Basics: A Six-Bottle Master Class to Chardonnay | Wine Enthusiast
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A Six-Bottle Master Class to Chardonnay

One of the most versatile grapes in the world, Chardonnay typically falls into two camps for wine drinkers: those who love it and those who hate it. For those who politely decline the variety, it’s usually because their first introduction was a cheap, mass-produced version that tasted like imitation popcorn butter.

But Chardonnay can take on many forms, from deliciously delicate sparklers to still wines that run the gamut from crisp and steely to robust and round.

While many American wine drinkers connect Chardonnay to California, its roots are in Burgundy, France. The grape is planted to nearly half of the region’s total vineyard area. Its expression varies as a result of the area’s range in climate, from cool northerly Chablis to more moderate temperatures in the Mâconnais to the south.

Burgundian winemakers paved the way for modern winemaking practices like malolactic fermentation and barrel aging that tend to give Chardonnay a full-bodied, oaky and buttery texture.

Those techniques found their way to America. The grape started to gain popularity, particularly in California, around the 1970s. Winemakers experimented quite a bit, and the American style of Chardonnay became defined largely as a high-alcohol, low-acid wine with minimal fruit expression and oodles of oak influence.

Today, California winemakers have moved away from the butter bombs of the 1980s. They now produce wines, both unoaked and oaked, that showcase the variety’s diversity when crafted in different parts of the state.

If you’re curious to understand the grape’s varying expressions and find the perfect Chard for your palate, dive into these matchups: unoaked versus oaked Chardonnay; warm-climate versus cool-climate Chardonnay; and Burgundy versus California. As you taste each wine, make sure to jot down any specific flavors or aromas that you experience.

And it’s fine if you can’t find the exact bottles we suggest. Your local wine retailer should be able to point you in the right direction of something similar.

Ripe Chardonnay grape bunch hanging on the vine with leaves in Western Australia.
A ripe Chardonnay bunch hangs on the vine in Western Australia. / Getty

Unoaked vs. Oaked Chardonnay

When it comes to these two types of Chardonnay, the biggest difference is that one has been fermented in stainless steel and the other fermented in oak barrels. While the average consumer may believe that California is only capable of making full-bodied and buttery wines, the truth is that Chardonnay which embodies rich oak and creamy texture can be found anywhere in the world.

Chile, Australia, Argentina, and of course, France, also use a number of winemaking techniques that include oak to add hints of vanilla and toast to Chardonnay.

When it comes to unoaked, lighter and zesty Chardonnay, stainless steel fermentations allow for the resulting wines to taste very crisp, clean and minerally. These offer typical flavors of green apple, lemon and pear.

What ultimately makes the difference between unoaked and oaked Chardonnay is the way they are made and aged. Winemakers can choose between new French or American oak for the wine to embody certain toasty and nutty flavors.

In addition to the type of oak used, timing is everything when it comes to oaked Chardonnay. It can be aged for as little as three months or as long as a year. It all depends on the style that the winemaker hopes to achieve.

Malolactic fermentation also takes place during oak barrel fermentation, which contributes the creamy flavor and texture that many people enjoy. With unoaked Chardonnay, fermentation happens in stainless steel tanks, which allows for the fruit character to shine bright.

The Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley in Sonoma County will showcase California Chardonnay at its best.

Unoaked vs. Oaked Chardonnay Flight

Wine 1: Choose two bottles from the same region, or possibly even the same producer, to highlight the differences in winemaking technique. For a non-wooded selection, aside for “unoaked,” look for other common descriptors like “steel” or “unwooded” on the label.

Wine 2: For the oaked selection from your region of choice, look for key words like “reserve,” “wooded” or “barrel fermented” on the label.

A sign that says Chardonnay in a vineyard with a mountain in the background in Franschhoek, South Africa.
A Chardonnay vineyard in Franschhoek, South Africa. / Getty

Cool Climate vs. Warm Climate Chardonnay

No matter where in the world a vine grows, it needs five things: heat, sunlight, carbon dioxide, water and nutrients from the soil. A wine region’s climate is defined by its annual pattern of temperature, sunlight and rainfall over the course of several years. Chardonnay expresses itself differently based on the type of climate where the grapes are grown.

In cool climates like the South Island of New Zealand, Chablis or Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Chardonnay will express itself generally with higher acidity, more citrus-fruit flavor and minerality. It will also be lower in alcohol and zesty on the palate. Lower temperatures allow the grapes to retain their natural acidity and produce a Chardonnay that’s lighter in body.

Grapes grown in warmer climates like California, South Africa, Australia and Spain will generally be lower in acidity and higher in alcohol, but they’ll bring forth richer, riper fruit flavors like pineapple, apple and lemon.

Cool- vs. Warm-Climate Chardonnay Flight

Wine 1: Choose a Chablis, which is an iconic example of cool-climate Chardonnay.

Wine 2: Select a Chardonnay from South Australia to taste a sun-soaked, warm-climate version.

Burgundy Chardonnay vs. California Chardonnay

These are the two regions most famous for Chardonnay production. Burgundy is known for its vast, varying appellations and pioneering winemaking techniques. California is known for its history of “butter bombs,” but now takes advantage of cool-climate areas to produce zestier, lighter-bodied wines.

A scenic view of the Village of Meursault in Burgundy, France.
A scenic view of the village of Meursault in the Côte d’Or, Burgundy, France. / Getty

What makes Chardonnay a great grape is its ability to adjust to a variety of soil types. In Burgundy, terroir can change over the course of small areas, which can create unique expressions of the grape. Winemakers in France produce a number of quality levels, or crus, to best showcase the fruit’s quality.

In the Golden State, altitude and vineyard aspect can play a major role in the grape’s exposure to the sun. It gives Chardonnay the opportunity to ripen and produce full-bodied wines that are high in alcohol.

Price can often help to determine the quality of a good white Burgundy or California Chardonnay, but it’s important to note where the wine was sourced. Regional wines, like those that are labeled Bourgogne, tend to be inexpensive, while bottlings from site-specific premiers or grands crus will be more expensive. For California Chardonnay, Napa Valley and Sonoma County will be the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) to seek out for high-quality examples.

Burgundy vs. California Chardonnay Flight

Wine 1: A white wine from any of the regions in the Côte de Beaune will provide a benchmark example of Burgundian Chardonnay. Look for bottles from Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet.

Wine 2: The Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley in Sonoma County will showcase California Chardonnay at its best.

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