Remember when we talked about cabernet sauvignon being the offspring of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc vines? Well, the chardonnay grape has a similar origin story – the chance crossing between the pinot and gouais blanc grapes. Like the zinfandel grape, gouais blanc is traced back to Croatia and traveled to France with the Romans. The Romans surely had another name for the famous grape, but the French, as they like to do, named it after Chardonnay, a small village in the Mâconnais region of Burgundy, France. The Cistercian monks also had a hand in bringing this grape to popularity, planting it exclusively in their divine vineyards back in 1330.
Fast forward to 1882 in California, when Charles Wetmore, founder of Cresta Blanca winery, first planted the grape in the Livermore valley – just south and east of Napa Valley. Cresta Blanca put California on the map, winning with its chardonnay at the 1889 Paris Exposition.
Prohibition slowed down winemaking in California to nearly a stop, and by the mid 1930s, there were less than 100 acres of chardonnay grapes left. By the 1960s there were still only 300 acres planted anywhere in California. But then, nearly a hundred years after Cresta Blanca won in Paris, Mike Grgich, owner of Montelena Vineyards (and interestingly of Croatian descent), put California chardonnay on the map once again in 1976 with his win at the Judgement of Paris. By 2021 chardonnay was the most planted grape in Sonoma County with just over 66 thousand tons picked – giving it a 20 thousand ton lead over Pinot Noir.
Side note: If you’ve seen the movie Bottleshock, credit for making the 1976 winning chardonnay is given to Jim Barrett, who did indeed work with the winery at the time, but wasn’t the winemaker. Grgich made the famous chardonnay – a bottle of which last sold for about 15 thousand dollars in 2011 – but did not want to be included in the film. He also knew that the wine would turn brown and it wouldn’t have been an issue for him, but that makes for zero Hollywood drama.
What We Love About Chardonnay
But back to what we love about chardonnay. Its grapes are golden yellow and very juicy and they grow in tightly packed bunches in single clusters. Like sauvignon blanc (and all wines, really, though the distinctions are more pronounced and easy to describe in these two varietals) chardonnay will taste different depending on the overall climate in which it is grown. If grown in cooler climates, you get a wide range of fruit notes like apple, pineapple, peach, melon and even some lemon. In warmer climates you get less fruit and richer tastes like honey, butterscotch and its famous buttery and nutty notes. When malolactic fermentation is used and the chardonnay is aged in oak barrels, you get even more of the creamy, buttery, oaky profile. Regardless of the climate or the winemaking process (as long as it’s done well), chardonnay, unlike other whites, always has its signature fullness and acidic balance that makes it feel rich on your palate.
James Knight explains the intricacies of oaky versus fruity chardonnay fermentation, “A winemaker may choose to vary the character of a buttery-oaky chardonnay by using more or less new oak, different strains of bacteria, or altering the temperature during fermentation. The buttery-creamy aromas and mouthfeel of such chardonnay may be further shaped by employing batonnage, the French term for using a metal rod to stir the slurry of dead yeast cells that collect on the bottom of a barrel as a wine ferments.
In recent years, the “unoaked chardonnay” style has been making a commercial comeback—though it rarely attracts critical acclaim. Crisp, refreshing, and a little floral, these wines are generally made by swapping new oak barrels for stainless steel tanks, and by blocking ML [malolactic fermentation].”
If you like chardonnay, first of all, you will love our Profile Two, but you’ll also like marsanne (pronounced mer-san – like sam with an n) and roussanne, lesser known varietals here in the states, but well known in their native northern Rhône valley in France. They are traditionally blended together to help balance out the natural creaminess of the marsanne (which, like chardonnay, handles oaking well) and the natural acidity of the roussanne, producing the full bodied, dry white wines for which this region is famous.
Marsanne-roussane blends – just like chardonnay – love food, especially if it’s rich seafood like lobster, shellfish or sea bass. But they also like savory chicken, veal, pork, pate, cream sauces, and spicy and Asian dishes. They’re also great with all manner of cheeses, hard and soft.
Yet another varietal, Viognier, likely has roots in Croatia. Though no one has proved it with DNA testing, it seems likely given the similar provenance of chardonnay, marsanne and roussanne. It is now grown primarily in the Northern Rhone and it is the only grape allowed to be grown in the famous Condrieu appellation. Its taste offers up fruit blossom, honeysuckle, ripe peaches and violets – which lands it firmly in the fruit and flower arena of aroma and taste. It’s full bodied like the others and is often oak-aged as well.
But don’t just take our word for it. We are all about giving you information and opportunities to find out what you like, why you like it and how to talk about it.
Have your own taste test and try these varietals alongside our Profile Two and see what you think.
- Martin Ray chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains
- d’Arenberg The Hermit Crab Viognier Marsanne 2020
- Sobon Estate Viognier
- 2017 Qupe Marsanne Santa Barbara County
If you love the idea of a taste test, and you’re local to the Austin area, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and set up your own private BOXT tasting for you and your friends.
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