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Chardonnay is the most famous vine variety of all. So powerful is the C-word on a wine label that, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay has virtually no synonyms - although in Styria in southern Austria some winemakers persist with the tradition of calling it Morillon. In the 1980s something extremely important to the history of wine happened: "Chardonnay" became a name more familiar to the world's wine buyers than any of the geographically-named wines this vine variety had for centuries produced, such as Chablis, Corton-Charlemagne, or Montrachet. When the emerging New World wine industries introduced varietal labelling - calling wines by the name of their principal grape variety - it was Chardonnay that made the most friends.

Wine drinkers find it flatteringly easy to enjoy, with its broad, exuberant charms, relatively high alcohol and low acidity, and lack of powerful scent. Vine growers find it easy to grow productively and profitably (it can yield well and it ripens usefully early, although it buds rather too early for frost-free comfort in cool climates). And winemakers revel in the range of different winemaking techniques to which Chardonnay readily submits: not just a wide range of dry white wines with more weight than most, but delicate sparkling wines and even a few extremely successful sweet white wines made with the benefit of noble rot.

All over the world, producing Chardonnay has been seen as a rite of passage in new wine regions. Almost any wine producer with ambitions to belong to the great international club of wine grown-ups has to prove that he or she can make a Chardonnay, preferably a Chardonnay fermented and matured in new(ish) oak barrels the Burgundian way, with the best of them. The fact is that most of this sort of wine is far more a product made in the cellar than in the vineyard. Or, to put it another way, skilfully-made barrel-fermented Chardonnays tend to taste very much the same wherever they are made. Indeed when many people say they like the taste of Chardonnay, what they often mean is that they like the taste of oak, or at least the qualities of oak maturation.

So, although in terms of total area planted Chardonnay lags well behind such workhorse varieties as Spain's Airén and Italy's Trebbiano, it is more widely distributed than any other grape variety - probably even more widely than its red wine counterpart Cabernet Sauvignon, which needs more sunshine to ripen it than Chardonnay. Chardonnay mania, of which French coopers have been the major beneficiaries, was a phenomenon of the 1980s and 1990s but in the early 1970s it was hardly grown outside its Burgundian homeland and Champagne. It accounted for only a tiny proportion of all vines grown in California and Australia, for example, whereas by the early 1990s it had become the most planted white wine grape in both. At times demand for Chardonnay grapes from wine producers has been so much greater than supply (Australia in the mid 1990s springs to mind) that Chardonnay has been blended with one or two other varieties. Sémillon-Chardonnay and Chardonnay-Colombard blends became the pragmatic solution to an industry's problem.

The Chardonnay vine is nothing if not adaptable. Commercially acceptable Chardonnay can be produced in really quite hot wine regions such as the hot interiors of California, South Africa and Australia where clever winemaking can give it tropical fruit flavours and even some suggestion of oakiness, often using oak chips. In cooler wine regions such as Chablis, Carneros and Tasmania, on the other hand, it can produce apple-crisp juice which, in less ripe years, can have rapier-like acidity. The best examples can benefit from five or even more years in bottle to soften that acidity and develop rounder flavours to balance it - although less concentrated examples produced in cool years may simply taste even leaner as the bloom of youth fades. Excluding premier cru and grand cru Burgundy, Chardonnay does not make wines for seriously long ageing.

Perhaps Chardonnay's most distinctive role in cooler climate regions is as a vital ingredient in top-quality sparkling wine, especially Champagne. Although in most Champagne it is blended with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, Blanc de Blancs Champagne which is made exclusively of Chardonnay shows that it can produce elegant, lively, savoury fizz all by itself. (What the dark-skinned Pinots tend to add is not colour but ballast, or body.) Ambitious producers of sparkling wine the world over tend to depend on Chardonnay to add class to their wines. There is something about the elusive flavours of Chardonnay that marries particularly well with the traditional Champagne-making process, involving extended ageing with the residues of a second fermentation in bottle, making a much deeper, denser sparkling wine than one based on, say, Chenin Blanc (as in the Loire) or Riesling (as in some top quality Sekt).

The wines of Chablis in northern Burgundy, one of France's coolest wine regions, have a very particular flavour. It reminds me of wet stones, with some suggestion of very green fruit, but without the strong aroma and lean build of a Sauvignon Blanc. Because of its latitude, Chablis does not easily ripen the Chardonnay on which it exclusively depends. The wines are much higher in acidity and lighter in body than those made on the Côte d'Or to the south. Oak and malolactic fermentation are exceptional and - partly as a result - Chablis can age superbly. Sappy and refreshing in youth, it typically goes through a rather awkward adolescent stage where it can take on some odd wet wool odours and then, in glorious maturity at about 10 to 15 years old, it is an extraordinarily appetising drink reminiscent of wet stones and oatmeal. In more temperate climates Chardonnay can yield some of the finest dry white wine in the world. The heartland of Burgundy, the Côte d'Or, is effectively the nerve centre of this style of wine: savoury, dense, the grape a transparent medium through which different vineyards (and winemakers) can communicate their own individual styles, often only after many years in bottle.

Indeed, the truly thrilling thing about Chardonnay grown on the Cote d'Or is that here, as nowhere else, it can express a sense of place, even if winemaking - which for top-quality Chardonnay produced anywhere almost invariably includes fermentation and maturation in different sorts of oak barrels; a second, softening malolactic fermentation; and different levels of stirring, or "batonnage", of the lees at the bottom of the barrel - inevitably superimposes itself too - sometimes too much. Oak can be tasted in clumsier examples in the form of a certain toastiness, char - or even vanilla flavours in the case of American rather than the more normal French oak favoured by Burgundian wine producers.

Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, Meursault and Corton-Charlemagne are some of the most famous names. Typical Meursault tends to be butter-golden and a little heavier and earlier-maturing than a typical wine from "The Montrachets" (as the villages would doubtless be called in Britain) which has more lean, pure, nuanced character capable of developing for up to a decade in bottle, while Corton-Charlemagne can be nutty, almost almond-flavoured. But "typical" Burgundy hardly exists. Wines here are made with exasperatingly varied levels of skill, so that one winemaker's basic Bourgogne Blanc, the most basic appellation, may be better than another's Montrachet, even though it costs a fraction of the price. The name of the producer is generally more important than the name of the appellation.

The Mâconnais tends to produce a more New World style of Chardonnay: plump, open, user-friendly wines that can taste of melon, or apples warmed by the sun. Most of these wines, particularly Mâcon Blanc and Saint-Véran, are designed to be drunk within two or three years of the vintage, although the most ambitious producers in the region, notably in Pouilly-Fuissé, are increasingly making wines to rival those of the Côte d'Or, without Côte d'Or prices. Chardonnay grown between the Mâconnais and the Côte d'Or in the Côte Chalonnaise tends to taste somewhere between the two styles.

These are France's traditional Chardonnay vine strongholds but the variety's influence has been spreading within France as elsewhere. Wine producers in the Loire Valley have embraced this fashionable grape so enthusiastically that the laws have to explicitly ban more than 20% of the variety in blends for sparkling Saumur and the dry whites of Anjou and Touraine in order to preserve the Loire's own traditional character. Some Muscadet producers have also been experimenting with oaked Chardonnays. And several of France's more cosmopolitan producers in distinctly non-Chardonnay territory have quietly planted a row or two for their own interest.

Within the appellation system Chardonnay has invaded Limoux with the blessing of the authorities, to add finesse to the local sparkling Crémant de Limoux as well as producing rather fine, lemony barrel-fermented still wine. Vast amounts of Chardonnay are also grown on the lower, flatter vineyards of the Languedoc to produce generic IGP Pays d'Oc. As one would expect in an area known as France's New World, the quality of these wines varies according to the position of the vineyard(s) (for many of them are blends) and the quality and style of the winemaking. Price offers a fairly good guide. The cheapest Chardonnay d'Oc is simply a relatively full-bodied dry white wine, while the very best, usually given full oak treatment in the winery, can offer some of the class of Burgundy.

Thanks to an extraordinary boom in plantings, Chardonnay has become synonymous with white wine in California and is responsible for a remarkably homogenous ocean of off-dry, golden, quite alcoholic, easy-to-drink liquid. While the most commercial examples are usually deliberately slightly sweetened to give them wide appeal, the key to serious quality in a California Chardonnay is climate. Wherever coastal fogs reliably slow down the ripening process, extending the growing season of this early ripening variety, and yields are kept in check, then California can produce some very fine wines indeed, with considerable Burgundian savour to them, but without the Old World surliness in youth. Carneros, and much of Sonoma and the Central Coast, have all produced some fine Chardonnay made very much in the mould of a good Meursault.

The variety is also grown almost everywhere in North America where it has even half a chance of thriving, including the cool wine regions of Canada and New York state (where Long Island has proved rather successful) as well as Washington and Oregon which may respectively be better suited to Riesling and Pinot Gris - although Oregon's Chardonnay is improving thanks to better clones.

Australia's strong suit is the reliable quality and varied character of her middle-range Chardonnays. They have been hugely successful commercially with their obvious, simple fruitiness, perked up with (usually added) acid and, often, oak chips. The overall style has changed considerably from rich, oaky and alcoholic to something much leaner and, in the better cases, more appetising and refreshing. Mudgee has produced some fine Chardonnay from a rare clone of the variety that locals believe was imported in the nineteenth century, decades before Chardonnay mania hit Australia in the early 1980s. Cooler areas of Australia can produce more subtle Chardonnay, more reminiscent of Côte d'Or wine in structure if not flavour. Tasmania makes the leanest examples, some so lean they are snapped up by Australia's sparkling wine industry. The Adelaide Hills, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, cooler parts of New South Wales and the southern vineyards of Western Australia have all proved themselves capable of making top quality Chardonnays whose higher acidity levels can preserve them for several years in bottle (whereas most commercial Australian Chardonnay should be drunk as young as possible and ideally before its second birthday).

Australian producers may envy the high acid levels that their counterparts in New Zealand can hardly avoid, while New Zealanders would probably be happier with more reliable ripeness. Despite New Zealand's reputation for Sauvignon Blanc, the country can also make fine Chardonnay. Winemaking standards have been varied but those prepared to restrain yields and oak influence can produce subtle, sometimes exciting wines. Gisborne Chardonnay has long had its followers but there have been dramatic examples from wineries all over the North and South Islands. Experimentation with the world's favourite grape variety in South Africa was severely hampered in the 1980s by the fact that the original official planting stock was seriously inferior, but the quality can be truly inspiring.

The vineyards of South America have also been invaded by Chardonnay. The vine has shown real promise (and value) in Chile's burgeoning cooler wine regions. Argentina has a smaller proportion of its extensive vineyards planted to Chardonnay, but almost exact reproductions of California Chardonnay have been produced under the Catena label and investors from a host of different countries have been establishing cooler, higher vineyards such as those at Tupungato.

In the Old World, Spain has relatively limited plantings of Chardonnay for the variety tends to ripen too fast there, and its affinity with the prevailing American oak has been less obvious (although Australians and Californians have provided some excellent examples). Portugal has some experimental plantings but its own array of indigenous vine varieties is reason enough to resist the international invader.

Italy made some of the earliest varietal Chardonnays and pretty vapid they were too, but it is now possible to find some ambitious wines made with great care. Chardonnay has long been grown in the north-east of the country and can be found, often in simpler, unoaked varietal versions in Friuli, Trentino and Alto Adige, although much of the fruit is siphoned off for the spumante industry.

Austria and Switzerland have proved they belong to the international fine winemaking club by producing some excellent, concentrated barrel-fermented Chardonnays. The variety is also responsible for some very fine botrytised sweet wines in Austria's Burgenland, sometimes blended with Welschriesling for additional acidity and aroma.

Other excellent sweet wines made from nobly rotten Chardonnay grapes have come from the Mâconnais in France, Romania, New Zealand and Coonawarra in Australia, proving yet another of Chardonnay's attributes.

By Jancis Robinson