Hooray for Chardonnay: A Global Guide to the World’s Best Bottles

Bottles of Chardonnay
Photo by Sam Kaplan

It’s easy to have a love-hate relationship with Chardonnay.

Crafted in almost every major wine-producing country, the world’s most popular white wine is made in a range of styles, from lean, racy and unoaked, to ripe, rich and unctuous. It can also express an array of terroir-influenced elements, from stony minerality to salinity, and even herbal tones.

Chances are you’ve had at least one that you loved and at least one that you most certainly did not. But with such beauty and diversity, one should never dismiss the versatile variety as a whole—which is why it’s a good thing that you’ve got us.

We’ve highlighted the best Chardonnay-producing regions and top pours across a scale of stylistic preferences and site expressions to help you home in on the ones you’ll enjoy most.

So, what are you waiting for? Forget the days of the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) and embrace your next glass of liquid gold.

Chardonnay from Burgundy
Photo by Sam Kaplan

Burgundy

There is no doubt that today’s two archetypal styles of Chardonnay were born in Burgundy, in the northerly outpost of Chablis and the heartland of the Côte de Beaune.

The former represents steely precision and slenderness without obvious oak influence. The latter offers creamy yet chiseled and well-defined expressions of place, and is considered the benchmark for where the grape reaches its greatest heights.

But Chardonnay country extends even farther, to the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais in southern Burgundy, where it yields profound wines from near identical soils that exemplify great value.

In that roughly 60-mile stretch from the most northerly vineyards in Chablis to the southernmost in Pouilly-Fuissé, fruit expression changes according to ripeness. Notes of yellow citrus, green apple and pear are common in northern pours, while more southerly expressions can present riper examples of apple and pear that venture toward Mirabelle plum, peach and even melon.

White Burgundy is especially prized for its ability to reflect a sense of place.

For more than a thousand years, generations of growers developed an intimate knowledge of each site. They traced minute changes in the soils which help explain the existing patchwork of single vineyards.

Burgundy sits on a Jurassic ridge of a former seabed that created various layers of limestone. These layers are mixed with clay, which, along with aspect and altitude, constitute the variations between sites.

To understand the differences between all the single vineyards can be confusing. The labels in Burgundy, however, are quite straightforward. Bottles are distinguished as regional, village or single-vineyard wines. Regional appellations like Bourgogne Blanc are the simplest wines, but they can represent great value.

Village appellations are graded into wines that carry either a collective village name or single-vineyard, either a premier cru (first growth) or grand cru (great growth), designation. Chablis and all the villages of the Côte d’Or work this way. Some villages have reputations for certain characteristics, such as the sculpted precision of Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet, or the creamy richness of Meursault.

The Grands Crus of Montrachet and Corton are considerd the pinnacle of white Burgundy. Capable of maturing for decades, these wines command serious price tags.

The Premiers Crus of Rully and Montagny in the Côte Chalonnaise, or village appellations in the Mâconnais, like Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran and Viré-Clessé, bring structure and depth at more affordable prices. —Anne Krebiehl, MW

Recommended Wines from Burgundy

Vincent Girardin 2016 Corton-Charlemagne; $239, 95 points. Cellar Selection. Vineyard Brands.

Domaine Berthelemot 2017 Abbaye de Morgeot Premier Cru (Chassagne-Montrachet); $74, 94 points. Fine Terroirs LLC.

Domaine Faiveley 2018 Champ Gain Premier Cru (Puligny-Montrachet); $120, 94 points. Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd.

Xavier Monnot 2017 Les Charmes Premier Cru (Meursault); $136, 94 points. Craft + Estate–Winebow.

Antonin Rodet 2018 La Bressande Premier Cru (Rully); $40, 93 points. Baron Francois Ltd.

Domaine Billaud-Simon 2018 Montée de Tonnerre Premier Cru (Chablis); $65, 93 points. Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd.

Château Vitallis 2017 Les Perrières (Pouilly-Fuissé); $38, 93 points. David Milligan Selections.

Jean-Claude Boisset 2016 En Remilly Premier Cru (Saint-Aubin); $55, 93 points. Editors’ Choice. Boisset Collection.

Joseph Drouhin 2017 Clos des Mouches Premier Cru (Beaune); $185, 93 points. Dreyfus, Ashby & Co.

Louis Jadot 2016 Fourchaume Grand Cru (Chablis); $51, 93 points. Kobrand.

Maison Champy 2018 En Caradeux Premier Cru (Pernand-Vergelesses); $65, 93 points. Folio Fine Wine Partners.

Stéphane Aladame 2016 Les Vignes Derrière Premier Cru (Montagny); $42, 93 points. Becky Wasserman Selections.

California – Napa/Sonoma

Chardonnay’s meteoric rise in America can be traced to the vision and winemaking of several Napa and Sonoma minds, like Fred McCrea, Mike Grgich, Richard Arrowood and Jess Jackson.
The 1952 Stony Hill Chardonnay is often considered one of the first modern Napa Valley cult wines. But think about this: When the McCreas planted Chardonnay from Wente cuttings on their Spring Mountain estate in the 1940s, the grape didn’t exist in the Napa Valley.

Stony Hill’s appeal was its hands-off style, which incorporated no malolactic fermentation or new oak. It represented a leaner, more elegant style that’s finally coming back into vogue. Along with Chateau Montelena and Mayacamas, the winery was among the first producers to prove Chardonnay from Napa and Sonoma could be world-class in style and pedigree.

Thirty years later, Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve would popularize it beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The bottling remains the top-selling wine in America today.

It’s a somewhat confusing category, at once capable of being the most memorable wine you’ve ever had and a cliché.

While still wildly popular, Chardonnay in Napa and Sonoma trends more specialized and site-specific. Grape growers and winemakers now give it the same thought and scrupulous attention once reserved for Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.

Increasingly, like with Pinot Noir, this means to search for cooler climates that better coax out the white wine’s savory and quenching aspects of minerality, salinity and acidity. Often, these have been marred by too much ripeness or oak.

Such effort shows in some of our favorite selections, which come from relatively cool sites and small producers. Additional names to look for include Ramey Wine Cellars, Kistler Vineyards, Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, J. Rochioli Vineyards & Winery, Hanzell Vineyards, Donum, Wayfarer, Hartford Court, Benovia, LaRue and Arista. Single-vineyard designates from Hyde Estate Winery, Hudson Ranch or Ritchie Vineyard are also well worth seeking. —Virginie Boone

Recommended Wines from Napa/Sonoma

Lynmar Estate 2017 Susanna’s Vineyard Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $60, 96 points.

Mayacamas 2017 Chardonnay (Mount Veeder); $50, 95 points. Editors’ Choice.

DuMol 2017 Wester Reach Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $56, 94 points.

Dutton-Goldfield 2017 Rued Vineyard Chardonnay (Green Valley); $55, 94 points.

Kosta Browne 2017 One Sixteen Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $85, 94 points.

Ancien 2017 Musque Chardonnay (Coombsville); $42, 93 points.

bottles of Chardonnay
Photo by Sam Kaplan

California – Central Coast

On one hand, as younger generations of winemakers look to Europe for inspiration, there’s an exciting explosion of wines that rely more on racy acidity and chalky tension to translate terroir. Many times, these are more concerned with texture than taste, yet the flavors can be stunning as well. They range from brisk stone fruit and Asian pear to citrus rind, sea salt and, yes, even savory hints of toasted almond and butter.

“I’m seeing the re-emergence of the fresh style,” says Eric Johnson, winemaker for Talley Vineyards. He’s made wine in San Luis Obispo County for 13 years. “The consumer is reacting favorably because there has been some consumer pushback on the big, oaky, viscous Chardonnays that, frankly, California is known for.”

On the other hand, there remains plenty of area thirst for classic California Chardonnays, those rich, buttery, often nutty versions usually framed by ample oak and, when done well, still lively in citrus. The comforting opulence that made Chardonnay the most popular wine in America shows no sign of disappearing.

“I see a return of a riper, more plush style, but with balanced acidity,” says David Coventry, who’s made Chardonnay for around 22 years. He currently produces six different vintage bottlings for Talbott Vineyards in Monterey County. “Balance is the call of the day. I like to say, ‘Wines aren’t over-oaked. They are under-wined.’”

As in much of life, the best wines fall somewhere in between the two extremes. They marry the zesty qualities that form within the region’s cooler winegrowing areas to the grape’s natural viscosity. These harness more lush fruit, spice and wood elements.

Santa Barbara County does this particularly well. “Even in the oak-driven styles, the acidity we see out here is rarely lost,” says Wynne Solomon, winemaker at Peake Ranch Winery. —Matt Kettmann

Recommended Wines from California-Central Coast

Sandhi 2017 Bentrock Chardonnay (Sta. Rita Hills); $45, 95 points.

Peake Ranch 2017 Sierra Madre Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Maria Valley); $50, 94 points.

Rhys 2017 Horseshoe Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Cruz Mountains); $79, 94 points.

Talley 2017 Rosemary’s Chardonnay (Arroyo Grande Valley); $50, 94 points.

J. Lohr 2017 Arroyo Vista Chardonnay (Arroyo Seco); $25, 90 points.

Talbott 2017 Sara Case Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands); $52, 88 points.

Washington

Chardonnay has a long history in Washington, with the first vines planted in 1964. But in some respects, the state is still looking to establish its identity with the grape.

Washington seeks to get out from underneath California’s giant shadow. Its undulations in style have undue influence, and an ocean of Chardonnay crowds Washington shelves.

Chardonnay is the state’s most produced white variety, and trails only Cabernet Sauvignon overall. Styles can vary from racy, stainless-steel wines to 100% new-oak fermented and aged offerings, and everything in between. There is, however, a consistent thread.

“I think we are much more elegant than California, just across the board, with a higher level of acidity,” says David Rosenthal, white winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle.

A White Wine Revolution is Underway in Washington’s Reddest Appellation

There are a number of reasons why the grape succeeds here. The ever-warm Columbia Valley, where the vast majority of the state’s wine grapes are grown, provides lush, ripe fruit flavors, while cool nights preserve natural acidity. This yields wines often fuller in style than their peers from Burgundy, but lighter and graced with more acidity than many offerings from California. As always with Washington, the wines can also provide superb value.

While the state is awash in good Chardonnay, there are fewer great bottlings than one might expect. Many producers instead focus on red wines that command more money.
In 2012, Rick Small of Woodward Canyon Winery said ruefully that “there may be 10 Washington producers that are working seriously with Chardonnay.” Things seem to be changing, though.

Several Chardonnay-dedicated projects have launched, new producers have been trying their hands and growers explore novel terrain.

The bottom line: Washington’s Chardonnay story is not yet fully written, but its compelling plot keeps you turning the page and looking forward to each forthcoming chapter. —Sean P. Sullivan

Recommended Wines from Washington

House of Bones 2017 Celilo Vineyard Chardonnay (Washington); $45, 94 points. Editors’ Choice.

Ago 2018 Celilo Vineyard Chardonnay (Columbia Gorge); $32, 93 points. Cellar Selection.

Sixto 2016 Roza Hills Chardonnay (Washington); $55, 93 points. Editors’ Choice.

Januik 2017 Cold Creek Vineyard Chardonnay (Columbia Valley); $30, 92 points. Editors’ Choice.

Woodward Canyon 2018 Chardonnay (Washington); $44, 91 points. Editors’ Choice.

Merf 2017 Chardonnay (Columbia Valley); $13, 89 points. Best Buy.

Bottles of Chardonnay
Photo by Sam Kaplan

Oregon

Sandwiched between California and Washington—and their prodigious array of stylish Chardonnays—Oregon’s classy efforts can easily be overlooked. Yet, as a much-lauded producer of world-class Pinot Noir, why can’t Burgundy’s iconic white wine grape also thrive in Oregon? In fact, it does.

The state’s Chardonnay renaissance began quietly with the introduction of Dijon clones to the Willamette Valley almost 30 years ago. Decades later, with experimentation in clonal selection, site development and improved winery practices accomplished, the subtlety and intensity of Oregon’s best versions differentiate them from the crowded West Coast competition.

In ripe, balanced vintages such as 2016 and 2018, they retain vivid acidity, which brightens rich stone-fruit and tropical-fruit flavors. It also allows winemakers to cut back significantly on the percentage of new French oak used.

In cooler vintages like 2017, the grape’s inherent transparency and elegance punches up the aromatics, bringing nuances of soil and site, herb and earth, along with crisp citrus fruit. Some winemakers try to enhance these qualities with all-stainless, concrete egg and clay amphorae-fermented wines, which prove that barrel aging is only an option, not a requirement, for complexity.

The warmer, drier climate in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley amplifies tropical fruit flavors and yields round, forward wines that still retain moderate acidity. On the cool northern border demarcated by the Columbia River, the wines are leaner, with high-acid fruit flavors of citrus and green melon.

Chardonnay’s epicenter, however, is the northern Willamette Valley, where producers have found success with native yeasts, mix-and-match fermentation vessels and non-intervention winemaking. Here, clonal and block selections abound, along with vineyard and appellation-specific bottlings.

Excellent wines can be found at all price points. The 2016 and 2018 vintages are superb, but fine examples from 2017, which are generally more lightly ripened, are not hard to find. —Paul Gregutt

Recommended Wines from Oregon

Domaine Serene 2016 Côte Sud Vineyard Chardonnay (Dundee Hills); $80, 95 points. Editors’ Choice.

Walter Scott 2017 X-Novo Chardonnay (Eola-Amity Hills); $65, 94 points. Cellar Selection.

Bethel Heights 2016 Estate Chardonnay (Eola-Amity Hills); $32, 93 points. Editors’ Choice.

Lemelson 2016 Reserve Chardonnay (Willamette Valley); $30, 93 points. Editors’ Choice.

Pike Road 2018 Chardonnay (Willamette Valley); $18, 91 points. Editors’ Choice.

Eola Hills 2016 Chardonnay (Oregon); $15, 90 points. Best Buy.

Bottles of Chardonnay
Photo by Sam Kaplan

Australia

Despite some lingering stereotypes, the days of ripe, heavily oaked Chardonnay are long gone in Australia. While the style pendulum swung briefly to the opposite side in the early 2000s, which spawned a slew of ultralean Chablis imitations, modern Aussie “Chardy” has found a beautiful and delicious middle ground. Quality has never been higher.

Chardonnay is grown across Australia, but those who fly the flag highest come from moderate-to-cool regions. These areas either scrape the edge of the ocean, like Tasmania, Margaret River in Western Australia, and Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley, or are perched high in hills and mountains, like Adelaide Hills in South Australia and the Canberra District.

Selections from these key regions tend to be elegant and linear, with delicate citrus fruit. In warm, inland regions like Barossa in South Australia and Hunter Valley in New South Wales, fruitier, rounder expressions often prevail. Across the board, though, the wines express less oak and more acidity, texture and complexity.

Regional expressions are evident, but the wines generally reflect a helping hand in the winery. Where later harvests, full malolactic fermentation and new American oak barrels were once popular choices here, modern versions are now handled more gently. Techniques employed include earlier picking, use of native yeasts and little or no malolactic fermentation.

Instead, texture may be enhanced through aging on gross lees and/or a combination of new and old French oak barrels. Within a frame of freshness and texture lie other style choices, like the Aussie penchant for reductive Chards that yield struck match and seashell aromas. This polarizing style is becoming better managed to create a subtler expression. —Christina Pickard

Recommended Wines from Australia

Cullen 2017 Kevin John Willyabrup Chardonnay (Margaret River); $109, 95 points. Cellar Selection. Old Bridge Cellars.

Forest Hill 2017 Highbury Fields Chardonnay (Great Southern); $20, 94 points. Editors’ Choice. Hudson Wine Brokers.

Leeuwin Estate 2017 Prelude Vineyard Chardonnay (Margaret River); $36. 92 points. Old Bridge Cellars.

Henschke 2017 Croft Chardonnay (Adelaide Hills); $75, 91 points. Negociants USA–Winebow.

Moorooduc 2016 Chardonnay (Mornington Peninsula); $38, 91 points. Little Peacock Imports.

Yering Station 2018 Little Yering Chardonnay (Yarra Valley); $16, 90 points. Rathbone Wine Group.

Bottles of Chardonnay
Photo by Sam Kaplan

New Zealand

If Sauvignon Blanc, with its adolescent confidence and upfront charm, is New Zealand’s workhorse white wine grape, Chardonnay can be considered its more grown-up cousin, calm and collected with layers and complexity.

Once the most planted grape variety in the country, Chardonnay currently makes up just 7% of New Zealand’s total wine production. But much of that is made with a pronounced focus on quality rather than quantity.

The skinny shape of the country’s two islands means that no vineyard is farther than 80 miles from the ocean. Cool temperatures and long hours of sunshine allow Chardonnay to grow practically everywhere, which yields elegant and fruity expressions etched in salty minerals with or without oak influence. The best can age for decades.

In the warmer regions of the North Island, like Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne, Chardonnay is generally fragrant, fruity and lusciously textured, with premium bottlings destined for the cellar.

In the far north, just outside Auckland, Kumeu River Wines has carved its reputation for Chardonnay. Its premium bottlings can be tightly wound and austere when young, but morph into multifaceted beauties over many years.

Moving south, as temperatures drop, the style tends toward lighter-bodied, higher-acid selections with more citrus and mineral characters. Wairarapa, Marlborough, Nelson and Central Otago all grow it, with producers like Otago’s Felton Road renowned for the variety.

Perhaps the most exciting potential for Chardonnay in the South Island is the limestone-strewn Pyramid Valley area of North Canterbury. There, boutique producers like Pyramid Valley Vineyards and Bell Hill have worked magic with the grape. —C.P.

Recommended Wines from New Zealand

Pyramid Valley 2016 Field of Fire (North Canterbury); $90, 96 points. Editors’ Choice. Pyramid Valley.

Ata Rangi 2016 Craighall Chardonnay (Martinborough); $45, 93 points. Editors’ Choice. Verity Wine Partners.

Kumeu River 2018 Estate Chardonnay (Kumeu); $34, 93 points. Editors’ Choice. Wilson Daniels Ltd.

Mt. Beautiful 2017 Chardonnay (North Canterbury); $23, 91 points. Editors’ Choice. Mt. Beautiful USA.

Giesen 2017 Chardonnay (Hawke’s Bay); $15, 90 points. Best Buy. Pacific Highway Wines & Spirits.

Te Mata 2017 Elston Chardonnay (Hawke’s Bay); $35, 90 points. Wine Dog Imports.

Bottles of Chardonnay
Photo by Sam Kaplan

South Africa

Thanks to its global familiarity, marketability and highly versatile nature, Chardonnay can be found throughout virtually all of South Africa’s winelands. Such varied growing conditions welcome a range of wine styles and expressions affected not just by different soils and climates, but also winemaker preference and influence.

Robertson is one of the top Wine of Origin (WO) appellations for Chardonnay. Conditions in the region are characterized by cold winters and dry, sunny summers, while cool afternoon breezes from the Agulhas coast deliver significant day-night temperature shifts. Soils high in limestone and clay assist in water retention. Together, these factors result in slow, steady ripening and high natural acidity.

Hemel-en-Aarde is another prominent region that produces high-quality selections. Situated within Walker Bay, one of the coolest winegrowing areas in the country, it boasts a maritime climate ideal for the production of fresh, elegant and well-balanced wines.

Planted between 650–1,300 feet above sea level on diverse soil types largely composed of varying sedimentary rocks, Chardonnay here benefits from oceanic influence and cooling breezes. These factors allow it to retain vibrant natural acidity throughout ripening. That freshness is partnered with just-ripe fruit tones and varying site expressions that result in layered wines of great finesse and complexity.

Elgin, another cool-climate WO, boasts vineyards between 820–1,300 feet above sea level. It’s home to benchmark Chardonnay producers Iona, Lothian Vineyards, Paul Cluver Wines and Richard Kershaw Wines, all of which produce fresh, balanced expressions marked by white-fruit flavors.

It’s in the riper, yellow-fruited Chardonnay camp that you’ll find the wines of Stellenbosch. With nearly 31,000 acres of vines, the climate here is generally warm and dry, which yields ripe fruit aromas and concentrated flavors. Breezes from False Bay cool vines from late afternoon until morning to help preserve the grape’s natural acidity and balance the abundant fruit tones. —Lauren Buzzeo

Recommended Wines from South Africa

Cap Maritime 2017 Chardonnay (Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley); $54, 92 points. Vineyard Brands.

Capensis 2016 Chardonnay (Western Cape); $80, 92 points. Majestic Imports.

Glenelly 2018 Estate Reserve Chardonnay (Stellenbosch); $25, 92 points. Editors’ Choice. Cape Classics.

Lismore 2017 Estate Reserve Chardonnay (Greyton); $69, 92 points. Kysela Père et Fils.

Tokara 2018 Reserve Collection Chardonnay (Stellenbosch); $27, 92 points. Editors’ Choice. Dreyfus, Ashby & Co.

De Wetshof 2019 Bon Vallon Chardonnay (Robertson); $23, 91 points. Broadbent Selections.

Published on March 9, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings