Chardonnay originated in the village of Chablis in Burgundy, France sometime in the 12th century. For a very long time it was confused for pinot blanc because it had very similar leaves to pinot noir. It wasn’t until the 1990s when a DNA test showed that just like the other most popular grape of the world, cabernet sauvignon, it is actually a hybrid. Low and behold it is a hybrid of pinot noir, hence the similarity in leaves, and gouais blanc. Theory is that guais blanc was an inferior grape from the Roman times that was mostly used for blending and it was hybridized with pinot noir to create a white grape that would make an exceptional wine on its own.
Like pinot noir, chardonnay is rarely ever blended with other grapes. Yet it has one of the broadest ranges of tasting notes and qualities of any grape. When unoaked you can get apple, pear, mineral, and citrus undertones, with a medium acidity, and light to medium bodied. When oaked you get drastically different flavors of tropical fruit, coconut, almond, vanilla, honey, and butter, with a light to medium acidity, and medium to full body. The flavor of butter can be increased even more through practices of malolactic fermentation.
While most red wines undergo malolactic fermentation, it is has become a very important stylistic signature for chardonnay winemakers. Chardonnay is one of the few white wines that under goes ML fermentation (other white wines the process is blocked) and you can have drastic variations from 0%-100% ML fermentation depending on the style and flavors that winemaker is trying to achieve. For chardonnay, the most important part of ML fermentation is the byproduct diacetyl, which is the main ingredient you taste in “butter flavored” popcorn. If you’ve ever been in the baking section of a grocery store you’ll notice on the shelf “butter extract” which is the common language for diacetyl.
This style was not popular until what is now known as “The Judgement of Paris” (we will talk about this more in another article). In short it was a blind tasting in 1976 between California and France where California won 1st place for both white and red wine. Oaky buttery chardonnay beat out the crisp dry unoaked chardonnays of Burgundy, even over the birthplace of chardonnay Chablis. This victory did many things, but the two main aspects to take away are that California was now on the map for quality high end wines and the world would now have an obsession with buttery chardonnays.
In just a few paragraphs you can see that chardonnay is anything but simple. The last note I have for everyone is that I hear a lot of this comment: “I hate chardonnay”. Chardonnay has such a drastic range of styles and flavors, as I’ve explained, but most people (particularly if you are in California) have only really experienced one style. Buttery. My suggestion is that if you are saying you “hate” chardonnay that you switch from trying to force yourself to like the popular labels like Rombauer and Kendall Jackson, and try a Chablis or an “unoaked” chardonnay. It might still not be your favorite, but you will notice immediately that it is nothing like what you have convinced yourself all chardonnay taste like.
Cheers! P.S. All chardonnay styles have a place in the wine world.