The Chardonnay vine grows successfully in most winemaking regions of the world: from the south of England and Champagne to the hot, arid regions of Australia and California.
Chardonnay has few dominant characteristics of its own (butter, melon, hazelnut perhaps?) but it offers the perfect medium for environmental and winemaking influences to impart their character upon the finished wine. Un-oaked Chardonnay from Chablis and Mâcon can be richly influenced by the limestone mineral soils and provide a balance to crisp, green apple flavours yet in northern Italy it is a clean lemony flavour influenced by altitude.
The weight and structure of Chardonnay allows toasted or charred oak to impart a smoky, vanilla or coconut influence when the wine is fermented and aged in oak barrels or has been infused with toasted oak fragments for a less subtle effect. Price is an indication whether oak barrel or oak chips have been used. If the spent fermentation yeast remains in contact with the maturing wine before bottling, a bready or biscuity flavour is achieved. Chardonnay is influenced this way, known as ‘sur lees’, to give complexity whilst retaining elegance.
Champagne is traditionally made ‘sur lees’ and, increasingly, un-oaked New World Chardonnays are made this way. However, the great white Burgundies of the Côte d’Or (Montrachet, Corton Charlemagne, Meursault etc) are often highly complex wines, beautifully balanced and influenced by all of these factors.