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18. GRAPE VARIETIES Number 7: Chardonnay Part One


            There is plenty to say about Chardonnay, and so I will spread my thoughts over two articles. In the first I will make some general observations, and in the second I will deal with the different parts of the world where Chardonnay is grown.


 Chardonnay is far more widely planted, covering over 175,000 hectares, than any of the other grape varieties that I have described so far. Interestingly, top quality vine varieties tend to be planted in comparatively small quantities because they are inconveniently low-yielding, difficult to grow, disease-prone, unreliable croppers. But Chardonnay is very adaptable to all sorts of soils and climates, is easy to grow, and yields generously and reliably. Furthermore, it is a very forgiving variety for the winemaker, and allows a wide range of styles to be superimposed on the raw material: it goes well with oak treatment; can be made crisp and citric; or lush and rich; mineral or exuberantly fruity. It is a classic anecdote in the wine trade that drinkers will say they hate Chardonnay, but please could they have a glass of Chablis (which is always made from 100% Chardonnay – in fact, it is often said that Chablis is the purest expression of Chardonnay).


  To begin at the beginning: where does it come from? It used to be thought that it was one of the family of Pinots, but the French ampelographer (vine expert) Galet has shown that it is a variety in its own right with no other close relations. There is a village in the Mâconnais in southern Burgundy by the name of Chardonnay, from which it no doubt takes its name – it is, after all, the variety that makes great white burgundy. However, since time immemorial Chardonnay has been  (and still is) cultivated in the Lebanon, and it seems that this is where it originated from.


 What does Chardonnay taste like? Well, first of all, the variety itself doesn't taste of oak, although it has become a commonplace to think of Chardonnay as oaked Chardonnay: young Chardonnay without oak is floral, blossomy in flavour, riper examples tending towards tropical fruit flavours – also, aniseed (the French think of it as fennel) is a frequent component; oaked wines (provided the oak barrels that are used are new, or nearly new) will display in addition notes of vanilla, leather and spice; as the wines age they lose their initial florality and take on notes of nuts, straw and honey. Another feature of Chardonnay is that it has weight, making the wines excellent for drinking with meals, even standing up to fairly robust flavours such as roast chicken.