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Wine 101: Everything you ever wanted to know about chardonnay

A no-nonsense chardonnay guide for everyone

White wine clinking glasses
When one thinks of white wine, chardonnay is likely the varietal that first comes to mind. It is the most famous white wine for many reasons, not the least being its chameleon-like tendencies, which are able to change form in a way many other varieties can not. Chardonnay is unique in its ability to easily represent characteristics given to it by both its environment and the winemaker’s desires. Because of this, chardonnay can be refreshingly bright and crisp or deep, velvety, and complex.
Chardonnay is a green-skinned wine grape that originated in Burgundy, France. It is now the most widely planted white wine grape in the world and a favorite of many for its versatility and classic archetype.

Glass of white wine

Primary flavors of chardonnay

Chardonnay comes in three main varieties – sparkling, oaked, and unoaked. Depending on which of these three categories a chardonnay may fall into, its flavors will change drastically. Sparkling chardonnay is very much like any other sparkling wine in its effervescence and zing, like other sparkling wines such as champagne, sparkling chardonnay ranges in flavor and depth.

Oaked chardonnay is a chardonnay that has been aged in oak barrels and carries with it warmer notes of oak wood, vanilla, and spice. Unoaked chardonnay tends to be much lighter in flavor, ranging from fresh and fruity notes like apple to juicier, more luscious tropical fruits like pineapple and papaya.

Chardonnay’s environment also has quite a bit to do with its flavor. Cooler climate chardonnay tends to taste fruitier and crisp, while warmer climates produce richer, more buttery flavors like butterscotch and honey.

White wine being poured at table

What is the taste profile of chardonnay?

As with most wines, no two bottles of chardonnay are the same, so pinning down one general taste profile can be tricky. Generally speaking, though, chardonnay is a dry, medium-bodied wine with average acidity and alcohol levels. It tends to be very fruit-forward, but not generally sweet.

Wine grapes

Where does chardonnay grow?

While chardonnay originated in Burgundy, France, it is now grown just about everywhere and is the most planted white-wine grape in the world. The most coveted and respected chardonnay still comes from Burgundy, as well as Napa and Sonoma, California.

Glass of white wine

How to serve chardonnay

Like most white wines, chardonnay should be served chilled. The ideal serving temperature for chardonnay is 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Warmer than 50 degrees, alcohol in white wines, particularly chardonnay, can taste hot on the palate, and the flavors may become muddled. Much colder than 50 degrees, however, and the flavor and aromas can’t properly breathe. A full-bodied chardonnay should also be decanted for about 30 minutes before serving.

Table set with salads and wine

Foods that pair well with chardonnay

Like most crisp white wines, non or less oaky chardonnay pairs beautifully with seafood, including lobster, shrimp, and scallops. Chardonnay also has the chops to stand up to meatier seafood like swordfish, as well as chicken and pork dishes, especially those bottles with more buttery notes. Oaky chardonnay pairs best with warm, toastier flavors like grilled or smoked foods, baked goods, and toasted ingredients.

White wine close-up

Is chardonnay dry or sweet?

The language of wine can be terribly confusing. While chardonnay is classified as dry, or, in other words, not sweet, that doesn’t mean it can’t sometimes taste sweet. The reason for this is that chardonnay can be very fruity, and fruit, naturally, has a sweet flavor. In wine-speak, the term “sweetness” generally refers to the amount of residual sugar in wine, not necessarily the sensation of sweetness as a whole.

All of this to say, chardonnay is a dry wine that, depending on your definition of sweetness, can sometimes taste fruity and therefore, sweet.

Glass of white wine

Is chardonnay a high-end wine?

While there are both high-end and bottom-of-the-barrel wines of every varietal, there is something rather prestigious about chardonnay. That isn’t to say that it’s better or worse than any other wine on the market, but its rich, noble history and ability to stand the test of time make it something of an Old World classic.

It should be noted, though, that a low-end chardonnay is, in our opinion, far more noticeable than a lower-quality bottle of any other varietal. This is because many cheaper labels often like to use what is called “fake oak” in the winemaking process. This is done by adding oak chips or oak inserts in lieu of aging in real (more expensive) oak barrels. It’s often highly detectable when this method is used, and instantly pollutes the integrity and the taste of an otherwise fine chardonnay.

Hands toasting with white wine

Which is better, chardonnay or sauvignon blanc?

Both chardonnay and sauvignon blanc have distinctive traits that make them beautiful and unique, and choosing a favorite between the two can be difficult. Both are wonderful in their own right, but they are very different, flavor-wise. Sauvignon blanc is generally brighter and sweeter than chardonnay as it contains more residual sugar. Chardonnay is richer and more full-bodied than sauvignon blanc, making it better for pairing with heavier dishes.

Two glasses of white wine

Is chardonnay or pinot grigio sweeter?

While chardonnay is the drier of these two popular white wines, it’s also often considered the sweeter of the two, as well. This is due to the high acidity in pinot grigio, which cuts the sweetness and accentuates the tart notes in this wine.

Editors' Recommendations

Lindsay Parrill
Lindsay is a graduate of California Culinary Academy, Le Cordon Bleu, San Francisco, from where she holds a degree in…
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