What Is Chardonnay And What Does It Taste Like?

Whether you're a wine drinker or not, chances are you've heard of the varietal known as Chardonnay, made from what is considered to be the most famous white grape in the world, according to wine critic and writer Jancis Robinson. Not only is Chardonnay popular among both casual and professional wine drinkers, it also spans across the globe, grown in the majority of wine regions internationally. While the grape has been used for some over-the-top wine trends (oaky buttery Chardonnay among them), it's also responsible for creating some of the world's finest wines, for example champagne.

Thanks to a fairly neutral flavor profile, Chardonnay is an incredibly versatile grape that can express a wide range of characteristics depending on what happens in the vineyard and in the cellar. So, if you've turned your nose up at the butter bombs of the late 1980s and the lasting influence this wine has had, it may be a good time to broaden your perspective and take another go at this ultimate crowd-pleasing wine that has an incredible history and great pairings in store.

What is Chardonnay?

As living organisms that are members of families with complex lineages, grapes are genetically tested to identify parentage before being turned into wine. In 1999, Science determined that Chardonnay, along with 15 other grapes, was the offspring of the Pinot grape and Gouais Blanc. The Pinot variety includes multiple mutations designated by color, the most common being Noir, Gris, and Blanc (via Wines Til Sold Out). Meanwhile, Gouais Blanc is a Medieval grape now almost non-existent, and considered somewhat unrefined, notes Decanter.

Nevertheless, the duo paired to make a noteworthy grape, originating in Burgundy, France in a small town named Chardonnay. The story goes that in the century of 700 AD, Emperor Charlemagne's wife was frustrated that he kept spilling red wine on his beard and threatened to cut off his wine supply, so instead he had the local vineyards replaced with Chardonnay, says Bubbly Professor.

Nowadays, Jancis Robinson reports that green-skinned Chardonnay grapes can be found in vineyards around the world, notably in France, the US, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Canada, and parts of Europe. Robinson notes that since this type tends to bud and ripen early, the major risk to its growth is late frost. Otherwise, Chardonnay is incredibly adaptable and can be grown in hot and cool climates, producing a different style of wine, ranging from pale to deep golden depending on ripeness and age.

How is Chardonnay made?

Chardonnay is commonly made as a dry still white wine, though it encompasses a range of styles. Jancis Robinson explains that it can be made with oak influence or not, full- or light-bodied, sweet or dry, and as a prestigious sparkling wine aka champagne.

As with any process of winemaking, grapes are harvested depending on the characteristics the winemaker seeks. Next, the grapes are pressed to squeeze out the juice, and the skins are separated from the liquid. Wine Folly explains that yeast is added to the juice, causing an alcoholic fermentation. Once the yeast has consumed all of the grape sugars and converted them into alcohol, the wine is aged — Chardonnay is commonly done so in stainless steel tanks or in oak barrels. 

Robinson explains that the wine often goes through malolactic fermentation, a process that softens acidity in the wine, while introducing buttery aromas. Additionally, when the wine is aged in oak barrels, sediment from dead yeast cells gathers at the bottom (via Wine Folly). It's not as gross as it sounds — to add texture and body to the wine, winemakers take a long stick and stir the sediment through the wine. None of it ends up in your wine though! 

When the wine has finished aging, Wine Folly says that it is racked, which means clear juice is separated from any remaining sediment through filtration methods. And finally at that point, a dry still Chardonnay is ready to bottle.

How is sparkling Chardonnay made?

The most famous example of a sparkling Chardonnay is Blanc de Blancs champagne, also known as the "wine insiders' favorite champagne," says Wall Street Journal. While some other styles of this drink use Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, Jancis Robinson explains that using only Chardonnay grapes results in a bright and refined wine. Aside from champagne, Wine Folly remarks that other sparkling options like French Crémant and Italian Franciacorta are also based on Chardonnay grapes.

Since the fruit is fairly neutral, it benefits from the traditional method of sparkling winemaking. To make this style of bubbly, Wine Folly notes that a standard white wine must first be made, using slightly underripe grapes. Often, multiple wines are blended together to make what is known as a cuvée. Once the winemaker is satisfied with the base wine, more yeast and sugar is added and it is bottled with a crown cap to allow pressure to build inside.

During the second fermentation, the alcohol level rises, and carbon dioxide forms bubbles in the wine. The dead yeast cells start to settle at the bottom of the bottle, contributing bready flavors that are characteristic of the traditional method. Just like with still wine, the yeast is removed from the bottle in a sort of explosive fashion, referred to as disgorging (via Wine Folly). Finally, the wine is sweetened, if necessary, then bottled and sometimes further aged, before being popped at the next celebration.

What does Chardonnay taste like?

As previously mentioned, Chardonnay is fairly neutral and has no overpowering aromas, but it is also a bit of a chameleon. Consequently, if you don't like a particular bottle, you might just have to try the next one to find your match.

Jancis Robinson describes Chardonnay as a medium- to full-bodied wine that can have a relatively high level of alcohol. As far as fruit goes, Wine Folly indicates that notes of starfruit, yellow apple, pineapple, peaches, citrus, melon, and pear are commonly noted in Chardonnay. In lighter styles, gravel, stone, and chalk are also noticeable. These natural aromas present in the grapes are referred to as primary according to Social Vignerons.

The source explains that anything that happens during the winemaking process counts as secondary aromas. If it went through malolactic fermentation to soften the acidity, the wine will have buttery aromas, says Wine Enthusiast. If the wine was aged in oak, aromas of vanilla, caramel, spices, butterscotch, toast, and almond might be present. Although not common for Chardonnay, Jancis Robinson reports that wine made from the finest vineyards in Burgundy can age for many years. In these cases, Social Vignerons describe that tertiary aromas might evolve in the bottle, such as honey, wax, and spices.

To bring out the best from Chardonnay in the glass, Wine Enthusiast recommends serving it between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which can be accomplished by sticking it in the refrigerator for two hours.

Hot vs cool climate Chardonnay

Chardonnay is extremely adaptable, making it a favorite amongst winemakers and grape farmers. However, it's good to keep in mind it won't taste the same everywhere it grows. Hot sunny climates cause grapes to ripen much quicker than cooler climates. (If you consider a ripe and unripe peach, you'll know the distinction.)

The most popular example of a hot growing region for Chardonnay is California. In the warmer valleys, Jancis Robinson explains that the grape can ripen very quickly, increasing sugar levels that can result in a high alcohol, dry wine. If the grapes are harvested too late, the acidity may be so low that acid must be added in the cellar to produce a balanced wine, according to Robinson. Other notable hot climate Chardonnay regions include South Africa, Australia, Spain, and Southern Italy (via Wine Enthusiast). In these types of Chardonnays, you can look forward to deep golden, full-bodied wines with flavors of tropical fruits.

If you prefer lighter, crisper wines, look for cool climate Chardonnay varieties like those made in its homeland of Burgundy, France. Robinson describes aromas of citrus, green apple, minerals, and notes of stones in these kinds. If high-acid, mouth-puckering wine is a favorite style, Chablis (hailing from the northern part of Burgundy) is made for you. If you're up for something bubbly, Champagne is made in France's coldest wine-growing region, and is perfect for producing crisp, zingy flavors in the glass (via Wine Paths). Other cool climate Chardonnays hail from Germany, Northern Italy, Oregon, Tasmania, New Zealand, coastal Chile, and cooler regions of California (via Wine Enthusiast).

Oaked vs. unoaked Chardonnay

Due to the overzealous use of oak barrels in the 1980s and 1990s, Vinepair remarks that oaked Chardonnay unfortunately developed a bad reputation. Jancis Robinson explains that using oak barrels can mask the flavors and subtler aromas of the grape, resulting in a wine somewhat indistinguishable from the next.

Nonetheless, measured use of oak can produce an excellent wine, and there are plenty of balanced examples nowadays. Oak doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing affair, and Vinepair points out that aging wine in already-used barrels is far subtler than when they are brand-new. Combining barrel aging with stainless steel is also increasingly common, as both materials provide different characteristics.

As mentioned, oak aging often entails allowing the wine to rest on the dead yeast cells, a process referred to as lees aging (via Wine Enthusiast). This results in creamy, buttery flavors, which can complement the vanilla, caramel, and spice aromas common to oak barrels — in these cases, aromas from oak can be perceived as sweet.

On the other end of the spectrum, stainless steel tanks produce a crisper style that would bewilder anyone that thinks that Chardonnay can only be a butter bomb. Wine Folly compares the style to Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc, with less zesty aromas. By aging Chardonnay in a closed stainless steel tank, it receives no contact with oxygen, therefore retaining its freshness and fruity flavor.

The ABC Crowd

The ABC Crowd is the acronym given to people who want "Anything But Chardonnay" when choosing a white wine. Decanter describes the effect as a consequence of "Chardonnay fatigue," after it being in the limelight for decades. Advinetures remarks that, during this high demand phase, producers were keen to give consumers what they wanted and went over the top using oak to create rich styles that could be overbearing. Nowadays, Chardonnay is much more balanced, however the lasting reputation has still somewhat skewed the perception of the wine, so much so that many people simply refuse to drink it.

Mount Salem Vineyards even tested the occurrence, noting that when they asked customers if they liked Chardonnay, 80% said no. Meanwhile, when consumers were offered a mystery pour (that was secretly Chardonnay), 80% reported liking it. Clearly, there's often a negative connotation towards this style of wine that has little to do with taste.

For a handful of years, a movement of winemakers and sommeliers known as In Pursuit of Balance have focused efforts on seeking more restrained styles of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines (via Advinetures). Of course, as with many ideological notions, some supporters took it a step too far, leading to disputes in the industry.

What food should you pair with Chardonnay?

If you're not already drinking Chardonnay, find your favorite style and serve it at your next dinner party. Thanks to its multifaceted characteristics, it can be served with countless dishes — something as simple as a creamy brie cheese to a rich meal of lobster. In fact, both oaked and unoaked versions work well with an assortment of seafood dishes. If the sauce is richer, complement it with a fuller-bodied, oak-aged Chardonnay. If you're serving oysters, sushi, or other raw seafood, a crisper style such as Chablis is the way to go.

Full-bodied, oak-aged Chardonnay can also pair well with pork, creamy pasta, and even grilled meat. (Who said you have to have red wine with red meat?) Vinepair recommends serving unoaked Chardonnay with cheese or poultry. And for a fun pairing, pick a buttery Chardonnay to go with popcorn. Likewise, richer wine styles made with oak can be just the right conclusion to a meal alongside a dessert like crème brûlée.

Whether you look for a wine and food pairing that contrasts or complements one another, Chardonnay is a great bet. If you've been in the ABC Crowd until now, it could be great to experiment with a new style alongside food to broaden your perspective.

Where to buy Chardonnay

Chardonnay wins major points for its accessibility — and it comes at all price points so you can adjust your selection depending on how lavish you're feeling. In a top five list of most expensive white wines from Finances Online, all of the picks except the costliest were Chardonnay; but, if your budget isn't quite so opulent, you'll still find an abundance of well-made wines to choose from at most places.

Thanks to its widespread availability, you can buy Chardonnay in most any shop that stocks wine. Whether it's a grocery store, liquor store, or specialty wine shop, chances are there will be a variety of options. When picking a bottle, keep in mind the type of style you want and opt for wines from associated regions. If you read the back label, you should also have some clues about any presence of oak.

After you bring your bottle of Chardonnay home, be sure to store it in a cool, dark spot. While a wine fridge or cellar aren't necessary, avoid storing bottles near places with constantly fluctuating temperatures, or in direct sunlight. If you don't finish the bottle after opening it, Wine Enthusiast recommends storing it in the fridge and consuming within two to four days to retain maximum flavor.

Nutritional information about Chardonnay

Like most dry wines, Chardonnay contains zero fat and protein, up to four grams of carbs from sugars, and some calories from the alcohol, according to Wine Enthusiast. The source indicates that a 5-ounce glass of Chardonnay has about 120 calories, slightly less if it is sparkling. If you're on a diet, Wine Spectator notes that wines marketed as "skinny" are often merely lower in alcohol. They often lack body and flavor so you might not be as satisfied.

Aside from alcohol, Wine.com points out that wine is mostly water, with a few minerals including manganese, potassium, iron, phosphorus, and B vitamins. The source warns that unbeknownst to many consumers, wine can contain over 70 additives to make it shelf-stable, without requiring any extra labeling. If you're looking for more transparency, certified organic wines may be the way to go as they must meet lengthy criteria regarding additives.

While we are often told that a glass of wine a day is healthy and brimming with antioxidants, the majority of the proclaimed advantages come from grape skins. If you recall, skins are removed early on in the white winemaking process, resulting in lower levels of antioxidants, namely resveratrol, according to New Scientist. Studies looking at wine consumption in relation to heart health, weight, stress, and other factors are often inconsistent. Potential benefits shouldn't be seen as a green light for anything more than moderate consumption. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend up to one drink a day for women, and two for men.