Chardonnay is a much-beloved white wine produced in many regions around the world. It’s a wine that’s easy drinking by itself while being able to stand up to food like chicken, pork and fish. This is a white wine with chutzpah! It has a lot of body and flavor and is produced in three distinct styles.
1) UNOAKED CHARDONNAY
This first style comes from grapes grown in cool climates and is generally crisp and citrusy. The wine matures in stainless steel tanks and not in oak barrels.
2) OAKED CHARDONNAY
The second style is produced in warm climates where the grapes become very ripe. The wine matures in oak barrels which rounds out the fruit-forward flavors that develop from the ripe fruit. The oak barrels give the wine a vanilla, toast, and buttery taste profile.
3) CHAMPAGNE OR SPARKLING WINE
The third style is produced either with 100% Chardonnay grapes or with a combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Minieur grapes. Look for Blanc de Blanc on the wine label for 100% Chardonnay sparkling or champagne. Keep in mind, this style is only called Champagne if it is made in the Champagne region of France. All the rest must be labeled sparkling wine.
This extremely popular white wine is produced around the world. Here are a few of the top regions to keep on your radar.
STYLE 1: UNOAKED
France: Burgundy (labeled: Bourgogne Blanc, Chablis (except for Grand Cru and Premier Cru), and Mâcon Villages (usually unoaked))
California: Sonoma Coast (Russian River)
Australia: Margaret River
STYLE 2: OAKED
France: Côte de Beaune region of Burgundy (labeled: Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, and Chassagne-Montrachet)
California: Napa Valley (Carneros), Paso Robles, Lake County
Australia: Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills
STYLE 3: SPARKLING
California: Sonoma Coast (Russian River)
FRANCE: WHERE IT ALL STARTED
Chardonnay originated in the Burgundy region of France. The region produces top-quality Pinot Noir as well. In France, the bottles are labeled by the region where the wine is produced. So, when you see a white Burgundy or Bourgogne that is actually a Chardonnay.
Chablis is another region within Burgundy that produces only Chardonny wine. This region produces the wine in a pure, simplistic style, which rarely touches oak. Look for Chablis on the label or wine list and you’ll know it’s a Chardonnay.
CALIFORNIA: ENTER THE NEW WORLD
Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena put California’s Napa Valley on the map. Perceptions of California wine changed after their victory in the famous 1976 blind tasting in Paris conducted by French judges. For the fun of it, you could host a wine tasting while watching the 2008 movie Bottle Shock that is all about this famous event (and even stars hunky Chris Pine).
AUSTRALIA: NOT TO BE OUTDONE
Heading into the ’70s, Australia focused on producing Chardonnay wine. In the ’80s and '90s it was all about big bold, oaky, and fruity versions of the wine. The world loved it until the world decided to love it no longer. How fickle we are. Australia winemakers pivoted to a lighter, less oaky, less fruity more subtle version of the wine.
The best way to become familiar with this wine is to taste oaked vs unoaked Chardonnay side-by-side. You’ll really pick up on the differences. You can even select the Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena or from Grgich Hills (Mike Grgich was Chateau Montelena’s head winemaker when they won the famous wine competition). Wine from these wineries can be a bit pricey. Expect around $40 a bottle.
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The links below will take you to the specified wine regions on Wine.com.
FRANCE: CHABLIS (NOT PREMIER CRU, OR GRAND CRU CHABLIS)
CALIFORNIA: NAPA VALLEY
AUSTRALIA: MORNINGTON PENINSULA AND YARRA VALLEY
CALIFORNIA: SPARKLING BLANC DE BLANC
Blanc de Blanc means it includes only Chardonnay grapes.
Follow these tasting tips to really understand the differences between the oaked and unoaked Chardonnay. Compare your experience with the typical tasting profiles described here.
Take your glass and tilt it over a white napkin or paper at a 45-degree angle. Compare the color across all regions. Unoaked Chardonnay has a pale lemon color while the oaked style has a deep gold color.
TASTING PROFILE: Range of pale lemon to deep gold.
Let’s see how aromatic this wine is. Hold your glass at your chest and see if you can catch any scent. Then move it to your chin and try to smell. Next, really put your nose in the glass and take a big sniff. What scents do you catch? Swirl the wine and then sniff again. What scents do you catch now?
TASTING PROFILE: Not an aromatic grape. With nose in the glass for oaked Chardonnay, you’ll get stone fruit (peach), tropical fruit (pineapple, banana), vanilla, and toast notes. For unoaked Chardonnay, you’ll get green fruit (apple), citrus, and wet stone aromas.
Take a taste and swirl it in your mouth. What flavors do you taste? After you swallow, how long does the flavor linger and how would you describe those flavors?
Fruit: Ranges from citrus and green fruit to stone fruit and tropical fruit
Acidity (tart, crisp): Medium to high levels (cool climate). Low to medium levels (warm climate)
Tannin (dry, bitter): None
Body (weight, mouthfeel): Medium to full body
Oak vs Stainless Steel: Warm climate usually matures in oak and imparts flavors of vanilla and toast. Cool climate usually matures in steel tanks, which keeps the flavor crisp.
EASY RATING SYSTEM
After you taste each wine, give it a rating using this easy rating system. Add notes to help remember what you liked or didn’t like about the wine.
3pts Good, but not great
1pt Not for me
LEARN MORE ABOUT
THE NOBLE GRAPES
Do a deeper exploration of these wines. Find out about the top regions and conduct a varietal specific tasting. For example, line up Pinot Noir from each of the top regions and compare.