It’s the world’s most popular and widely grown — but also most maligned — grape. Lots of people think they don’t like it because of bad experiences with cheap and nasty ones. Yes… bad Chardonnay can be truly awful, but good Chardonnay can be one of the most elegant, delicate and versatile white wines. Can you tell I’m a big fan? Here’s an overview of what you’ll need to know about it for the WSET Level 2 (Intermediate) exam.
Chardonnay’s known as a full-bodied, non-aromatic grape, so it’s naturally fruity and restrained, rather than spicy and perfumed, exhibiting flavours of apple and pear in cooler climates and citrus, stone fruit and melon in warmer areas. Just think about the types of fruit that grow in the region’s climate for an idea of what flavours to expect.
Its subtlety makes it the ideal blank canvas for expressing different wine-making techniques. It’s one of the few white wines that’s often matured in oak barrels, resulting in the distinctive woody, almost leathery/vanilla aroma often associated with reds.
You might have noticed some Chardonnays have a buttery, creamy taste. This is likely due to malolactic fermentation, a process that softens harsh malic acids, converting them into the more buttery lactic acid.
Often Chardonnays, particularly in parts of France, are fermented on the lees. Here, the wine is left sitting with the yeast cells, after they’ve finished their job of converting the grapes’ sugars into alcohol, died and sank to the bottom. This gives a bready, savoury flavour, similar to that found in Champagne.
Premium Chardonnays can be aged, to develop a honeyed, nutty, savoury complexity.
Chardonnay’s classic region is Burgundy (Bourgogne in French); actually, all white wines from Burgundy are Chardonnay. One of the most famous white Burgundys is Chablis. Partly because of its northerly location, Chablis offers a steely, smokey, almost austere elegance of green fruit, citrus and flinty minerality. Further south in Burgundy, on the Côte de Beaune (famously in Mersault and Puligny-Montrachet), you’ll find more stone fruit, as well as some use of lees and oak. Further south still, in the Mâconnais, you’ll get more melon and citrus (although little use of oak) in Chardonnays like Pouilly-Fuissé (not to be confused with Pouilly-Fumé, of course, which is a Sauvignon Blanc).
Much to the annoyance of the French, Australia now produces some great Chardonnays in areas like the Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills and the Margaret River, while important areas in New Zealand include Marlborough.
In the USA, the Pacific-cooled coast of California is the place to go for full-bodied, oaky Chardonnays, with premium regions like Sonoma and Carneros. And south of the equator, excellent-value examples can be found in Chile (Casablanca Valley), Argentina (Mendoza) and cooler parts of southern South Africa (Walker Bay).
But beware of dodgy, cheap Chardonnay blends, which tend to named after large areas, rather than a specific region or vineyard, such as South Eastern Australia, Western Cape, California, Central Valley (Chile) or Pays d’Oc IGP. Large-volume Chardonnays are generally stored in stainless steel vats, with oak flavours added by oak staves or chips. In my view (*not that of the WSET), poor Chardonnays are often over-oaked, or have sugar added, in an attempt to mask the bad quality of the fruit.
In some areas, Chardonnay is often blended. The WSET book mentions Semillon-Chardonnay from Australia and Chardonnay-Chenin Blanc from South Africa. I noticed a lot of Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc blends when I was in Tuscany, but that’s not in the book, so let’s just keep that between us for now (wink wink).
I hope this article gave you a good overview but, as ever, the best way to get to know a grape is to taste lots of wine. Try comparing a flinty Chablis with a stone-fruity Mâcon-Villages or Saint Véran; or a melony Stellenbosch with an oaky variety from Napa Valley. There’s so much to explore.
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And good luck in your exams!
Like this article? Here are some other Chardonnay features from The Wine Ninjas:
Chardonnay’s: Burgundy vs Australia
Cape of Good Hope Winery Chardonnay review
Marc Dudet Pouilly-Fuissé review
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Hi. It’s 2023 and I’m taking the WSET 2 exam tomorrow. I want to thank you for your articles (written many years ago now) breaking down the exam info from a map point of view. This is exactly what I needed to wrap my head around all these pieces.
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Hi Jennifer, thanks very much for the comment, this is so nice to hear and I’m really glad it helped. I guess I just tried to write the kind of article I’d liked to have read myself. All the best in your exam and I hope you smash it. I bet you will!