Considered the queen of the white grapes, Chardonnay produces wines with character and personality that are golden yellow, expressing aromas of fresh citrus fruit, green apple, pear and maybe white peach along with white flowers and honey. Commonly, high-end Chardonnays are barrel-aged, a process which adds spice, butter and smoky aromas. On the palate, these wines usually flow broadly and powerfully, delivering refreshing acidity along with good, fruity flavours. These grapes are also sensitive to terroir and winemaking methods, resulting in a variety of tasty, decadent options from vintners across the world. Additionally, it is widely accepted that the leading Chardonnay regions worldwide are without a doubt Burgundy and the Napa Valley, whose wines are both similar and yet distinctly different.
Generally, the French produce wines with complex, mineral characters that have an electric freshness. In contrast, their American counterparts produce wines of a more voluptuous character in which the oaky texture is prominent, contrasted with a bracing maritime freshness. The Chardonnay's rich history dates back centuries, and though its exact origins are still a subject of debate among wine historians and experts, the name itself is derived from the village of Chardonnay in southern Burgundy. It is here that many believed it originated following the discovery of 16th century documents mentioning its presence in vineyards of the Côte d'Or region. While it was thought to have been initially cultivated solely in Burgundy, its popularity gradually spread to other wine-growing regions in France.
The start of the 19th century saw Chardonnay vines begin to make their way beyond the borders of France, and by the mid-1800s, French immigrants brought Chardonnay cuttings to the New World, particularly to California and Australia. These were areas that offered new opportunities for grape cultivation, with their favourable climates and diverse soils. In these early days of the Chardonnay grape's international journey, the grape was often mistaken for Pinot Blanc or other varieties. It was not until the 20th century, when advancements in ampelography and genetic research was conducted, that Chardonnay was confirmed as a distinct grape variety. The grape, which gained popularity due to its adaptability to various climates and soils, reached global prominence as its versatility and ability to produce a range of styles, from crisp and unoaked to rich and buttery, contributed greatly to its widespread appeal.
While Chardonnay's history is deeply rooted in France, its journey to South America, particularly Argentina, is a fascinating chapter in its journey to global prominence. It made its way to Argentina in the late 19th century, brought by French immigrants who sought to establish vineyards in the country, predominantly from regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy. In addition to grapevine cuttings, they also brought their winemaking traditions and recognised Argentina's potential for grape cultivation, thanks to its diverse microclimates and fertile soils. Initially, Chardonnay vines in Argentina were primarily used for blending purposes, as the focus was on producing robust red wines, particularly Malbec. However, as the country's wine industry developed and consumer tastes evolved, winemakers began to explore the potential of Chardonnay as a stand-alone varietal wine. Mendoza emerged as a leading area for Chardonnay production in Argentina as its high-altitude vineyards, ample sunlight, and cool nights provided favourable conditions for Chardonnay grapes to thrive, contributing to the development of complex flavours and vibrant acidity in the resulting wines.
In the early 1990s, a significant shift took place in the way Argentine vintners approached winemaking, as greater emphasis was placed on quality and expressing the unique characteristics of the grapes and terroir. This shift, coupled with advancements in viticultural and winemaking practices, allowed Chardonnay to truly develop successfully in the country. Argentinian Chardonnays showcase a distinct style that sets them apart from their counterparts in other parts of the world, expressing ripe tropical fruit flavours such as pineapple and mango. They also exhibit a balanced, crisp acidity with a mineral undertone in wines that can range from unoaked styles, highlighting the grape's natural fruitiness, to oak-aged versions that offer additional complexity and texture. The key factor contributing to Argentina's success is the country's old-vine resources where vines that are several decades old result in lower yields but more concentrated flavours, greater depth as well as a more distinct character of the wines with layers of complexity.
Beyond Mendoza, other regions in Argentina have also embraced Chardonnay cultivation including the cool-climate region of Rio Negro, Patagonia, known for elegant and vibrant Chardonnays with crisp acidity and a pronounced mineral backbone. The Salta region in the north, with its high-altitude vineyards, produces Chardonnays that exhibit a unique combination of tropical fruit notes and refreshing acidity. In fact, according to the National Institute of Viticulture, the Chardonnay variety in Argentina is present in most wine provinces with just over 6,000 cultivated hectares representing 2.8 per cent of total vine in the country and 15 per cent of total white varieties. In recent years, Argentine Chardonnays have gained international recognition and have received accolades in prestigious wine competitions and reviews, a growing reputation that continues to fuel both domestic and international demand for these wines. Today Thursday Food introduces four of the country's top Chardonnays:
Felino Chardonnay 2022 by Bodega Vina Cobos is a 100 per cent varietal produced from vineyards located 4,000 feet above sea level in Mendoza. This wine is pale yellow in colour expressing aromas of pear, green apple and grapefruit. It is very well-balanced on the palate with good, crispy acidity.
Vinculum Chardonnay 2021 is another 100 per cent varietal by Bodega Vina Cobos made from grapes grown at its vineyards in the Uco Valley area of Mendoza. It has a bright pale yellow colour along with aromas of pear, green apple, apricots and notes of white chocolate. On the palate it presents balanced acidity, good minerality and great texture with a full-bodied, long finish.
Chacra Chardonnay is a 100 per cent varietal, made from 40-year-old vines in the Rio Negro region of Patagonia, by Bodega Chacra. It is intense and energetic, with aromas of sliced dried apples, crushed stones, minerals, hints of biscuit, praline along with undertones of honeysuckle and lemongrass. It's full-bodied, but very firm and lively with a fresh acidity running through the palate, providing energy and depth.
Mainqué Chardonnay, another 100 per cent varietal by Bodega Chacra, is produced from vineyards in the Mainqué area of Rio Negro. In the mouth, the wine has a fruity entry, a salinity shared with Chacra Chardonnay, and a tasty finish borrowed from the calcareous components of the alluvial soil. On the nose, it is very mineral with some aromas of anise and sliced green apple.
The rise of boutique wineries and the commitment of winemakers to showcasing the distinctiveness of Argentina's terroir have further elevated the quality and diversity of Argentine Chardonnays, offering a compelling alternative to their French and New World counterparts. Today, it remains one of the most widely planted and celebrated grape varieties globally, with May 25 celebrated annually as World Chardonnay Day. Salud!