Known commonly as the great white grape of the Burgundy region of France, Chardonnay has become the most popular white wine in America, if not the world. Chardonnay is by nature a rich, full-bodied wine that grows at its best in a relatively cool climate. It is grown in virtually every growing region in the U.S. and is made in a myriad styles. Most Champagne and methode champenoise sparkling wine has Chardonnay in its blend. At one extreme, it can be elegantly floral and forward in the nose, with lovely fruit of pears and melons and a clean green apple acidity with a certain flinty or chalky mineral quality. It often has a full almost "oily" mouthfeel that lasts seemingly forever on the palate, with a perfect balance of fruit, acid and alcohol. Despite the long, complex finish, Chardonnay makes you hungry for food and thirsty for more wine all at the same time. At the other extreme, the first inhalation fills your nostrils with the sweet vanilla of new French oak and the creamy, buttery complexity that only Chardonnay can embody. Butterscotch, hazelnuts, toasted almonds all might come to mind, and the fruit might be tropical in nature, perhaps pineapples or coconuts, with more grapefruit-like acidity. This is truly a chameleon grape, and it can be altered as much by the climate and soil as by the winemaker's hand. In this country, it has found its best representations in Monterey and the Central Coast, Santa Barbara County, Carneros, Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, Willamette Valley (Oregon), Yakima Valley (Washington), Virginia and Long Island.
Marlborough, though relatively young as a wine-growing region, has the largest wine acreage in New Zealand with more than 4,500 hectares (11,115 acres); its first vineyards were planted in 1973 and now make up 40 percent of all New Zealand vineyard area. This large flat river valley at the northern end of South Island contains a great variety of soil patterns, low soil fertility and good drainage, all of which allow winemakers opportunities for producing fine wines in a great variety of styles.
Marlborough wines first appeared on the international wine scene in 1985 with startlingly fresh, clean yet complex Sauvignon Blancs that made consumers sit up and take notice. Today Sauvignon Blanc is the most planted varietal, showing tropical fruit flavors and pungent capsicum herbaceousness that have come to represent the national style.
Chardonnay, Marlborough's second most popular varietal, is produced in a number of styles including sparkling. Like the Sauvignon Blancs, it often shows tropical aromas and relatively high acidity, and is rarely aged in oak. Riesling also thrives here and can produce both fine dry dinner wines and luscious botrytized dessert wines. The wave of the future is to be found in Marlborough's youngest vineyards, where Pinot Noir is making news and quite a reputation with oak-aged wines of finely balanced structure and supple red fruit flavors reminiscent of young Burgundy. Made into sparkling wines, Marlborough Pinot Noirs can also display a refined austerity. To the northwest, Nelson turns out some elegant Chardonnay with hazelnut and citrus flavors.