Chardonnay is a green-skinned grape variety used to make white wine. It is believed to have originated in the Burgundy wine region of eastern France but is now grown wherever wine is produced, from England through Italy to New Zealand. For new and developing wine regions, growing Chardonnay is seen as a "rite of passage" and an easy segue into the international wine market.
For much of its history, a connection was assumed between Chardonnay and Pinot noir or Pinot blanc. In addition to being found in the same region of France for centuries, ampelographers noted that the leaves of each plant have near-identical shape and structure. Modern DNA fingerprinting research at University of California, Davis, now suggests that Chardonnay is the result of a cross between the Pinot and Gouais Blanc (Heunisch) grape varieties. It is believed that the Romans brought Gouais Blanc from the Balkans, and it was widely cultivated by peasants in Eastern France.
Chardonnay has a long history in Italy but for a large part of it, the grape was commonly confused with Pinot blanc—often with both varieties inter-planted in the same vineyard and blended together. This happened despite the fact that Chardonnay grapes get more golden yellow in color close to harvest time and can be visually distinguished from Pinot blanc. In the Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol region this confusion appeared in the synonyms for each grape with Pinot blanc being known as "Weissburgunder" (White Burgundy) and Chardonnay was known as "Gelber Weissburgunder" (Golden White Burgundy). By the late 20th century, more concentrated efforts were put into identifying Chardonnay and making pure varietal versions of the wine. In 1984, it was granted its first Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) in the Alto Adige region. By 2000, it was Italy's fourth most widely planted white wine grape.
Though many varietal form of Chardonnay are produced, and the numbers are increasing, for most of its history in Italian winemaking Chardonnay was a blending grape. Besides Pinot bianco, Chardonnay can be found in blends. Most Chardonnay plantings are located in the northern wine regions, though plantings can be found throughout Italy as far south as Sicily and Apulia. In Piedmont and Tuscany, the grape is being planted in sites that are less favourable to Dolcetto and Sangiovese respectively. In Lombardy and Trentino Alto Adige the grape is used for high quality spumante as Franciacorta and Trento DOC. In the Veneto area it grows beautifully and it produces outstanding wines when vinified in purity. Chardonnay is also found in the Valle d'Aosta DOC and Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.
Chardonnay has a wide-ranging reputation for relative ease of cultivation and ability to adapt to different conditions. The grape is very "malleable", in that it reflects and takes on the impression of its terroir and winemaker. It is a highly vigorous vine, with extensive leaf cover which can inhibit the energy and nutrient uptake of its grape clusters. Vineyard managers counteract this with aggressive pruning and canopy management. When Chardonnay vines are planted densely, they are forced to compete for resources and funnel energy into their grape clusters. In certain conditions the vines can be very high-yielding, but the wine produced from such vines will suffer a drop in quality if yields go much beyond 4.5 tons per acre (80 hl/ha). Producers of premium Chardonnay limit yields to less than half this amount. Sparkling wine producers tend not to focus as much on limiting yields, since concentrated flavours are not as important as the wine's finesse.
Harvesting time is crucial to winemaking, with the grape rapidly losing acidity as soon as it ripens. Some viticultural hazards include the risk of damage from springtime frost, as Chardonnay is an early-budding vine – usually a week after Pinot noir. To combat the threat of frost, a method developed in Burgundy involves aggressive pruning just prior to flowering. This "shocks" the vine and delays flowering for up to two weeks, which is often long enough for warmer weather to arrive. Millerandage and coulure can also pose problems, along with powdery mildew attacking the thin skin of the grapes. Because of Chardonnay's early ripening, it can thrive in wine regions with a short growing season and, in regions like Burgundy, will be harvested before autumn rain sets in and brings the threat of rot.
While Chardonnay can adapt to almost all vineyard soils, the three it seems to like most are chalk, clay and limestone, all very prevalent throughout Chardonnay's traditional "homeland”.
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