Chardonnay: Red Masquerading As White

Written for in October 2016.

“Pinot Noir is the ultimate wine to have at the table. It’s a white wine masquerading as red … [while] Chardonnay is a red masquerading as a white.”  The amusing words of American wine writer Kevin Zraly, and a useful line to throw at David Harker when one is losing an argument about the merits of a particular Chardonnay at PopUp HQ!

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay certainly have a lot in common, and – in several respects – are closer to one another than they are to grapes of their own colour.

Like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay is a neutral, malleable, grape with its characteristics – both on the nose and palate – normally coming from the terroir, and oak, used in production.  Chablis, for example, takes its clean, stony minerality from the famous Kimmeridgian clay upon which its Chardonnay vines grow.    Kimmeridgian clay is a relatively uniform chalky marl that is rich in marine fossils.

Kimmeridgian Clay

Similarly, winemakers in Burgundy often quip that Burgundian Pinot Noir is popular not because it is Pinot Noir, but because Pinot Noir – of all the grapes – best expresses the terroir of the Côte d’Or, Beaune and Mercurey.  It is a vehicle for the terroir of eastern France.

Recent DNA profiling has revealed that Chardonnay is an offspring of Pinot Noir.  The other parent being Gouais Blanc, an obscure Croatian grape that has been banned in France for several centuries.  Winemakers in the 1930s who labelled the grape as “Pinot Chardonnay” may have been aware of this relationship.

Tannin, that element in some wines which paradoxically dries our mouths, is higher in Chardonnay that any other white wine.  Pinot Noir has a similar level of tannin to Chardonnay, particularly when Chardonnay has been oak-matured.

It is also slightly more full bodied that other white wines: it is “heavier” in the mouth when drinking.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are often blended together.  They are the main constituent grapes for Champagne.

Additionally, the two grapes thrive in the same “cold climate” wine regions: Burgundy, Champagne, Oregon, Victoria and New Zealand.

It is also worth noting that like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay is a thin-skinned grape prone to frost, powdery mildew and other vulnerabilities.   Both grapes require careful vine management.

The similarity pales, like a glass of Chardonnay around its edge, when we come to consumer tastes.  Several different styles of Chardonnay exist and it does not follow that a drinker who enjoys Pinot Noir will also, necessarily, enjoy Chardonnay.

Until the mid-90s, demand – and fashion – was for rich, oaky, Chardonnay.  This was particularly true in Australia, where “Kardonnay” became synonymous with a very woody, buttery, style of wine.

“the aitch is silent”

A similar style is still popular in California, where winemakers prefer a particularly busy style of wine for the most grown grape in “The Golden State”.  It is not uncommon to detect Barrel maturation, Lees stirring and Malolactic Fermentation in Californian Chardonnay.  The latter is a naturally occurring process which gives wine a more buttery, rounded, texture.  Lees are deposits of residual yeast: Lees stirring increases bready or biscuit flavours in the wine.

EXAMPLE: DeLoach California Chardonnay Heritage Reserve 2013 ~ California, USA

The current trend is for leaner, more appetising and less oak-dominated Chardy.

EXAMPLE: Innocent Bystander Chardonnay 2014 ~ Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia

Worldwide production of Chardonnay has continued to increase, despite the “Anything But Chardonnay” backlash of the late 1990s.  The total area planted with Chardonnay was just under 100,000 ha in 1990.  By 2005 this had reached 174,000 ha, and by 2010 200,000 ha.

One reason for this is the partial immunity French Chardonnay possesses to changes in global demand.  Many consumers do not realise that when they are enjoying a White Burgundy*, Chablis or Pouilly Fuisse, they are drinking Chardonnay!

*There is also some Aligoté production in Burgundy, approximately 5% of total, however this is mostly used for the Kir drink, where it is mixed with blackcurrant liqueur.

J., 10/10/16


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