Chardonnay is originally from France’s Burgundy region, where the best white Burgundies are powerful and rich, with complex fruit flavours and notes of earth and minerals. More affordable Chardonnays from Burgundy—for instance, those simply labelled Bourgogne Blanc—are crisp and lively, with apple and lemon flavours.
Chardonnays from warmer areas like America, Australia and Chile tend to be ripe and full-bodied, even buttery, with higher alcohol levels and vanilla notes from oak aging. Recently, however, more and more wine regions have been experimenting with fruity, fresh Chardonnays produced with very little or even no oak aging.
For most wine drinkers the greatest white in the world is still made from the Chardonnay grape and comes from Burgundy in central France, especially from the heart of the region, the Cote d’Or (the Golden Coast).
There’s a clear purity to great Chardonnay. When good, they have extraordinary richness, depth and complexity, always balanced by lively acidity, which brings essential freshness. When combined with the lemon/lime flavour and great minerality, it is hard to beat.
Vintages and classification
The best white Burgundies are made for long aging and you should not drink them when first released. They are simply not yet aged enough in their youth.
Furthermore there are three important levels of quality: Grand Cru and 1er Cru wines, which carry the name of the individual vineyard from which they come, and village wines (AOC’s), which are grown within a specific location but not entitled to one of the more interesting appellations.
For Burgundy wine, the term Cru is applied to classified vineyards, with Grand cru being the highest classification level, followed by 1er Cru and then the basic village AOCs.
Excluding these premier cru and grand cru burgundy, Chardonnay does not make wines for seriously long ageing.
Many vineyards have multiple owners, so the producer’s name on the bottle is as important as the appellation.
Distinction between oaked/unoaked Chardonnay
Unoaked Chardonnay is far closer to the savoury style of Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnay wine tends to have less green flavours than Sauvignon Blanc. Depending on how ripe the grapes were when picked, the flavour ranges from lemon and green apple (less ripe) to pineapple and figs (very ripe). Most unoaked Chardonnay is from cooler climate wine regions like France.
Oaked Chardonnays are rich, full-bodied and have additional flavours of vanilla, butter and even caramel from the oak. A cool climate, buttery Chardonnay will have more citrus flavours versus a warm climate Chardonnay, which will have more tropical fruit flavours. Many oaked Chardonnays come from warmer climate wine regions.
The wines of Chablis in northern Burgundy, one of France’s coolest wine regions, have a very particular flavour. It has some suggestion of very green fruit, but without a strong aroma. Because of its latitude, Chablis does not easily ripen the Chardonnay on which it exclusively depends. The wines are much higher in acidity and lighter in body than those made on the Côte d’Or to the south. Oak and malolactic fermentation are exceptional and – partly as a result – Chablis can age superbly. Malolactic fermentation is the process where malic acid, that is naturally present in grape must (containing the skins, seeds, and stems of the grapes), is converted to softer-tasting lactic acid; this is standard for Chardonnay, where it can impart a “buttery” flavour. In glorious maturity, at about 10 to 15 years old, it is an extraordinarily appetising drink which makes you think of wet stones and oatmeal. In more temperate climates Chardonnay can yield some of the finest dry white wine in the world.
The heartland of Burgundy, the Côte d’Or, is effectively the nerve centre of this style of wine: savoury, dense, the grape a transparent medium through which different vineyards (and winemakers) can communicate their own individual styles, often only after many years in bottle.
The truly thrilling thing about Chardonnay grown on the Cote d’Or is that here, as nowhere else, it can express a sense of place, even if winemaking includes fermentation and maturation in different sorts of oak barrels. Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, Meursault and Corton-Charlemagne are some of the most famous names. Typical Meursault wine tends to be butter-golden and a little heavier and earlier-maturing than a typical wine from Montrachet, which has a lean, pure and nuanced character capable of developing for up to a decade in bottle. Corton-Charlemagne can be nutty, almost almond-flavoured. But a typical burgundy wine does not exist, as the wines here are made with varied levels of skills that differ per vineyard.
The best of the best
So without much further ado, I will now indicate some of the best wines from this region.
Unoaked Chardonnay Brands
- Brocard, Albert Bichot, Dauvissat, Raveneau, Joseph Drouhin (I have reviewed and rated this pearl, just click it to gain access to this particular wine)
- Loire and Chablis wines
Oaked Chardonnay Brands
- Marcassin, Meursault (Charmes, Perrieres, Genevrieres), Montrachet.
- Burgundy: Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault and Mâconnais)
I have meanwhile reviewed some of these outstanding wines and rated them as well. Gain access to some of the finest French Burgundy Chardonnays solely for delivery to the USA market by clicking here.
For UK wine lovers, please see my review for the UK market here.