Langhe Chardonnay: origin, viticulture, winemaking, and more

Dramatic change characterised the late twentieth century in Piedmont. By 1980, Altare et al. had thrown tradition to the wind in Barolo, so too had Angelo Gaja in neighbouring Barbaresco. Angelo, a recalcitrant, audacious young man, began working at the family winery in 1961, aged 21. Following several trips to France, Angelo set about revolutionising production; his success—the New York Times called his 1985 Barbaresco’s “the finest wines ever made in Italy”—proved to be the tide that lifted all ships. In 1979, between Christmas and New Year in Treiso, Angelo trod new ground, planting Langhe’s first Chardonnay vines, first producing Gaia & Rey in 1983. Others began planting soon after, including Aldo Conterno and Pio Cesare in ‘85, Ca’ del Baio in ’89, La Spinetta in 93, Marchesi di Gresy and many more. Previously, Chardonnay was regularly confused with Pinot blanc in Italy; both varieties were commonly interspersed in the same vineyard and blended. Angelo Gaja defied convention in Piedmont, producing critically acclaimed barrel-aged and fermented varietal Chardonnay in a nation known solely for quality red wine. Codified in 1994, the Langhe DOC included Chardonnay among common indigenous white varieties, followed by further plantings and increasing interest and effort. Today, production is modest; nevertheless, many growers craft enviable wines deserving global recognition. This article examines Langhe Chardonnay in more detail, charting origin, site selection, viticulture, and winemaking.

Origin and uptake

1979 was a good vintage, albeit diluted by autumn rain; the years’ winter was mild with above-average temperatures and snow heading into January of the following year. Angelo Gaja, 18 years into his trailblazing career at the family winery, had planted Cabernet Sauvignon the year prior, much to the dismay of his father, who had exclaimed, ‘darmagi!’ upon being told of his son’s decision. Angelo believed that only by succeeding on terms accepted by the rest of the world could he draw attention to the wines made from Italy’s indigenous varieties. Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve of 1979, Angelo planted Langhe’s first Chardonnay, a mixed clonal selection of varying sources, in Giacosa, a predominately west-facing MGA in Treiso. At the time, Gaja had no holdings in Barolo (positioned slightly higher than Barbaresco); subsequently, Giacosa’s relative altitude (300-410m ASL) was well-suited to Chardonnay’s early budding and ripening. It is not by chance that today, Giacosa is planted almost equally to Chardonnay (28.5%) as Nebbiolo (30.5%).

Angelo first bottled Gaia & Rey, lovingly named after his eldest daughter Gaia and his grandmother, the family’s matriarch, Clotilde Rey, in 1983. Others followed shortly after, including Pio Cesare in 1985, Ca’ del Baio in ’89, La Spinetta in 93, Aldo Conterno, Marchesi di Gresy, and more. At the time, there had been a ‘fermenting spirit in the air‘, Gaia tells me, an altogether modest interpretation of the revolutionary fever gripping the region. Though motivations were varied, a ‘more worldly outlook’ characterised much of the ‘modernist’ spirit, simplified as wanting to increase notoriety, popularity and fortune. Planting international varieties might seem inevitable, though one must admire Angelo’s defiant spirit, which arguably opened the door for further experimentation. Both Aldo Vaira and Beppe Colla had planted Riesling in Langhe by 1985, hot on the heels of Gaja and Cesare. Plantings of Chardonnay increased too, Gaja enlarged their crop in 1983, planting vines in Cars (opposite Sori San Lorenzo, behind the winery) as well as in Pajore, Pozzo, Bricco, and later (1988) in Rivette and Margheria (Feia and Vivaldo vineyards) 

When Gaia arrived to work with her father in 2004, almost 20 years after he had first bottled Gaia & Rey, she recalls meeting people who were surprised to find out the family made red wine; their Chardonnay had taken on a life of its own. From 1980, cultivation had continued in Langhe, well into the 21st century, others vinified Chardonnay, including Costa di Bussia, Renato Ratti, Bruno Rocca, Giuseppe Cortese, Damilano and others. For much of its history, red wine had dominated Langhe and Italy; natives did not consider white varieties with the same reverence. By 2000 this had—to some degree at least—changed; it was clear that given due attention, Langhe Chardonnay deserved recognition. Today, vigneron craft world-class Chardonnay in Langhe. Among them, Gaja, Giulia Negri, Dave Fletcher and Philine Dienger—whose wines are decisively brilliant.

Growing grapes

Considering the gargantuan surge in land prices over the past decade, one might suppose growers might plant Chardonnay only where economics allows; presupposing these same growers reserve the ‘best’ land for Nebbiolo. However, this supposes that what growers acknowledge as the ‘best’ land is homogenous between varieties. This supposition is, of course, untrue. Formed millennia ago, the Langhe’s rolling hills boast geographical diversity of bewildering magnitude. Within scarcely more than a dozen metres, altitude and exposition vary dramatically. Even within tiny vineyards, parcels of land boast streaks of subsoil differing vastly from that of the next ten rows of vines. This impressive diversity means that even where Nebbiolo reigns, pockets of land are ideally suited to the cultivation of other varieties. 

Chardonnay is an early-budding, early ripening variety. The grape is also notoriously malleable; this is to say that it is distinctly sensitive to site, climate, viticulture and winemaking. Further, Chardonnay loses acidity rapidly as it ripens; an acute challenge in a warm (or warming) climate. Langhe’s continental climate—drier and warmer than Burgundy—demands vigilant site selection. The Langhe DOC (Langhe Chardonnay DOC) spans 3,335 acres across 94 municipalities of Cuneo, stretching south of the Tanaro to Roddino and Borgomale. Vigneron plant Chardonnayacross the length and breadth of the denomination. Most often, plantings are northwest or northeast-facing—e.g., Gaja, Roagna and Fletcher in Cars—or vines are planted at the foot of the slope where exposition is better suited to early-ripening varieties—e.g., Philine Isabelle in Preda and Cavalotto between Bricco Boschis and Vignolo (a stone’s throw from Monprivato). Recently, Gaja has also planted Chardonnay in Trezzo Tinella, a small commune 9km from their Barbaresco home.

As of 2006, at least 34 Chardonnay clones could be found in vineyards throughout France; the University of Burgundy in Dijon developed most of these—the so-called “Dijon clones”. Examples include the lower-yielding clones’ 76′, ’95’ and ’96’ that produce more concentrated clusters. Dave Fletcher selects four clones tailored to maximise acidity and minimise yields. Brezza, Giribaldi, Bastia and Monti also credit French clones. Others opt for massal selection (including Roagna), while Gaja carefully selects vines for their nurseries, a tradition Edward Steinberg recounts in his ‘Vines of San Lorenzo’. The local Alba nursery sells Chardonnay clones; however, there is no clonal recognition, so outcomes are potluck. Preferred rootstocks are generally Kober and SO4 (depending on soil humidity), classics that thrive in Langhe soil.

Chardonnay is a vigorous vine with extensive leaf cover, which can inhibit its grape clusters’ energy and nutrient uptake without sufficient sun and warmth. Since 1997—2000 and 2003 were hot too—growers have not struggled to ripen fruit in Piedmont. Today, pruning is about fruit shading and yield, maximising and minimising, respectively. At Fletcher, 90% of vineyards are ‘no leaf plucking’, absent intense mildew pressure. Fewer buds are left at pruning to encourage leaf vigour; meanwhile, the VSP canopy is trained in a ‘ballooning’ fashion, allowing shoots to push outward for a while to be tucked in at a higher point later. Tucking limits sun exposure (maintaining moderate alcohol) while retaining sufficient shading and breathing room. Interestingly, Fletcher hedges to encourage lateral growth for more bunch coverage. Naturally, smaller yields/crops require less sun exposure (leaf or bunch) to ripen; large bulbous crops might demand less shading but greater total leaf zone. Yields are kept low ‘naturally’, with planting density, young vines, thoughtful pruning, low nutrient input, and not working the soil. As Mark A. Matthews has demonstrated, this ‘route to yield’ (water competition etc.) achieves desirable phenolics and flavour profiles.

As is true elsewhere, Chardonnay in Piedmont is susceptible to powdery mildew. Growers apply treatments (usually Bordo mix) and maintain sufficient airflow. Some growers also experiment with milk as a treatment, though this is not strictly new. Flavescence dorée is much more of a problem locally; Fletcher replants a considerable percentage of his vines each year. Unfortunately, there is little hope of overcoming this disease yet, which plights numerous autochthone varieties. Finally, when ‘too ripe’, Chardonnay can be cloying and flabby; thus, harvest date is pivotal in producing ‘fresh’ wines with sufficient structure. Gaja delays pruning; thus, harvest begins mid-September. Meanwhile, at Fletcher, harvest is divided thrice and starts in August. The first pick is completed as the fruit turns from green tasting to early fruit, capturing ample acidity. In summary, the crux of growing Chardonnay in Langhe is achieving desirable yields and retaining freshness while capturing ripeness in a dry, warming climate.

Making wine

Chardonnay lends itself to almost any winemaking style, from dry still wines to sparkling wines, even late-harvest botrytised wine. In Langhe, Chardonnay can be included in Langhe Bianco, Langhe Bianco Passito and Langhe Chardonnay. Traditionally, the winemaking decisions thought to most ‘shape’ a finished Chardonnay wine was malolactic fermentation and the degree of oak influence. Today, crushing, pressing, phenolics and bâtonnage are equally important. At Fletcher, Chardonnay is pressed whole bunch in a Bucher airbag almost directly to barrel (new and used) with no SO2 or enzymes, as it is at Philine Isabelle—though she will soon experiment with a basket press. Pressing whole bunch is thought to be more delicate, obtaining less harsh stem phenolics (as well as less potassium) and a ‘cleaner’, zippier juice. Dave finds that his high particle content helps nourish the natural ferments. The yield from this pressing format is tiny, as little as 500L per tonne at Fletcher, maintaining acidity and yielding just enough phenolics to structure the wine. Ferments are wild and temperatures uncontrolled; no SO2 at crush/press helps kick this off quickly.

Malolactic fermentation is oft-misunderstood by drinkers and commentators alike. In the ’90s, Chardonnay was frequently big, rich and buttery. Malo played a role in this but was not the sole culprit. Today, malo is much better understood; winemakers control variables influencing diacetyl production (yeast strain, temperature, timing, duration etc.), producing delicate zippy wines irrespective of malo (think Chablis). Fletcher avoids MLF where possible, though it does happen from time to time. At Gaja, there was more malo in the past than today; Gaia recalls a change between 2010 and 2012. Again, this shift helps preserve vital ‘tart’ acidity, given ripeness is no struggle. During élevage, Fletcher avoids bâtonnage, not wanting to ‘fatten’ his wine, though this outcome is not a rule, nor is the decision locally. Again, committed to conserving freshness, Gaja works more with lees and big casks now (for fermentation and ageing), benefitting from the more reductive environment each brings. If preserving acidity is critical in the vineyard, maintaining freshness is paramount in vinifying Langhe Chardonnay; the most compelling examples are structured, fresh and suitably ripe, scarcely exceeding 13% alcohol.

The state of play

Gaia warmly describes her father, Angelo as a ‘concrete dreamer’, Edward Steinberg recalls his ‘mind racing faster than his car’. Since first planting Chardonnay in 1979, the Gaja family have continued cultivating the variety, increasing their holdings several times. The estate’s Gaia & Rey receives broad critical acclaim, commanding a significant price comparable only to grand cru Burgundian Chardonnay. Today trailblazing producers—Philine Isabelle, Dave Fletcher, Giulia Negri, et al.—and renowned traditional estates—Roagna, Cavalotto, Marchesi di Gresy, etc.—produce world-class Chardonnay, picking up where Angelo first planted roots. Alas, quality notwithstanding, today, ‘rare’ native varieties tempt international palates, and any hopes of significant growth in Langhe Chardonnay’s global popularity seems unlikely. Nevertheless, of what is made, much is good, and some are great. And so, astute drinkers might do well to stock up; made well, these are attractive wines, even among their international peers. 

3 thoughts

  1. Mouth watering post, as usual. I would only add as a post script, that here in the US, two producers also pushed the legitimacy of Chardonnay in the Langhe. Pio Cesare was hugely influenced by Pio Boffa and his early incursions into Napa Valley, where Robert Mondavi influenced his decision to make Chardonnay in Piedmont. Pio was, in my experience, in love with the fleshy, exuberant style of Chardonnay he encountered in California.

    And the folks at De Forville in Barbaresco. Their style was, and remains, in my opinion, a restrained and delicious example of how Chardonnay succeeds brilliantly in the Langhe. It might be a wine they made for the US (and with maybe a little influence from their importer, Neal Rosenthal) and meant to be enjoyed in its youth. Additionally, it is priced for those who cannot afford Panerai, Lamborghini, and Gaja.

  2. Mouthwatering post, as usual. I would only add as a post script, that here in the US, two producers also pushed the legitimacy of Chardonnay in the Langhe. Pio Cesare was hugely influenced by Pio Boffa and his early incursions into Napa Valley, where Robert Mondavi influenced his decision to make Chardonnay in Piedmont. Pio was, in my experience, in love with the fleshy, exuberant style of Chardonnay he encountered in California.

    And the folks at De Forville in Barbaresco. Their style was, and remains, in my opinion, a restrained and delicious example of how Chardonnay succeeds brilliantly in the Langhe. It might be a wine they made for the US (and with maybe a little influence from their importer, Neal Rosenthal) and meant to be enjoyed in its youth. Additionally, it is priced for those who cannot afford Panerai, Lamborghini, and Gaja.

  3. Mouthwatering post, as usual. I would only add as a post script, that here in the US, two producers also pushed the legitimacy of Chardonnay in the Langhe. Pio Cesare was hugely influenced by Pio Boffa and his early incursions into Napa Valley, where Robert Mondavi influenced his decision to make Chardonnay in Piedmont. Pio was, in my experience, in love with the fleshy, exuberant style of Chardonnay he encountered in California.

    And the folks at De Forville in Barbaresco. Their style was, and remains, in my opinion, a restrained and delicious example of how Chardonnay succeeds brilliantly in the Langhe. It might be a wine they made for the US (and with maybe a little influence from their importer, Neal Rosenthal) and meant to be enjoyed in its youth. Additionally, it is priced for those who cannot afford Panerai, Lamborghini, and Gaja.

    Bravo, very enjoyable post…

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