A Global Tasting Guide to Chardonnay

A Global Tasting Guide to Chardonnay

Scroll down below to see our list of value Chardonnays from around the world.

You might say Chardonnay remains the country’s most popular domestic white wine because, well, you can say Chardonnay.

It slips off the tongue as easily as it slips into the mouth. It’s California’s most-planted wine grape (as of the latest USDA totals), which means that you can find plenty to choose from at all price levels. The grape’s popularity ranges across a rainbow of styles. Its affinity for new oak aging, malolactic fermentation and other tricks of the trade translates into a flavor profile that offers something for everyone. And that can be a little confusing.

It‚Äôs not easy to know what any bottle labeled Chardonnay will taste like. Will it be steely and crisp, loaded with green apples and lemony citrus? Will it be fleshy and fruity‚ÄĒa bowl of stone fruits, tropical fruits, bubble gum? Will it taste like buttered popcorn? Toast and coffee? Ancient sea life soaked in chalk? In truth, Chardonnay can be any and all of the above.

Every major wine-producing country on the planet grows Chardonnay, but a few in particular have put a distinctive imprint on the malleable grape. In Australia, the ripe and tropical flavors of [yellowtail] are counter-pointed by the vivacious, ocean-influenced Chardonnays from Margaret River. New Zealand Chards offer sharply etched minerality and citrus fruits. In Chile’s Casablanca Valley the grape turns racy and pineapple-scented. Oregon’s Dijon clone Chardonnays combine ripe citrus and stone fruit flavors with European elegance.

Italy’s take on Chardonnay includes the mineral-laden, high-acid wines of Friuli, the classic, honey-scented wines of Tuscany and the plump, herbaceous versions from Sicily. Spain contributes round, fruity, value-priced wines from Navarra, Penedès and Somontano. Along with the storied Chardonnays of Burgundy, southern France produces a wide variety of affordable, pleasant versions.
With that incredible range of styles, it‚Äôs a tricky matter to put an iron-clad stamp on certain ones as definitive Chardonnay. Nevertheless, following are the regions associated with the very best Chardonnays in a variety of styles. ‚ÄĒPaul Gregutt

Burgundy is Chardonnay‚Äôs spiritual home. The wines are the greatest expressions of the relationship between vine and soil. That is why Chardonnay is only found in just the right chalk and limestone soils from Chablis through to the C√īte de Beaune. Chablis is certainly the purest expression of the grape. The cool climate allows acidity to bring a crispness and steely character to even the ripest Grand Cru wine. On the C√īte de Beaune, from Corton-Charlemagne to Chassagne-Montrachet, including Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet, each village and vineyard brings a different character.¬†Corton-Charlemagne has weight, solemnity. Meursault has opulence, richness. Chassagne-Montrachet is calm, mine ral, often honeyed. Puligny-Montrachet is, simply, the best, producing wines from its grand cru vineyards that age for 20, 30, 40 years‚ÄĒoften with prices to match.

But Burgundy can also offer value in its white wines, particularly the vineyards of the southern M√Ęcon region. Apart from overpriced Pouilly-Fuiss√©, other appellations with Pouilly in their name, Pouilly-Loch√© and Pouilly-Vinzelles, are fresh, light wines, often without oak. Vir√©-Cless√© and Saint-V√©ran are other good values.¬†Vintages in Burgundy matter. It is marginal wine country, with long, cold winters and short and hot summers. Red wine and white wine vintages often do not coincide. So both 2008 and 2007 were better for white than red, 2006 was better for red. The 2005 vintage was an exception, outstanding for both. The 2007 white wines, currently on the market, are fresh and fruity. Age the Grand Cru and Premier Cru for 10 years or more, drink the wines from M√Ęcon now, and the rest over the next two years. ‚ÄĒRoger Voss

Recommended                                                                                                                                                                                                                                98 Bouchard Père et Fils 2007 Le Montrachet Grand Cru; $600
96 Domaine Leflaive 2007 Les Pucelles Premier Cru (Puligny-Montrachet); $260
96 Joseph Drouhin 2006 Marquis de Laguiche Premier Cru (Chassagne-Montrachet}; $114
95 Domaine Long-Depaquit 2007 Moutonne Grand Cru (Chablis); $95
95 Louis Latour 2006 Corton-Charlemagne; $NA
94 Xavier Monnot 2006 Les Charmes Premier Cru (Meursault); $99

It took California a long time to understand that Chardonnay needs a cool climate to do its best, just as it does in Burgundy. The grape and wine were considered relatively elite through the 1970s, but in the early 1980s Chardonnay emerged as a so-called ‚Äúfighting varietal‚ÄĚ due to the efforts of wineries such as Kendall-Jackson, which made it in a richer, more accessible style than had been the practice. Since then, Chardonnay has been America‚Äôs top white wine, by far. There‚Äôs a massive quantity of it planted throughout the state, even in the Central Valley, but the best terroir is close to the cool, foggy Pacific coast.

Because of the influence of winemaker interventions such as barrel fermentation and aging, sur lies and battonage, and malolactic fermentation, it can be difficult to tell the difference between Chardonnays from Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, Sonoma Coast, Santa Rita Hills, Arroyo Grande Valley and all points in between. All provide ripe fruit, good acidity and, often, a welcome touch of minerality to counter the richness. In general, the cooler the climate, the brighter and tarter the fruit; Edna Valley provides the best example. Napa Valley is in general too warm, giving the wines an earthy, tobaccoey softness, which also can be found in some Carneros bottlings. Depending on winemaker style, some Chardonnays can be quite high in alcohol, topping 15%.

Chardonnay is not as vintage dependent as Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, although it is somewhat sensitive to mold in a chilly, wet area. The past several years have been excellent, with 2007 offering stellar wines, 2008 perhaps a shade less so. There‚Äôs great excitement about the impending 2009s, but producer consistency is everything. The wines typically begin to fade beyond four or five years of age. Bonterra provides one of the most consistent value Chardonnays with its Mendocino County bottling. The most recent release, the 2008, was $14. ‚ÄĒSteve Heimoff

Recommended                                                                                                                                                                                                                                97 Failla 2008 Estate Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $42
96 Fess Parker 2008 Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Barbara County); $28
96 Gary Farrell 2007 Rochioli Vineyard Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $50
96 Ojai 2007 Clos Pepe Vineyard Chardonnay (Sta. Rita Hills); $38
96 Rusack 2008 Reserve Chardonnay (Santa Maria Valley); $32
96 Williams Selyem 2008 Heintz Vineyard Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $50

Chardonnay acreage in Oregon is less than half that of Pinot Gris, the leading white grape, but in terms of quality and value it belongs right at the top. Producers such as Adelsheim and Chehalem planted Dijon clones in the 1990s, transforming the dominant style from heavy, banana-flavored wines to elegant, textural wines with penetrating minerality. Fragrant and steely when unoaked, they remain racy and vibrant when aged in new barrels, thanks to the natural acidity of the grapes. In the Wine Buying Guide you‚Äôll find top-rated Oregon Chardonnays from Adelsheim, Brick House, Carabella, Chehalem, Domaine Drouhin, Evening Land, Lemelson, Hamacher, Ponzi and Rex Hill. ‚ÄĒPaul Greutt

91 Adelsheim 2008 Caitlin’sReserve Chardonnay (Willamette Valley); $40
91 Hamacher 2007 CuvéeForêts Diverses Chardonnay (Willamette Valley); $35

Good Chardonnay is grown throughout Washington, but certain vineyards seem to do especially well. Canoe Ridge, Cold Creek, Conner Lee, DuBrul, Elerding and Stillwater Creek turn up on numerous vineyard designates, and their Chardonnays express the twin peaks of Washington viticulture: rich fruit and bright acidity. Many of the best examples are barrel-fermented, and match their green apple and stone fruit flavors to the toast and butterscotch that barrel aging brings. Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest, the two biggest brands, make close to a dozen different Chardonnays between them, including excellent vineyard designates from Cold Creek and Canoe Ridge. ‚ÄĒP.G.

93 Rulo 2008 Sundance Vineyard Chardonnay (Wahluke Slope); $20
92 Sparkman 2008 Lumière Chardonnay (Columbia Valley); $25

Few would argue that Argentina‚Äôs sun-drenched, desert-influenced terroir favors red wines, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon in particular, over whites, including Chardonnay. That said, high-elevation vineyards in the Andean foothills of western Mendoza can be cool enough, especially at night, to produce legitimately good and balanced Chardonnays. Flavors still tend to run toward tropical fruit and baked apple, and the wines are usually full-bodied¬† and fully oaked. It‚Äôs a style that suits what nature yields, and as a result no one should anticipate Argentinean wineries producing acid-driven, Burgundian Chardonnays at any time in the foreseeable future. ‚ÄĒMichael Schachner

88 Trapiche 2008 Broquel Chardonnay (Mendoza); $17.
87 Pascual Toso 2009 Chardonnay (Mendoza); $13.
87 Trivento 2008 GoldenReserve Chardonnay (Mendoza); $21.

Ever since Chile began blanketing the export market with its wines back in the early 1990s, Chardonnay has been one of this country‚Äôs mainstays. Which is not to say Chilean Chardonnays are all world class. Far from it, in fact, as many Chilean Chardonnays favor simple tropical fruit flavors and arguably too much natural or manipulated oak flavor for their own good. Fortunately for fans of this varietal wine, the 21st century has seen Chilean wineries move closer to the cool, breezy Pacific coast for their Chardonnay fruit, with regions such as Casablanca, Leyda and most recently Limar√≠ emerging as solid Chardonnay zones not dissimilar to the Sonoma Coast, Monterey and Santa Rita Hills regions in California. In addition, the southern regions of B√≠o B√≠o and Malleco feature cool-climate conditions that permit Chardonnay to reach its potential. ‚ÄĒM.S.

89 Maycas de Limarí 2008 Reserva Especial Chardonnay (Limarí Valley); $23.
88 Veranda 2008 Chardonnay (Bío Bío Valley); $18.

South Africa
South Africa‚Äôs diverse terroir yields diverse and high-quality Chardonnay. Overall, they exhibit a successful balance of Old World minerality and restraint with the assertive fruit and depth of New World styles. Stellenbosch, Robertson and Paarl are standout regions for the variety, but so is the cooler-climate Elgin. All are distinguished by crisp lemony fruit and a creamy depth. Look to 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2009 for best vintages. Thelema, Hamilton Russell, Fairview and Rustenberg, among others, are top-quality producers offering excellence at an affordable price. ‚ÄĒSusan Kostrzewa

90 De Wetshof 2007 Bon Vallon Chardonnay (Robertson); $18
90 Mulderbosch 2007 Chardonnay (Stellenbosch); $21
90 Neil Ellis 2008 Chardonnay (Elgin); $20

Poor Australian Chardonnay. It has gone from stardom to garage band in two decades, yet many of the wines are better now than they were during its heyday. Winemakers have increasingly sourced fruit from cooler regions, used better oak (or sometimes no oak) for aging and have got the wines back on track. All that remains is for the public to get on board. Large-volume wines are generally blended from a number of warm-climate regions and carry South Eastern Australia on the label. Although often industrial in scale, they‚Äôre priced accordingly, and can represent decent value because of the Australians‚Äô high level of technical expertise. For fine, small-production wines, it‚Äôs necessary to look for the cooler pockets of Australian viticulture. Margaret River, in Western Australia, is among the most notable, although the Adelaide Hills of South Australia is another promising region. Yarra Valley, in Victoria, is also capable of turning out some top Chardonnays, as can Tasmania, although those wines are difficult to find overseas. ‚ÄĒJoe Czerwinski

94 Leeuwin Estate 2006 Art Series Chardonnay (Margaret River); $89. Cellar Selection.
91 Shaw and Smith 2008 M3 Chardonnay (Adelaide Hills); $35. Editors’ Choice.
90 Sticks 2008 Chardonnay (Yarra Valley);$21. Editors’ Choice.

New Zealand
As readers of the May issue will know, New Zealand‚Äôs best white wine grape is Chardonnay. It‚Äôs made in unoaked and entirely barrel-fermented styles‚ÄĒand everything in between‚ÄĒwith an extremely broad spectrum of flavor possibilities. Oak and malolactic fermentation, when used, are generally well integrated, marking the wines with scents and flavors of toasted cashews or hazelnuts rather than overt vanilla or buttered toast. Wines from the warm North Island regions of Gisborne and Hawke‚Äôs Bay tend more to the fully ripe, tropical side of the range compared to the bright citrusy nature of Chardonnays from cooler areas, such as Martinborough or one of the South Island regions, but the outstanding feature of most New Zealand Chardonnays is their acid balance. The cool climate imparts freshness and zing to the wines, making them wonderful food companions. The downside is that very few of the wines are $15 or less, making Best Buys difficult to come by, although there are some good values in the $15‚Äď$20 range. ‚ÄĒJ.C.

92 Dry River 2008 Chardonnay (Martinborough); $60.
91 Craggy Range 2007 Les Beaux Cailloux Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay (Hawke’s Bay); $50.
91 Saint Clair 2008 Omaka Reserve Chardonnay (Marlborough); $24. Editors’ Choice.

Best Buy Chardonnays from Around the World

89 Marrenon 2008 Chardonnay, Vin de Pays de Vaucluse; $10
88 Mommessin 2007 Vieilles Vignes Chardonnay M√Ęcon-Villages; $14
87 Louis Latour 2007 Chameroy M√Ęcon-Villages; $15
90 Concannon 2008 Conservancy Chardonnay, Livermore Valley; $15
90 MooBuzz 2007 Chardonnay, California; $13
89 Guenoc 2007 Chardonnay, Lake County; $14
89 Sterling 2007 Made with Organic Grapes Chardonnay, Mendocino; $13
88 Lyeth L de Lyeth 2007 Chardonnay, Sonoma County; $11
NA but this is close: 87 A to Z Wineworks 2007 Chardonnay(Oregon); $15

90 Boomtown 2008 Chardonnay (Columbia Valley); $13
90 Caterina 2008 Chardonnay (Columbia Valley); $12
90 RiverAerie 2008Chardonnay (Columbia Valley; $14

88 Alamos 2007 Chardonnay (Mendoza);$12
88Tilia 2007 Chardonnay (Mendoza); $10

90 De Martino 2008 Legado Reserva Chardonnay (Limarí Valley); $15
88 Montes 2008 Classic Series Chardonnay, Curicó Valley, $12

89 Goats do Roam Wine Co. 2008 Goat Door Chardonnay (Coastal Region); $14
89 Excelsior 2009 Chardonnay (Robertson); $10
88  Winery of Good Hope Chardonnay (Western Cape); $11

87 Bulletin Place 2008 Chardonnay (South Eastern Australia); $10
87 Hope Estate 2008 Chardonnay (Hunter Valley); $12
NA but Oyster Bay’s 2008 Chardonnay from Marlborough is still a good value (88 points, $15)






Published on June 15, 2010
Topics: BasicsChardonnayWine and Ratings