The Essential Guide to Chardonnay

Everything you need to know about America’s favorite white grape.
Photo by Mark Lund

Chardonnay is the world’s most popular white wine, and for good reason. It’s made from green-skinned grapes that adapt to a variety of climates, and they produce versatile wines in many price points. Chardonnay can be crisp and clean, or rich and oaky. There’s something for everyone, which is why Chardonnay is so beloved.

What does Chardonnay taste like?

Chardonnay is known as a winemaker’s grape, because it can grow in many climates and it’s easy to work with in the cellar. It allows a winemaker creative license to make it light and elegant, or full-bodied and buttery. Chardonnay can taste different, depending on where it grows and how it’s made. But typically, Chardonnay is a dry, medium- to full-bodied wine with moderate acidity and alcohol. Its flavors range from apple and lemon to papaya and pineapple, and it also shows notes of vanilla when it’s aged with oak.


What are the flavors in Chardonnay?

Primary: Chardonnay’s flavors swing from lemon zest and chalky minerality to baked apple and tropical fruits like pineapple. There are two reasons for this wide range in flavors: climate and harvest date. The cooler the climate, the more citrus notes become apparent in the grapes. The same applies to grapes that are harvested earlier. In warmer climates and later harvests, grapes develop more sugar and lose some acidity. Its flavors develop into riper, richer fruits. These are called primary flavors, because they derive directly from the grape.

Secondary: Chardonnay also has secondary flavors, or notes, that come from the winemaking process. The first set of flavors includes coconut, vanilla and baking spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. They come from the use of oak. Factors that affect the flavors and their intensity include origin of the wood (French vs. American), shape of the wood (barrels, chips or staves), toast level and length of time in contact with the oak. The second flavor that comes from winemaking is diacetyl, which gives that “buttery” character wine experts talk about. Diacetyl is byproduct of a process called malolactic fermentation, or MLF. Grapes contain malic acid, which tastes like tart green apples. When a (good) bacteria called Oenococcus oeni converts that malic acid into lactic acid, either naturally or by a winemaker addition, that green-apple note softens or disappears, while diacety—the buttery note—increases. Winemakers encourage this conversion to reduce the perception of sharp acidity in favor of the rounder, creamier lactic acid, with notes of, well, butter.

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Why is Chardonnay so popular?

This white grape has a long, noble history, which starts with its Old World roots in Burgundy. Some of most coveted, and therefore expensive, Chardonnays in the world come from this region in France. Chardonnay is also one of three base grapes for Champagne, and it’s the sole grape in Blanc de blancs Champagne. Eventually, the grape made its way to California, where it became the most widely planted white variety in the state. America fell in love with Chardonnay because it produces a wine that appeals to a wide audience.

What’s the difference between unoaked and oaked Chardonnay?

You’ve probably seen winemakers or brands promote their Chardonnay as oaked or unoaked. A winemaker who wants their Chardonnay to taste crisp and bright often uses stainless steel to ferment and store the wine before bottling. This limits the influence of oxygen and retains the wine’s fresh character. When a winemaker seeks to create a fuller-bodied wine with secondary flavors of vanilla and spice, they can ferment and age the wine in oak, or ferment in stainless steel and age in oak afterward. Oaked Chardonnay often undergoes partial or full MLF while in barrel, as well as sees contact with the lees (dead yeast). The vanilla and spice flavors, plus round, creamy texture from micro-oxygenation, lees contact, and MLF produce a wine that is the stylistic opposite of unoaked Chardonnay.

Where is the best Chardonnay produced?

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There’s no such thing as the “best Chardonnay.” A better question is: what style of Chardonnay do you like to drink? The differences between wines of different regions are largely due to climate and winemaking traditions. Thus, we can break down Chardonnay between cool versus warm regions and old world versus new world, within that context.

Cool Climate Chardonnay: Cooler regions can be found in both the old and new world. Cooler climate Chardonnay typically has more acidity, citrus flavors and mineral character, and is lighter-bodied, lighter in alcohol and elegant.

  • Old World: Burgundy (France), Champagne (France), Germany, Austria, Northern Italy.
  • New World: Ontario (Canada), Sonoma Coast (California), Anderson Valley (California), Willamette Valley (Oregon), Tasmania (Australia), Mornington Peninsula (Australia), New Zealand, Casablanca and Leyda Valley (Chile).

Warm Climate Chardonnay: Most warm climate Chardonnay regions fall within the new world. Warm-climate Chardonnay typically has less acidity, with opulent, ripe fruit flavors from yellow peach to papaya and pineapple. Wines are usually fuller-bodied with higher alcohol.

  • Old World: Much of Spain, Southern Italy.
  • New World: Most of California, South Australia, much of South Africa.

Does Chardonnay have sugar in it? How about calories and carbs?

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Chardonnay is usually made in a dry style. This means that after the grapes are pressed, the sugar from the grape must is converted into alcohol by yeast. When all of the sugar is converted, it creates a fully dry wine. Sometimes, a little sugar called residual sugar (RS), is left behind. This might be purposeful, to give a hint of richness and sweetness to the wine, or it might be because the yeast didn’t finish the fermentation. A few grams per liter of RS is still considered a dry wine, however. Of course, a wine without sugar doesn’t equate to a wine without calories. Alcohol has calories. Typically, a 5-ounce serving of Chardonnay has 120 calories, and there’s 625 calories in the typical 750ml bottle. If a Chardonnay has a touch of residual sugar, the wine will have carbohydrates or carbs, but only a small amount. Dry wines usually range between zero and 4 grams of carbohydrates.

How should I serve Chardonnay?

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Like all whites, Chardonnay should be served chilled. If the wine is too warm, the alcohol tastes hot while the flavors are muddled. Too cold, and the aromas and flavors are muted. The best temperature range is 50–55°F, which can be achieved by two hours in the refrigerator or 30–40 minutes in an ice-water bath. If you don’t finish a bottle of Chardonnay, replace the cork and stick it back in the fridge. The flavors will stay fresh for 2–4 days. Beyond that, the wine will start to oxidize. At that point, it’s best used for cooking.

What foods pair best with Chardonnay?

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One reason that people love Chardonnay is its versatility, thanks to the range of styles on the market. Crisp, pure, unoaked Chardonnay like many Chablis goes great as an apéritif with fresh cheeses like goat cheese, as well as oysters, shellfish or delicate fish. Medium-bodied expressions pair well with firmer fish like swordfish, white meats like chicken and pork tenderloin, and aged cheeses like gruyere and gouda. Fat, rich, oaky styles with higher alcohol can handle heavier cream sauces, grilled meats with higher fat content, and even game birds. The key is to match the wine’s weight with the weight of the food.

How is Chardonnay different from Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc?

These wines come from different white grapes. A grape is called a variety. A wine made from one grape is called a varietal wine.

Published on September 13, 2018
Topics: Wine Basics



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