The varied vine

Chardonnay's vast appeal—from France to Central Virginia

One of the most widely planted grapes in the world, Chardonnay grows well in a variety of climates and is capable of immense stylistic versatility: It can be a fresh, zesty, easy-drinking table wine; it can be picked ripe and heavily oaked to produce a toasty, buttery wine; or, if it’s planted on a great site, it can produce some of the most profound and thought- provoking wines in the world.

Indeed, Chardonnay was made famous by the intensely structured French wines found in Burgundy, where Chardonnay from the Côte d’Or’s limestone escarpment can mesmerize. For centuries, Burgundian Chardonnay from tiny climates in the Côte d’Or—places like Montrachet, Meursault and Corton-Charlamagne—have been important cornerstones of the global wine market.

In the 1800s, a trove of French vine cuttings took root in other areas of the world—including a wealth of plantings in the United States. More recently, Chardonnay became a major player in the United States’ post-Prohibition wine market when California put American Chardonnay on the map at the 1976 Judgment of Paris. Today, you’ll find it in just about every country with a winemaking industry, and in almost every state in the U.S.—including Virginia.

Early Mountain Vineyards’ winemaker Ben Jordan says the Madison County winery made two Chardonnays this year. With little rain in August, 2015 was a good year for Chardonnay. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Local vines

Chardonnay vines were some of the first to be planted in our state, and many of them are still producing today. Take, for instance, Linden Vineyards’ Hardscrabble. Owner and winemaker Jim Law works with some of the oldest Chardonnay vines in Virginia, planted just outside his Northern Virginia winery more than 30 years ago, to produce one of his most popular wines. Hardscrabble is delicious on release, but it also has tremendous aging potential and can truly come into its own six to 10 years after the harvest year. Law’s wines are philosophic. They don’t always taste the same each year; he makes them to reflect the unique Virginia vintages. If you have the patience to collect them, a vertical of Linden Hardscrabble Chardonnays can be a true exploration of Virginia’s recent wine history.

Closer to home, in Madison County, Early Mountain Vineyards is producing some of Virginia’s most exciting Chardonnays.

“There are sites in Virginia that produce Chardonnay with sufficient natural acidity, and they are almost always my favorite wines,” says Early Mountain winemaker Ben Jordan. “We made two Chardonnays this year: one a blend of our mountain site and our blocks near the winery, and one from the oldest vines at our mountain site.”

With very little rain in late August and early September, 2015 was a good year for Chardonnay, giving the wines more overall richness and persistence.

At Blenheim Vineyards, winemaker Kirsty Harmon’s 2014 Blenheim Farm Chardonnay comes from planting on red clay. It’s juicy and extremely quaffable with subtle touches of oak—your mind might wander to the Mâconnais in Burgundy if you tasted it blind. Harmon uses a blend of French, American and Hungarian barrels, which give the wine’s core a certain dense complexity. But all that richness is eclipsed by Harmon’s light and bright winemaking style. She produces wines full of energy and tension, which makes the array of Chardonnays from Blenheim almost hedonistic to drink.

From Blenheim, you’ll also find Claim House White, an extremely affordable everyday white wine. It’s a blend of 75 percent Chardonnay and 25 percent viognier. These two grapes are rarely blended together, except in Virginia, where, Harmon says, “It’s natural to want to blend them because they grow together.”

Michael Shaps’ Burgundian-style Chardonnay is fermented in French oak barrels. Photo: Martyn Kyle
Michael Shaps’ Burgundian-style Chardonnay is fermented in French oak barrels. Photo: Martyn Kyle

Further afield is Wild Meadow Vineyard, where winemaker Michael Shaps makes a Burgundian-style Chardonnay from his plot in Loudoun County. Shaps’ commitment to ambient yeast (using natural vineyard yeasts instead of commercial) brings a heightened sense of terroir and setting to his wine. He achieves a lean, mouthwatering acidity contrasted with touches of oak, thanks to fermentation in French oak barrels. It’s usually released with a few years of age on it, and it can take much more aging if you plan to cellar it.

Claude Thibaut, of Thibaut-Jannison, focuses almost exclusively on sparkling Chardonnay. Photo: John Robinson
Claude Thibaut, of Thibaut-Jannison, focuses almost exclusively on sparkling Chardonnay. Photo: John Robinson

A bubbly finish

Claude Thibaut, of Thibaut-Janisson, is one winemaker who has really hung his hat on Chardonnay. Focusing almost exclusively on sparkling Chardonnay, Thibaut’s bubbly wines (in particular the Virginia Fizz and Blanc de Chardonnay) are refreshing options at both ends of the spectrum: The Virginia Fizz is an affordable, everyday sparkler, whereas the Blanc de Chardonnay is something you could age, or pop the cork on a special occasion. (Can every day be a special occasion?)

The diversity of Virginia Chardonnay reflects the multitude of Virginia’s soil types, microclimates and the personalities of the winemakers. Tasting Chardonnay from a few producers can be a great way to better understand the wine renaissance that is currently blossoming in Virginia.

One to watch

Though it currently rests in barrels, Virginia will have a new Chardonnay in just a few months. This fall, keep your eyes peeled for the first release of Lovingston Winery’s Josie’s Knoll Chardonnay.

Lovingston is a small, family-run winery operated by Ed and Janet Puckett, their daughter Stephanie Wright and head winemaker Riaan Rossouw. Planted on the prized Josie’s Knoll Vineyard just above the winery (and just outside the Pucketts’ front door), their upcoming Chardonnay is from a very tiny block. It’s a labor of love made especially for Janet, who loves Chardonnay.

“The 2015 Chardonnay is the first vintage we will release from Josie’s Knoll,” Wright said. “We aged it in acacia barrels, and we’re very excited to have it at the winery.”—E.S.