CHARDONNAY: RESEARCHING THE HUMBLE BEGININGS OF ONE OF THE WORLDS MOST POPULAR GRAPES


Researching the origin of a grape is fascinating.

It is part theory and part science and part history.

Throughout human history we have been moving around the globe searching for the right spots to settle down. I know that sounds general but generally that is what happened. And along for the journey came foods and seeds and such being spread across foreign soils. These seeds in turn found themselves in the Darwinian fix: survival of the fittest.

Fast forward to the Roman Empire and by this point it wasn’t just nomadic wanderings anymore but a ruling culture sending soldiers to conquer more land. The soldiers were now the carriers of seeds and foods. They would fight and secure new soil and take from the existing culture what was of interest to them and drag it back to Rome or wherever the empire had given them land.

Wine is part of this journey. And when we think of where Chardonnay is today in the human consciousness it is easy to ignore or not even be able to contemplate its humble beginnings. Before Cali, before the new world there was chardonnay but even then it was considered the new kid on the block…in theory.

Interestingly enough Chardonnay’s beginnings are linked to another wildly popular grape, Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir’s history is pretty intense stuff that I will have explore in another post but research up ‘til now suggests that the mother grape of the Pinot fam originated in Northeastern France or Southern Germany. It was first mentioned in the 1st century AD by Columella a Roman writer and agriculturalist so it is generally agreed that Pinot Noir or the pinot family is at least 2000 years old.

Pinot Noir is known to be quite unstable in the genetic department susceptible to mutation more so than other vitis vinifera (European varieties) grapes. This is thought to be because it is one of the oldest vines. Therefore it has had more time to cross-pollinate which in turn leaves a larger percentage to be vulnerable to cells mutating.

This vulnerability is what is believed to be responsible for the birth of Chardonnay.

Ladies and Gentlemen: I introduce Gouais Blanc?

Gouais is a curious little grape that hails form Croatia. It was known before and during the Middle Ages as a grape for peasant wine. It is said that Roman Emperor Probus, a forward thinking ruler brought this grape to Northeastern France as a gift to the Gauls. His thinking was that even in times of peaceful lull soldiers should be working to fuel economy and rejuvenate war torn regions.

In employment of his ideas he ordered vineyards to be planted and cultivated to encourage trade. Gouais, which means Gaul in French, became one of the most planted wines of the area. It was meant to for peasants while Pinot Noir was cultivated on the ideal slopes of hills by nobility. With this close proximity to each other it was inevitable that the vulnerable Pinot Noir would eventually gross with the Gouais Blanc grape.

And when it did Chardonnay was born.

It, of course was much more complex than that with mutations happening in the vineyard and the vine grower isolating different forms of this until one showed itself to have advantages in structure and character only to be named and planted as a test vintage but this is pretty much the gist of it all. Also research has not yet shown the precise dates around when this occurred but the thought is that Chardonnay may be in upwards of 1700 years old and known throughout history by many names (not unlike most well known grapes).

As for the Gouais Blanc it is now a mere museum curiosity. It seems to have been wiped out after phylloxera had its way with Europe in the late 1800’s.

All this history I have just explained happened in and around the Burgundy region.

When we get down to brass tax the reason all this went down was because of a mutation probably in a Pinot Noir vineyard. That mutation occurred not only because of a vulnerable Pinot vine but also because of the soil and surrounding climate. The resulting chardonnay grape flourished from here on out in this region because it was born here and this area gave it what it needed to express itself genuinely in different forms.

People fell in love with the steely crispness of the Chablis district. They fell in love with the buttery concentration of Marsala as well as the deep sometimes overwhelming toast and vanilla of Montrachet.

In these areas yields were low and methods were precise. This was has been and still are the results that are now so well known.

Simulations of these expressions have been attempted across time and across the globe. Partly because of a romance with the flavors and aromas of it’s home but also because the grape thrives in a plethora of soils and climates.

And here we come full circle. Clippings come to the new world and we all know what happens.

Chardonnay is on its way back into the hearts of wine lovers around the world and particularly in the US. More restraint is being shown in the oak exposure department and manipulation in general.

Let’s give this grape from humble beginnings another chance. It’s out in the flower garden crying up at our window asking to be let back into our hearts.

Trust your wine merchant and you will find a new love for “Chard.”

Cheers.

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One response to this post.

  1. […] Chardonnay: Researching the Humble beginings of One of the World’s Most popular Grapes […]

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