February’s 29 days of Chardonnay
a collaborative project
Chardonnay Around the World: a Snapshot of Regional Profiles, an excerpt
Authored by Michelle Cherutti-Kowal
…New oak, use of lees ageing and malolactic notes are more pronounced. Although most communes in the Côtes de Nuits produce both red and white wines, iconic Chardonnay styles are produced in the Côtes de Beaune where the soil contains more limestone. Along the border of Côtes de Nuits and Côtes de Beaune are three Grand Cru climats on the hills of Corton, as well as noted villages like Pernand-Vergelesses, Aloxe-Corton and Ladoix. Given the area’s size, wines vary greatly in quality and style. In general, they display minerality without the same flesh or broadness in the mouth found in more southern communes. Their profiles are sinewy, so winemaking techniques can dominate rather than complement the wines, especially in cooler years. Still, in the right hands the best wines are elegant, precise and lingering.
Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet
A trio of southern villages – Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet – encapsulate the region’s reputation and it is no surprise that most Grand Cru climats are located here. Although different in character, Meursault has a voluptuous palate usually enhanced by more of toasty oak. Chassagne-Montrachet has more breadth and weight mixed with soft fruit surrounded by tension, while Puligny-Montrachet is highly strung and nervy yet elegant, because of colder soils due to the higher water table in the vineyards.
You could include Saint-Aubin in this mix for finesse and a palate of white flowers, although its lacks the intensity of the previous examples. Most of the five prestigious Grand Cru climats are shared by Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny- Montrachet. Le Montrachet wines are like an iron fist in a velvet glove, dense and tight, while Chevalier-Montrachet also has taut structure but with more perfume. These wines get the full treatment by the winemaker barrel fermentation and maturation in new oak, lees stirring (bâtonnage) and malolactic fermentation. They require time to develop in the bottle so as to smooth out the edges given both by terroir and oak. The three other vineyards Bâtard-Montrachet, Bienvenue- Bâtard-Montrachet and Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet are not as expansive as Le Montrachet. Bâtard is the most mouth filling of the three but somewhat angular; Bienvenue-Bâtard and Criots-Bâtard are slightly lighter but display elegance with a hint of delicacy, especially in moderate vintages that require a lighter touch from the winemaker.
Despite differences between north and south, the common thread throughout the Côte d’Or is taut minerality balanced by vibrant acidity, giving this region’s Chardonnays their uniqueness and longevity.
Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais
Further south, daylight hours are slightly longer with the defining slope of the Côte d’Or fading into a more pastoral landscape. The outcrops of limestone planted with vines form the link between the Côte Chalonnaise, the Mâconnais and their northern cousins. At regional level, the wines are light and simple, often vinified in stainless steel tanks to preserve the fruity character of ripe apples and crisp acidity. In cooler years these wines can resemble Petit Chablis or even Chablis. At village level, Rully and Montagny (Côte Chalonnaise) and Pouilly- Fuissé (Mâconnais) are noted communes. Rully, closest to the Côte d’Or, has a stony periphery with crisp acidity. The best producers can coax a depth of flavour in the mouth with judicious use of oak, making these wines easy to confuse with some of their more prestigious neighbours.
Further south, Montagny lacks Rully’s intensity and minerality, but has riper fruit and softer acidity making wines that can be drunk earlier. Arguably the most powerful and full-bodied Chardonnay comes from Pouilly-Fuissé. The region’s final outcrop of limestone arises at the southern end of the Mâconnais, forming a natural amphitheatre that captures the sun’s heat and light. In typical vintages the palate is flushed with stone fruit, while restrained use of oak allows for a tentative note of flinty minerality. In warm years, the wine recalls New World styles.
The Rest of Europe
The grape finds its way to most of Europe’s wine producing countries and is used for sparkling wine, commercial blending with indigenous varietals or, in the finest examples, on its own.
Historically, Italy’s plantings of Chardonnay were confined to the north because of the cooler climate, and the closeness to France. Italians enjoy sparkling wines, which explains why Chardonnay has been so massively planted since the late 19th century in regions such as Trentino and Franciacorta. Piedmont, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Alto Adige have long made vibrant, elegant wines, similar to the lean, nervy wines of the Côte de Beaune in Burgundy; these are terroir-driven due to soil structures of marl and limestone resembling the French region’s. Chardonnay from the warmer regions of Tuscany and Orvieto is riper and more voluptuous than those from the north, reflecting their chalky soils and resembling wines from Burgundy’s southern zones. In all cases, the Italian tendency is to go light on oak treatment to let the wine’s natural attributes dominate the palate. This places them firmly in the Old World.
Like Italy, for over a century Chardonnay has been used in Spain’s sparkling wine industry, with older plantings of French clones in Penedès and the surrounding area. Depending on altitude and proximity to the sea, these wines are robust and round, the best examples exhibiting taut structure. Regions like Somontano, Costers del Segre, Cariñena and Navarra are hotter, resulting in ripe, fruity wines that can lack finesse due to higher levels of alcohol. Unlike Italy, Spanish wines are appreciated for their oaked styles. Higher classifications are bestowed on longer ageing, resulting in a distinct Spanish stamp of nuts, dried fruit and, in older vintages, mushroom notes.
The grape has been planted in Austria for over a century but because it has been confused in the vineyard with Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay is known as “Morillon” in the region of Steiermark, and as “Feinburgunder” in the Wachau region. There are two styles depending on growing conditions: unoaked from the cooler regions, to preserve green fruit characters and lively acidity; and broader wines in warmer climates, where winemaking techniques such as barrel fermentation and lees ageing add complexity and texture. The best examples are found in the chalk soils of northern Burgenland (Leithaberg), Steiermark, and in selected vineyards in Niederösterreich.
The New World
The United States “borrowed” the grape from its spiritual French home and claimed it as its own by turning the varietal into a soft brand. Although other grapes are snapping at its heels, Chardonnay is still the white wine of choice among American wine drinkers, and is the most widely planted grape in the country. Winemakers in California began working with the varietal as far back as the 1950s using Burgundy as their template; they took top honours at the 1976 Paris Tasting.
The past 50 years have been about finding the right clones, vineyards and matching winemaking techniques to produce wine with a distinct style. Producers in regions like Oregon, Washington and New York State, inspired by the West Coast pioneers, adapted methods to their local conditions and carved their own path. Due to Chardonnay’s long history in California, clones have been developed and propagated over time with the assistance of the University of California at Davis. Today, most vineyards in California and Washington State are planted with a combination of UC Davis, Mendoza and Dijon clones, while the cooler climates of Oregon and New York State have relied predominantly on French cuttings.
The California Chardonnay winemaking technique was developed in the 1960s and is well documented: stainless steel fermentation to preserve fruit, no or only partial malolactic fermentation for acidity and French oak barrels for ageing. The past 20 years have seen a variation on the theme with techniques more closely aligned on Burgundy’s example of barrel fermentation in new French oak. More recently, a combination of the two – some barrel fermentation and some stainless steel – has been developed. Whatever the winemaking method, when it comes to Chardonnay and California, one thing is clear: for the most part, terroir plays a limited role with winemakers acting as the show’s stars and directors.
What American winemakers consider “cool climate” compares to the warmer sites of the Côtes de Beaune in Burgundy. Truly coolclimate Chardonnay in the style of Chablis does not really exist in the US, with perhaps the exception of Chardonnay from Long Island, New York, where the Atlantic Ocean cools down the summer and shortens the growing season. In the state of California, Anderson Valley, Carneros, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Santa Barbara have cooling influences.
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Michelle Cherutti-Kowal is a Canadian living in London. She is a Master of Wine student and passed the practical part of the exam in 2011. Her company, Wine Affairs, holds consumer wine tastings and programs. Michelle also lectures to wine industry professionals for corporate clients. She is deeply involved in wine judging as well as a member of the Circle of Wine Writers and the Association of Wine Educators.