If you go out to a restaurant and order the house white there’s a very good chance it will be a glass of chardonnay.
Chardonnay is a white grape that comes from an impossibly small village in the Burgundy region of France. The village’s name? You guessed it, Chardonnay.
Why is chardonnay, which is quite possibly the most famous white wine in the world, named after a hamlet of only 176 inhabitants in rural France? While we can’t prove it - because the truth is lost to history - the grape we call chardonnay is most likely from southern Burgundy and is a cross between two indigenous French varieties, pinot noir and gouais blanc.
In one of my columns, I described pinot noir as having a promiscuous ability to spontaneously cross. This time, it crossed with a fairly average grape, grown mostly as a table fruit, called gouais blanc. This cross made chardonnay, and this is an interesting love story.
When the Romans taught the Gauls to make wine they selected the wild growing pinot noir. When the Benedictine monks at the medieval abbey of Cluny needed wine for the sacrament, they used pinot noir. And when you went to the court of the King of France you were served a goblet of pinot noir. But if you were a subsistence farmer, and you had hungry children to feed, you planted gouais blanc because it was everything pinot noir wasn’t.
It wasn’t hard to grow, it didn’t bud too early, it was frost hardy and it grew vigorously. It had the added benefit that if you were struggling to feed your family, fruit, not wine, is what you needed. You can imagine then, that pinot noir and gouais blanc were cultivated very closely together, one grape for Caesar, God and nobility; the other for everyone else. This proximity made the cross we call chardonnay.
Pinot Noir has been described as lavish, artistic and sensual, but it is also fickle, difficult to grow and susceptible to disease. While gouais blanc was hardy and vigorous it was also bland. Chardonnay inherited the best qualities of its parents: an excellent grape for wine, easy to grow, frost tolerant and resistant to disease. While starting with good genetics is the basis for most extraordinary life on our planet, there is often a twist that makes the offspring completely unique.
The twist for chardonnay is that it doesn’t have a dominant flavor of its own. It can take on a multitude of aromas and flavors depending on where it is grown and it can be greatly influenced by the winemaker. When grown in a cool climate it can taste lean and tart. When grown in a warm climate it can taste bold and rich.
The grape can also be heavily influenced by the use of oak in fermentation and maturation. Unoaked chardonnays from Australia often exhibit tropical fruit notes such as pineapple and banana while the same examples from France’s Chablis region are earthly or flinty with aromas of lemon, pear and green apple. Oaked California chardonnay can be big and bold with the flavors of butter and toast; oaked Burgundies exhibit velvet smoothness and butterscotch candy. Finally, chardonnay is a key partner that forms the triumvirate that makes Champagne. Champagne is a blend of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. And in Champagne, chardonnay is also bottled as a single varietal noted on the label as Blanc de Blanc.
This grape runs the gamut from subtle to spicy, from lean to rich and forms the basis for the best sparkling wines in the world. You can buy chardonnay from every wine-producing country and the prices can range from $4 for a friendly Australian version with an animal on the label to $400 for the best Burgundy has to offer. I’d pair chardonnay with creamy pasta, anything buttery, salads, cheese, seafood or poultry.
David Devere is teaching wine classes locally. Contact him at email@example.com or visit savvynomad.com for the schedule and register for a class.