Chardonnay - What Does it Taste Like and Which Should I Choose
Australian Chardonnay has proven that it can stand the test of time, capitalising on the highs and riding out the lows within the sector. It remains a favourite among Australian wine lovers being Australia’s top white variety, only second to Shiraz.
In 2018, 408,000 tonnes of Chardonnay were crushed across Australia, which made up 47% cent of the total white wine grape crush. With the domestic demand for wine forecasted to rise by 8.2% in 2020 and billions of dollars of revenue being made across the industry, there’s no sign of the Australian winemaking industry slowing down. Love it or hate it, Chardonnay is here to stay.
As Australia’s most widely grown white variety, the array of styles produced is constantly developing and being refined. It’s popularity partly derives from its versatility; it can have a diverse flavour profile depending on where it’s grown, and whether oak is used during the aging process or not.
Chardonnay is guaranteed to be on the wine list, so why not learn a little more about this contested grape? Discover which style is best for you.
What is Chardonnay? Modern DNA fingerprinting suggests that Chardonnay is the result of a cross between Pinot noir and Gouais blanc. This variety is thought to have been brought from Croatia to France by the Romans; it was widely cultivated by peasants in the eastern part of the country. The French aristocracy’s Pinot grew in close proximity to the Gouais blanc, giving the grapes an opportunity to interbreed.
As of 2006, 34 clonal varieties of Chardonnay developed at the University of Burgundy in Dijon, could be found in vineyards throughout France. The "Dijon clones" were bred for their adaptive qualities, with vineyards planting the ones best suited to their terroir, which would produce the Chardonnay taste characteristics they were looking for.
CHARDONNAY IN AUSTRALIA
Chardonnay first arrived as part of the James Busby collection in 1832, however, it wasn’t until the 1970s when the Hunter Valley’s Murray Tyrrell led the way for the variety’s commercial success. Australia’s palate evolved from heavy reds to the leaner profile of Chardonnay, where a passion for the variety was ignited.
The variety’s resistance to disease, early ripening and malleability means that it can be easily influenced and shaped by the winemaker and the terroir. It grows well in most soil types and climates, and thrives particularly well in cool climates.
The leading Chardonnay regions in Australia include the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, the Adelaide Hills in South Australia, Tasmania and Margaret River in Western Australia.
What does Chardonnay taste like? Well there’s no single answer to that question. Simply put, Chardonnay is generally described as a medium bodied, dry wine. However, Chardonnay has such a vast range of flavours, textures and aromatic profiles that the answer to that question is widely varied.
The flavour profile of every Chardonnay reflects the soil and climate where it’s grown, how ripe it was at harvest and how it was aged. Winemaking techniques, oak barrels and vineyards play a significant role in the final Chardonnay taste profile.
Cool climate Chardonnays tend to have a more citrusy flavour profile, including green apple, pear and lemon. While warm regions tend to produce more tropical Chardonnays with flavours like pineapple, passionfruit and mango.
If oak is used in the aging process the flavours change dramatically, giving toasty, buttery and vanilla flavours to the wine.
Flavour profiles from around Australia include:
Victoria: From sophisticated cool climate styles with fruity elements through to bold styles influenced by winemaking process.
New South Wales: From the full styled Chardonnays of the Hunter Valley to the soft peach and melon profiles of New England and Orange.
Adelaide Hills: Fine, elegant Chardonnays with citrus flavours.
Tasmania: Intensely flavoured Chardonnays with penetrating acidity.
Margaret River: Powerful, rich, full-flavoured Chardonnays.
OAKED VS UNOAKED CHARDONNAY
A Chardonnay taste profile can range from fresh, crisp unoaked wine to wine aged in barrels that produce a much richer taste.
Chardonnays oaked in large barrels are rich, full bodied and can be described as “woody”. Oak can impart more flavours to the wine, making it complex, creamy and delicious. However, overuse of oak isn’t always a good thing and needs to be closely managed; it can kill the fruit flavours of the wine. Overoaked wines tend to have only vanilla and cinnamon flavours, with zero fruitiness.
If you don’t like overly powerful or rich flavours then unoaked Chardonnay may be more appealing to your taste buds. An oaked Chardonnay will have a deep, golden colour, while an unoaked Chardonnay is paler and fresher, with characters of white flowers and citrus. It can still have the green apple/lemon flavours, but it’s crispier and fruitier rather than being buttery and creamy.
MARGARET RIVER CHARDONNAY
Dan Stocker, viticulturist for Arimia Winery and Restaurant believes that Chardonnay is an ideal fit for the Margaret River region. The soil and winds directed up the valley from the Indian Ocean, provide a freshness, brightness of fruit and perfume in their wines. They make their Chardonnay with a focus on perfume, texture and fine, long palates.
They pick their Chardonnay fairly early allowing them to achieve outstanding flavour at low sugar levels, while retaining excellent natural acidity and floral aromatics.
Their Margaret River restaurant and winery cellar door is a celebration of their produce, from wine and olive oils to trout, which supply their head chef Evan with ingredients he uses to create dishes that pair perfectly with their Chardonnay.
The diversity of the Chardonnay taste profile means it can be paired with a wide range of cuisines.
An unoaked/leaner Chardonnay with its lighter and more delicate flavours matches perfectly with lighter seafood dishes like raw oysters, baked fish, shrimp or any type of shellfish.
A medium bodied Chardonnay will go exceptionally well with mild, creamy dishes like creamy pasta, poultry and most white meats.
A full-bodied Chardonnay from a warmer region or an oaked Chardonnay pair well with dishes that are rich like poached salmon, poultry like roast chicken or buttery dishes. Avoid overly spicy or acidic dishes.
Dan Stocker of Arimia pairs their 2017 Arimia Estate Chardonnay with a fish dish that’s complimented with by confit white bean, smoked tomato and bean salad. He describes it as a delicious, balanced and elegant Chardonnay with lime zest and jasmine flavours.
Take a risk. Most people pair red wine with cheese, but Chardonnay and hard cheese can make the perfect match. A chunk of aged Gruyère paired with a cool climate Chardonnay are mouth-wateringly delicious.
The best Chardonnay is lightly chilled! Avoid serving Chardonnay too cold. If it’s been in the fridge, let it sit for around 10 minutes before serving.
Despite being such a popular and widely planted white wine variety, the Chardonnay taste profile has remained a polarising topic. Due to the wide range of styles being produced, it can be baffling for wine drinkers who love one Chardonnay, but really dislike another. However, this diversity is also a strong point because it means that there’s bound to be a Chardonnay suitable for almost every palate to enjoy.
Shop the best Chardonnay under $20, as well as premium Chardonnay varieties here.