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A Short history of Chardonnay........

For a while we couldn't get enough of Chardonnay. Now there's the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) set refusing to drink wine from this wonderful grape. But, that's their loss and our gain.

DNA profiling by Dr Carole Meredith from the University of California at Davis proves that Chardonnay is a cross of an old, nearly extinct variety called Gouais Blanc and a member of the Pinot family. Chardonnay, Gamay Noir and many other classic varieties can be traced back to this cross of Pinot and Gouais Blanc. The Gouais Blanc grape originated in Croatia and probably arrived in France with the Romans. Gouais Blanc was not well liked even then and has been actively dug up through the centuries hence leading to its now 'nearly extinct' title.

How did it happen?

"In each case there was a crosspollination between a Pinot vine and a Gouais Blanc vine and from the seed that developed a single seedling sprung up in a vineyard somewhere. A farmer took a liking to it and multiplied it by cuttings" said Dr Meredith. And it doesn't end with just Chardonnay. Grape varieties that trace back to Gouais Blanc and Pinot include: Aligoté, Aubin vert, Auxerrois, Bachet noir, Beaunoir, Dameron, Franc noir de la Haute, Saône, Gamay blanc Gloriod, Gamay noir, Knipperlé, Melon, Peurion, Romorantin, Roublot and Sacy.

Chardonnay is also known as Aubaine, Beaunois or Melon Blanc.

There is a village called Chardonnay in Mâconnais in the southern portion of France's burgundy region. They recently celebrated their thousandth anniversary and the name comes from 'cardonnacum' that is known as the 'place full of thistles'. Chardonnay most likely originated here and was then spread throughout France by the monks. The earliest recorded reference to Chardonnay occurs in 1330. Cistercian monks built stonewalls around their 'Clos de Vougeot' vineyard exclusively planted to Chardonnay grapes. Another stream of history points towards Chardonnay coming from Lebanon, but there are no written references to Chardonnay originating in Lebanon till much later than 1330.

To further confuse matters, an Austrian vine very similar to Chardonnay is called Morillon. The name Morillon has been used during the Middle Ages in the region of Burgundy and was an old name for Chardonnay in the region of Chablis.

One man in Australia changed the course of history for Chardonnay. In 1967 Murray Tyrrell jumped the barb- wire fence to 'liberate' Chardonnay cuttings from Penfolds experimental HVD vineyard. In a twist of fate, Tyrrell's bought the HVD vineyard in 1982. Murray Tyrrell is also credited with establishing the popularity of Pinot Noir in Australia and creating, in 1966 one of Australia's first true wine brands: Long Flat. Chardonnay is the most widely planted variety in Australia and also in NZ. There is more Chardonnay than Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz.

Vine characteristics

Chardonnay is a vigorous, heavy cropping variety with medium sized bunches. Bunches have tightly packed berries forming a single cluster not like loosely spaced Shiraz bunches. A ripe Chardonnay berry is gold yellow in colour with plenty of juice. Berries are small, fragile, thin-skinned and require care during harvest to avoid oxidisation.

Australian and other 'new world' wines are named after the variety of grape used. France the other 'old world' wine countries name wines according to the region they come from. Chardonnay is used to make the famous white burgundies of Montrache and Meursault. It goes into the champagnes from Champagne and the Chablis from the Chablis region. In Australia, Chardonnay goes into the Chardonnays from the Hunter Valley and from The Gurdies Winery.

Wine characteristics

Chardonnay is very sensitive to winemaking practices. Cool climate Chardonnay produces an abundance of fruit flavours. You can pick up apple, pineapple, peach, melon and a hint of lemon. The warmer climate Chardonnays may have less of the fruits but develop wonderful honey, butterscotch, buttery and nutty oily flavours that really fill the mouth. Combine this with a malolactic fermentation (where malic acid is converted to lactic acid) and the rich 'creamy-buttery' tastes are assured.

Chardonnay is easy to over oak.

The trend of fermenting Chardonnay in oak barrels and then storing it in new oak can kill the fruit characters. You know there's too much oak when all you get is vanilla and cinnamon and no fresh fruit. Thankfully we're producing a lot more unoaked Chardonnays bursting with fresh fruit.

Regardless of where it's grown and how it's produced Chardonnay always has a wonderful sugar/acid balance and a 'thickness' on the palate that is uniquely Chardonnay.

* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans

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