a sense, Chardonnay wine is a bit like Master Yoda: It’s been around for a long time. The earliest recorded reference to the wine dates back to 1330, when Cistercian monks built stonewalls around their vineyard to plant Chardonnay grapes. It is possible that the monks were looking for new and intriguing uses for grapes, but they probably were just bored. Life in a monastery can get that way without the benefit of the Internet — and those monks missed the rise of the Information Superhighway by some 660 years.
DNA profiling unlocks Chardonnay
According to Uncork, DNA profiling indicates that the Chardonnay we know today is a cross of an old, nearly extinct, variety called Gouais blanc and a member of the Pinot family. (And you thought DNA profiling was something that only the FBI did. Apparently, mavens at the University of California, Davis, DNA-profile grapes too, which sounds pretty creepy, if you ask me.)
Chardonnay’s origin story
Yet, just like Superman, every grape has its origin story — and Chardonnay is no exception.
That origin story starts with a village called Mâconnais in the Burgundy region of France, where the monks planted the grape. Well-known today, the vineyards of Burgundy have a long history that winds all the way back to Roman times.
Between conquests, the Romans acquired expertise in vine cultivation and winemaking. Those strange Romans drank their wine watered-down. There are various theories why the Romans did this. Some historians say that the Romans believed that only the Gods were entitled to drink wine straight-up — which meant that the Romans were entitled to watery wine, according to The Bourgogne Wine Board. For my part, I believe that drinking watery wine is disgusting under any circumstance.
The origin of the word Chardonnay, however, is somewhat less gross.
According to Demystified Vine, the ‘Chardonnay’ is said to have come from the Latin-based word Cardonnacum, meaning “where the thistle grows.” And since Chardonnay seems to have been first grown in the Burgundy region of France, we also know that thistle grows there too — or at least it did when those wily monks started planting the grapes outside their monastery.
“Modern” Chardonnay history starts in 1800’s
After the Cistercian monks produced Chardonnay in the early 14th century, the history of the grape for is a bit sketchy for a while. Few people seem to have had much interest in what happened to Chardonnay until it arrived in California in the late 19th century.
In fact, wine experts squabbled over the name of the grape until the late 1800’s. Some wine maestros wanted to call it Chardonnet, while others advocated calling it Chardonnay, as we know both the grape and wine today. After some discussion, the Ampelographic Congress in Chalon-Sur-Saône settled on calling it Chardonnay, according to Winerox, a wine educator.
As it turns out, the Chardonnay grape goes by many names — including Montrachet, Meursault, Pouilly-Fuissé and Chablis, according The Washington Post — but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you really want to make your head spin, you should check out this page, complements of the Julius Kühn-Institut, which provides a list of 175 alternate names for Chardonnay grapes.
Moving forward to the modern history of Chardonnay, the first documented planting of the grape in California was by Charles Wetmore — the founder of California’s Cresta Blanca winery — in 1882.
Cresta Blanca Chardonnay won California its first international award during the 1889 Paris Exposition, according to NoeNill Travels. The win put both California and Wetmore on the map — but Prohibition would eventually force the winery to shut its doors. Pre-Prohibition, other aspiring wine-makers would follow Wetmore’s example in nearby areas.
One of them, Ernest Wente, already an established winemaker, decided to add cuttings from Montpellier, France, to his winery in the Livermore Valley in 1912, the Napa Valley Register reported. In Livermore, 1912 is considered a sort of a genesis for California winemaking.
Chardonnay gets a centennial celebration
True to form, in 2012, a flurry of media reports celebrated the centennial of Wente’s experiment.
In February of that year, a reporter for The Mercury News acknowledged the occasion in an article, writing: “As time passed, Ernest’s experimentation with the chardonnay clone ignited a national love affair with the grape. Shortly after Prohibition, there were 100 acres of chardonnay planted in California. Today, there are 100,000 acres and more than 75 percent is derived from the Wente clone.”
Travel the world, taste Chardonnay
But, of course, Chardonnay isn’t just for California vineyards. Today, Chardonnay is grown from New Zealand to New England — and everywhere in-between — though I found no evidence that the grape is planted or the wine is made in Saudi Arabia.
Notwithstanding its apparent absence from Riyadh and the surrounding environs, Chardonnay is the most planted grape in the world, according to EatingWell. In a similar vein (or vine) it is one of the most popular wines around.
Chardonnay popularity got a boost from 2008 film Bottle Shock much the way the 2004 film Sideways had a positive impact on Pinot Noir and a negative impact on Merlot — and an article in Vivino details why.
But for the Chardonnay-curious, a key scene in Bottle Shock shows a business executive opening a bottle of wine by cutting the top off with a Japanese sword. The line to remember from that scene is: “Oh Jim, that is some Chardonnay.”
Anything but Chardonnay?
But not everyone is a fan of Chardonnay.
A 1995 article The New York Times reported on the “Anything but Chardonnay” movement. Though the “ABCs,” as the anti-Chardonnay group is called, laments that the wine is too buttery, too oaky or too rich, my research suggests today the idea is nothing more than a marketing ploy to sell pens and t-shirts that say “Anything but Chardonnay” on it.
Despite the supposed movement against the wine, Chardonnay keeps flying off the shelf of wine stores. Close to 28.3 million nine liter cases of Chardonnay wine were sold in the U.S. during 2020, according to Nielsen.
But maybe the high Chardonnay sales had something to do with the pandemic that has swept the country? After all, if you can’t go to the opera because of stay-at-home orders, why not drink a glass (or even several bottles) of Chardonnay instead?
The Making of a Chardonnay
A few words should be said about the making of the Chardonnay.
The wine can be produced in one of two ways: The first way is in aged oak where the grapes undergo something called malolactic fermentation, and the second way is in stainless steel, and with no malolactic fermentation, also known as unoaked Chardonnay.
By way of background, in malolactic fermentation, malic acid is converted into lactic acid during the winemaking process. This conversion softens the acidity of the wine, bringing a butter-like flavor to it that Chardonnay is often known for. Chardonnays made with malolactic fermentation are usually aged in new oak, so that the finished wines are more full-bodied with oak-influenced flavors.
For a while, some winemakers rebelled against buttery-style Chardonnay, and instead started making the wine in stainless steel tanks. Using a steel tanks instead of oak barrels for fermentation brought out the grape’s acidity and freshness. What this means is that unoaked Chardonnays tend to be brighter and more fruit-forward — and don’t have the heavier essence of oak.
Unfortunately, since steel-fermented Chardonnay doesn’t undergo malolactic fermentation, it also won’t give you the buttery flavor either.
Chardonnay brings out strong emotions
Yet, in spite of its various fermentation options — or perhaps because of them — Chardonnay brings forth strong emotions. An article in Forbes lamented in 2018 that most wine drinkers don’t understand Chardonnay and commented that the image of Chardonnay “is all a lie, a mere façade.”
“The perception that Chardonnay is a full-bodied, fruit-forward wine with creamy, buttery, rich flavors is, ironically, due to the fact that the grape is actually quite neutral in character. Because it is both neutral and adaptable to many environments, Chardonnay becomes a blank canvas for winemakers to paint in any style they choose,” the reporter writes.
As the reporter notes, today Chardonnay is planted in every major wine-producing country which, in turn, can greatly affect the structure and fruit quality of the resulting wine. Cooler climates produce Chardonnay with higher acidity, lighter body, and restrained fruit character, while warmer climates can produce big “boozy Chardonnays with in-your-face flavor,” the reporter says.
Few final words about Chardonnay
In other words, if your heart and creativity are in it, anything is possible when you plant a vine of Chardonnay grapes — even if the vineyard is alongside a monastery.
When I was a kid, my mom thought that I’d have my own talk show because I was always asking people lots of questions about themselves. When I graduated college, I began living my own dream as a reporter for a news media outlet. As a journalist, I spoke daily with public affairs officers who represented diverse government and corporate clients.
I soon realized that public affairs combined the best of both worlds of journalism and television talk shows — I get to learn interesting and unusual things about people who worked with me, I then get to tell their story. With this thought in mind, I spent two years at CIA, where I was a supervisor in the Public Communications Branch at the Office of Public Affairs.
As a strategic communicator, I juggle many balls — but I’m a writer first. Writing is my first love. You can say that I’m addicted to it.
On a personal level, my parents taught me the value of travel when I was young, and since then, I’ve been an avid traveler — I have visited 20 countries. Though I’ve learned important lessons from each of my trips, my trip to Chile — the string bean-shaped country — was my favorite.
To learn more about me and my digital travels, visit my Twitter page.