WSET® 2 Reading, Chapter 7: Chardonnay (Class Notes)

  • Not an aromatic grape variety.
  • Delicacy of fruit makes it suitable for oak and yeast.
  • In certain areas it can even produce wines described as “steely” or “minerally”.

THE FLAVOURS OF CHARDONNAY

  • In cool climates (Chablis) – green fruit (apple, pear), citrus, sometimes vegetable (cucumber).
  • In moderate climates (Bourgogne + some premium New World areas) – white stone fruit (peach), citrus, hints of melon.
  • In hot (New World) – tropical fruit (peach, banana, pineapple, even mango and fig).
  • Fruit: Cool climates = green fruit and citrus. Moderate climates = white stone fruit, citrus, melon. Hot climates = tropical fruit.
  • Non-fruit: Cool climates = vegetable (cucumber).
  • Aromatics: Nutty, buttery, cream notes.
  • Acid: Low to medium high acid (depending on climate).
  • Body: Usually full body, weighty, creamy texture.
  • Alcohol: Medium to high alcohol.
  • Oak: Where fruit of sufficient quality, wine can be fermented and aged in new oak, and oak/fruit flavours will be balanced. Not all premium Chardonnays taste of oak (Chablis). Oak treatment creates toast, vanilla, coconut notes (also depends on type of oak).
  • Climate: Cool, moderate, or hot climate. A versatile varietal.
  • Ageability: Best Chardonnays are age-able, creating honeyed, nutty, savoury complexity.
  • Notes: 
    • Many flavours come not from varietal itself, but from winemaking techniques.
    • Malolactic fermentation: conversion of harsh malic acid into softer lactic acid by action of lactic bacteria, which causes as a side effect nutty, buttery, cream notes.
    • Lees: the sediment of dead yeast cells that gathers at the bottom of the tank once fermentation is completed. Stirred through, it can make creamy texture and savoury flavours.
    • Chardonnay’s delicate flavours and terroir can easily be obliterated with oak.

PREMIUM CHARDONNAY REGIONS (THE GOOD)

  • (A) Bourgogne (Blanc)
    • Classic Chardonnay.
    • Arguably best expression of Chardonnay.
    • Most expensive Chardonnay.
    • Varietal name rarely used on labels.
    • Labelled for region, district, village, or sometimes vineyard.
    • Chardonnay grown all over Bourgogne.
  • (B) Chablis (Bourgogne)
    • Bone dry
    • High acid
    • Austere
    • Green fruit
    • Citrus
    • Recognisable smoky, flinty, mineral signature (especially in Premier or Grand Cru).
    • Purity of fruit and usually no detectable oak.
  • (C) Côte d’Or (Heart of Bourgogne)
    • Moderate climate = the ideal conditions for high-quality Chardonnay.
    • Chardonnay mainly from southern half (aka Côte de Beaune).
    • Usually sold under the village name. Most famous:
      • Meursault
      • Puligny-Montrachet
        • Le Montrachet is the very finest dry white in the world.
    • Complexity and body by fermentation in small oak barrels, and aging in contact with lees = full body, complex flavour succession of citrus, white stone fruit, tropical fruit, oak, spice, and savoury notes.
  • (D) Mâconnais (Most southerly region for white Burgundy)
    • Large volumes of moderately priced, light, fruity (melon, citrus).
    • Usually little or no oak.
    • Sold as Mâcon.
      • Mâcon
      • Pouilly-Fuissé: full body, often tropical (pineapple, melon) and oak notes. From a series of steep, sun-trapped slopes at the far south of Mâconnais.
  • (E) Australia
    • Chardonnay in all vineyard regions.
    • Variety of styles.
    • Main regions for premium Chardonnay:
      • Cooler parts of Victoria (Yarra Valley)
      • Adelaide (South Australia)
      • Margaret River (Western Australia)
    • Classic style: pronounced fruit (fresh citrus and melon) and well-integrated oak.
    • Examples of restrained fruit and little or no oak becoming more common.
  • (F) New Zealand
  • Production quantity too small to offer Chardonnay at the very lowest price brackets.
    • Marlborough
      • An important area for premium Chardonnay.
      • High natural crisp acidity, pronounced citrus, tropical fruit, mineral.
      • Most of the best has pronounced oak.
  • (G) USA
    • Grown throughout premium vineyards in California.
    • Most premium Chardonnay from cooled breezes and morning mists from Pacific Ocean (this slows ripening, allowing buildup of complex flavours).
    • On label: California, Russian River Valley (Sonoma or Carneros).
    • Some even follow Burgundian model of small quantity bottling by individual vineyard.
    • California Chardonnays vary widely in style–many are very full body, intense citrus, and ripe peach. Others may be very savoury like Côte d’Or.
  • (H) South America
    • Chile’s Casablanca Valley (sub-region, NW of Santiago) slowly establishing itself as premium Chardonnay region, because of cool sea breeze and morning fog.
    • Some very good Chardonnay from Central Valley.
    • Argentina’s premium Chardonnay is in Mendoza (high altitude, cool nights = intense fruit, often spicy oak).
  • (I) South Africa
    • Cooler coastal areas (Walker Bay). Some such areas have very fine Chardonnay.

BULK, INEXPENSIVE CHARDONNAY REGIONS (THE BAD)

  • Since Chardonnay can tolerate a wide range of soil and climes, it can still show some soft texture and buttery-melon at high yields:
    • South Eastern Australia
    • Western Cape
    • California
    • Central Valley (Chile)
    • Pays d’Oc IGP / Vin de France
    • Southern Italy
    • Argentina
  • Generally, produced in large stainless steel vats, and oak added in staves or chips.
    Sometimes, a proportion is fermented or aged in oak barrels.

CHARDONNAY IN BLENDS

  • The finest Chardonnays are unblended since the value chardonnays are blended in order to stretch the Chardonnay component.
  • Australia: (volumes falling) Sémillon-Chardonnay / Chardonnay-Sémillon (ça dépend, which grape dominates).
  • South Africa and California: Colombard-Chardonnay & Chardonnay-Chenin Blanc.
  • Europe: Less fashionable local grapes for better marketing.
  • Viognier also good blend pairing, its oily texture and full body gives extra, little peachy, floral character.
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