older barrels for fresh and pure flavored wines.
Eventually, California Chardonnay starting making a name for itself. In 1971, a young California food and wine grocer named Darrell Corti participated in a tasting of six Chardonnay in Beaune, France, two of which he brought. Afterwards, he got some interesting feedback.
“They didn’t want to make typical Burgundian wines, they wanted to make clean wines. That’s a very telling statement from a winemaker. Manuel (René Manuel) made absolutely terrific wine — terrific Meursault. The cleanliness of our wines was what was so striking to Europeans.”Darrell Corti
Then in 1976 the famous Judgement of Paris happened. At this small, but important wine tasting with French wine experts, both California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon were judged against French White Burgundy and Bordeaux wines… and surprise… the Napa wines won both categories! There is a great deal written about the Judgement, which launched California wines onto the world stage. To learn more, click here.
Evolution of Styles
In the 70’s, Saratoga California based vintner Martin Ray fermented his wines in barrel with no ML and much fresh tasting success. Unfortunately, he lost his winery and the estate was renamed Mount Eden. During this time the stored wines accidentally went through ML and the new owners liked the effect, which creates rounder wines and buttery flavors. This flavor combined with those from the oak became their winery style. As popularity of this style grew, so did thoughts of more is better. Thus, depending on the winery, Chardonnay with buttery and oaky flavors became more prominent.
Malolactic fermentation is the result of the more acidic malic acid being converted into the more creamy, less astringent lactic acid during a fermentation process. Years ago it was called the spring time of the wine; warming spring temperatures would kick this fermentation process off. The temperature range for ML to kick off ranges from 20 and 37 °C (68 and 99 °F).
The late 1980’s into the 90’s, however, an increase in University of California Davis educated and research-oriented winemakers taking up winery positions in California saw a shift back away from this style towards more freshness and varietal character. Even at Mount Eden, Jeff Patterson who became their winemaker in the 80’s began picking Chardonnay grapes earlier to preserve freshness and acidity.
Aside from the development of Chardonnay in California, Chardonnay is grown all over the world and produced in both still and sparkling wine styles.
What’s In My Glass?
Chardonnay’s aromatic flavor profile spans a wide array of fruits. Cooler climates result in green and citrus fruits (the Chablis region is a great example of the lighter-bodied Chardonnay) while in warmer areas (certain regions in California and Australia) it tends towards tropical and stone fruits. Many other aromas and flavors exist beyond this primary fruit spectrum, depending on where it is grown and the site-specific terroir.
Here is a sampling of wines we tasted to pique your desire.
From Chablis – a distinct lean and stony (crisply mineral) character – Domaine Gueguen 2020 Chablis (Read more about this wine here):
Examples of production areas for this type of cooler climate Chardonnay: France (Chablis, Champagne, northern Burgundy), California (Mendocino County, Sonoma Coast plus others), Oregon (Willamette Valley), New York (Finger Lakes, Long Island), Italy (Trentino-Alto Adige), Chile (Limarí, Aconcagua, Casablanca Valley), South Africa (Elgin and Walker Bay).
From Chile’s Casablanca Valley – bright, sleek and rich with a creamy mouthfeel – Casas del Bosque Estate Gran Reserva Chardonnay:
From Italy’s Sudtirol-Alto Adige – Stony and bright, ripe fruited, soft and round mouthfeel – Colterenzio Lafoa Chardonnay (Read more about it here):
From Calistoga in Napa – Bright, tart, ripe with a focused, vibrant and rich body – Schramsberg 2004 Late Disgorged, 50th Anniversary Blanc de Blancs, exquisite!:
From Champagne – fresh and clean Chardonnay zing layered with orchard fruit, toast and a creamy mouthfeel – Michel Gonet 2016 Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut:
From Saint Aubin in Burgundy – fresh and bright with stony minerality and a rich, round mouthfeel – Domaine Hubert Lamy, 1er cru Les Murgers des Dents de Chiens, 2009 (read more about this wine here):
From the Sonoma Coast – zesty, bright citrus with tropical fruits balance with sleek acidity and a round mouthfeel – viticulturist and winemaker Greg La Folette, Alquimista Cellars Haiku Vineyard Chardonnay (Greg is now at Marchelle Wines):
Interesting to note the Chardonnay Mark and I drink tend to come from cooler climate areas. We prefer those, yet don’t pass tasting Chardonnay from warmer locations, whose flavors move toward riper citrus, stone fruit, melon and tropical fruit. If they go through malolactic fermentation (ML), they will have softer acidity and a rounder body. If oak is used in addition to ML, you get a light buttery flavor.
Examples of where warmer climate Chardonnay is grown include, but are not limited to:
- Australia (Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale)
- New Zealand (Marlborough, Gisborne)
- California (Central Coast and Valley, Napa Valley floor, Lodi, Temecula plus others)
- Spain (Aaragon).
~ ~ ~ French Winophiles share Chardonnay! ~ ~ ~
A Tale of Two Chardonnays: From France’s Pays d’Oc and California’s Russian River Valley #Winophiles from Camilla at Culinary Cam
Chardonnay Day with Domaine Charton-Vachet Montagny Cuvee from Deanna at Wineivore
Chardonnay: Old World vs New World in Today’s World from Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm
Chardonnay Unites Us More than it Divides from Susannah at Avinnare
How to Think About the 1976 Judgement of Paris in 2023 from Jeff at Food Wine Click!
No to Chardonnay? Don’t Be So Judgy! from Cathie at Side Hustle Wino
Celebrating Chardonnay from Gwendolyn at Wine Predator
Chardonnay – Rich Wine, Rich History (you are here)
Toasting Chateau Montelena Years After the Judgment on Chardonnay Day from Katrina at The Corkscrew Concierge
- UC Davis Interview with Darrell Corti
- Savor California’s Vanishing Chardonnay article
- Jancis Robinson, The Story of California Chardonnay (Part 1-3, Elaine Chukan Brown)
- Focus OIV 2017, Distribution of the world’s grapevine varieties