Chardonnay — A Guide to the Basics

For many consumers, Chardonnay is synonymous with white wine. Whether it’s a rich, buttery bottle from Napa Valley, an age-worthy and complex white Burgundy, or one of the thousands of standout examples from around the world, Chardonnay can do it all.

Yet that popularity and widespread recognition has come at a price: Chardonnay’s ubiquity makes it easy to forget just how special it can be — often, at an excellent value. To fully appreciate all that the grape is capable of, check out our Chardonnay wine guide below.

What Is Chardonnay Wine?
Chardonnay is a white grape variety that is widely planted around the world. It has an almost preternatural ability to both express the land in which it’s grown and showcase the style of the winemaker. Because of that, Chardonnay can be a bit of a chameleon, covering the full spectrum from crisp and refreshing to velvety and generous. It’s even one of the main grape varieties responsible for Champagne. No matter where your tastes fall, there is a Chardonnay that will likely fit the bill.

Where Does Chardonnay Wine Come From?
Chardonnay has been grown in France’s Burgundy region for the better part of a millennium. It’s there, especially in the Côte de Beaune (located in the southern portion of the famous Côte d’Or), that most wine professionals agree the best of them are made. Grand Cru vineyards like Montrachet, Corton-Charlemagne, and others grow Chardonnay grapes that are crafted into wines that often have the ability to age and evolve for decades. Further north in Burgundy, the Chardonnay wines of Chablis are produced in the opposite style, with a focus on chalky minerality and mouthwatering acidity. In the south of Burgundy, the Chardonnays of the Côte Chalonnaise and throughout the Mâconnais often represent excellent value that’s hard to find in other parts of Burgundy.

In Champagne, Chardonnay is one of the three main grape varieties permitted, along with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Blanc de Blancs Champagne, in fact, is pure Chardonnay. In Napa Valley and Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, Chardonnay tends to be produced in a richer style, often with oak and a certain amount of butteriness (the result of a process called malolactic fermentation) that lend it depth and creaminess. It’s made in a range of styles in Washington State and Oregon, as well as throughout Argentina and Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and beyond. Chardonnay is a true global grape variety.

Why Should You Drink Chardonnay Wine?
Few other grape varieties are produced in as wide a range of styles as Chardonnay. When grown in cooler areas or harvested on the early side, its acidity makes it particularly vibrant. If it’s planted in a warmer climate, or allowed to ripen for a longer period of time, Chardonnay often takes on a delicious sense of decadence. It can be refreshing in the summer and comforting in the cooler weather, depending on which style you open.

And it pairs brilliantly with food. More acid-driven Chardonnays, like the ones from Chablis, are natural partners for fish and seafood; raw oysters, sautéed shrimp, and light white fish are excellent with Chardonnay. Richer bottlings of Chardonnay stand up to heartier dishes, and are excellent with veal and many cheeses. It also works well with lemon, whether squeezed onto pasta with garlic and olive oil or whipped into an aioli. Chardonnay even pairs with macaroni and cheese!

Of course, Chardonnay is one of the most delicious white wines to simply drink on its own. Many consumers often ponder the question of Sauvignon Blanc versus Chardonnay, and deciding between the two is easy: Sauvignon Blanc tends to exhibit more grapefruit and herb or bell pepper aromas and flavors, whereas Chardonnay falls more on the melon and autumn orchard fruit end of the spectrum, and sometimes even tropical fruit. Chardonnay also generally has less acidity than Sauvignon Blanc. Both can be excellent; it just depends what you’re in the mood for.

Chardonnay being poured into glass

And no matter what you want to spend on a bottle of Chardonnay, there is bound to be a great option available, whether on a restaurant wine list or a retail shelf. The great Grand Crus of Burgundy can run over $1000, but there are plenty of delicious ones that can be found for under $20, too.

What Does Chardonnay Taste Like?
Chardonnay naturally has fruit notes that are often described as reminiscent of melons and autumn orchard fruit like apples and pears. When grown in more calcium-rich soils, it often has a certain subtle brininess to it, as well as hints of chalk. Warmer-climate Chardonnays often showcase more tropical fruit, and tasting notes of pineapple, papaya, mango, and guava are common. Oak-influenced Chardonnays typically have flavors and aromas of cinnamon, clove, and vanilla, and if it’s gone through malolactic fermentation, hints of butter are likely to be found. Chardonnay runs the gamut in the best possible sense.

Five Great Chardonnay Wines
There are countless great Chardonnay wines on the market today. These five producers, listed alphabetically, are a perfect way to start exploring all that Chardonnay has to offer.

Alain et Adrien Gautherin Chablis Grand Cru

There are seven Grand Crus in Chablis, and the 14th-generation Gautherin produces excellent expressions from Vaudésir and Le Clos. Either one is a great example of how delicious Chardonnay is in Chablis.

Louis Latour Pouilly-Fuissé

Louis Latour has been producing wine in Burgundy since 1797, and their portfolio ranges from Grand Cru to more affordable expressions. This one is in the latter camp, with its flavors of ripe fruit balanced by a hint of nuttiness for less than $30.

Perrier-Jouët Blanc de Blancs Champagne

One of the classic examples of the blanc de blancs style, this standout Champagne from Perrier-Jouët is a staple on wine lists and in cellars around the world.

Rombauer Chardonnay

When fans of rich, oaky, buttery Chardonnay think of a classic example of their preferred style, Rombauer often comes to mind.

Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay

Sonoma-Cutrer produces a number of Chardonnays, including their Russian River Ranches, Les Pierres, and Sonoma Coast bottlings, among others.

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