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Chardonnay facts and fictions

Q: My brother-in-law, who has made his home in Israel for the past 65 years, says Chardonnay wine is named for the hills of Jerusalem, not a small town in Burgundy. In his telling, crusaders returned to France with vines grown in the area, known in Hebrew as sha’har adonai (i.e., “gate of God”).

A: Your brother-in-law isn’t the first to suggest that Chardonnay—both the wine and its name—originated in ancient Israel. But we haven’t found any evidence that this is true.

It’s possible that crusaders could have brought home vine cuttings in the Middle Ages. But those cuttings couldn’t have been from Chardonnay vines and the grape couldn’t have been called anything resembling “Chardonnay.”

There are two issues here—the origin of the name and the origin of the wine grape. Let’s focus for the moment on the name “Chardonnay.”

One thing is certain. “Chardonnay” has been the name of the grape for only a century or so, though it’s been the name of a village in France since the mid-1400s.

In the centuries before the grape’s name was standardized in the 1890s, it had many names and some of them sounded similar to “Chardonnay,” but none were spelled like the village.

These names for the grape included Chardenai, Chardenay, Chardenet, Chardennet, Chardonai, Chardonnet, Chatenait, Chardonet, Chaudenay, and Chaudenet.

Yes, those names resemble the Hebrew phrase sha’har adonai, but resemblance alone doesn’t prove a word’s etymology.

More important, as far as we can tell none of these names were used in reference to wine until hundreds of years after the Crusades.

If the crusaders had brought a “Chardonnay”-sounding name home with them, we would have seen evidence of it much earlier.

The earliest example we’ve found for a Chardonnay-like word used in the wine sense is a 17th-century citation in Chardonnay, Saône-et-Loire (2004), Emmanuel Nonain’s history of the village from the 10th through the 17th centuries.

Nonain writes that inspectors visiting the region reported in 1685 that Saint-Sorlin (now La Roche-Vineuse) “fait du meilleur chardonnet mais en petite quantité” (“makes the best chardonnet  but in small quantities”).

Complicating the picture is the fact that over the centuries the grape has had a great many local French names that don’t sound remotely like the current word or that even begin with the letter c: Beaunois, Aubaine, Epinette, Meroué, and scores of others—all synonyms for the same grape.

For example, in Chablis in northernmost Burgundy, where some have speculated that French vintners originally cultivated the Chardonnay vine, it’s still sometimes called Beaunois.

And true Chablis is also made from Chardonnay grapes. The local appellation (or official geographic name for the grape grown locally) became Chablis in 1938, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine (1994), edited by Jancis Robinson.

You can see the difficulty here. It’s dicey to come up with a single etymological explanation for the name of a grape that has had so many names and that has been grown in so many places.

As for the small village of Chardonnay, located in the Mâconnais region of southern Burgundy, its name is derived from a word in medieval Latin, Cardonnacum, meaning “place of thistles.” (“Thistle” is carduus in classical Latin and chardon in French.)

Nonain writes in his book about the village that it was originally known by its medieval name, Cardonacum (we’ve also found Cardoniacum and Cardenacum in old texts).

This name, Nonain says, evolved into Chardenay in the 13th century, then into Chardonay, with either one n or two, in the middle of the 15th century. From about the 18th century, it has consistently had two n’s.

While many people assume the grape was named for the village, the relationship between the names is murky at best.

Nonain says the name of the grape was standardized in 1896 at the suggestion of “certain members” of a national congress of wine authorities, meeting in Chalon-sur-Saône in southern Burgundy.

Why name it “Chardonnay”? Perhaps because some of the grape’s earlier names sounded like the village of Chardonnay, which just happened to be in southern Burgundy, the site of the wine congress.

Before 1896, Nonain says, the vine was most commonly known as Chardenet, Chaudenet, Chardonnet, or Chardenay.

“Although there are similarities between these names and the successive names of the village,” he adds, “one can hardly draw conclusions about the geographical origin of the famous grape.”

Which brings us to the origins of the famous grape itself.

In a joint study published in 1999, American and French scientists said DNA research had proved that the Chardonnay vine was a cross between two others—Pinot and Gouais blanc.

And where did the parent vines come from?

Pinot, the oldest grape variety in Burgundy, “may already have been present in the Burgundy region at the time of the Roman conquest,” the scientists said.

But Gouais blanc, according to the authors of the study, probably came from Croatia and was introduced to ancient Gaul by Romans in the third century.

“The third century Roman emperor Probus, a Dalmatian, encouraged viticulture in the provinces and is said to have given the Gauls a grape from his homeland,” the scientists said. “It is reasonable to consider that perhaps Probus’ gift to the Gauls was Gouais blanc.”

This is speculative, of course, and it leaves the question of who crossed the parent vines to create what we now call Chardonnay. The scientists suggest that the crossing happened spontaneously—that is, by natural causes.

A wine writer, Hugh Johnson, author of Vintage: The Story of Wine (1989), says Cistercian monks in Chablis in the 1100s may have been the first to cultivate the Chardonnay grape.

But now we’re entering into even more speculation. Sometimes, the more we learn about a subject, the more questions arise. This is one of those times.

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