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Chardonnay Wine: A Non-Snobby Guide to the World's Most Popular White Wine
McKenzie Hagan |
When it comes to Chardonnay wine, its reputation precedes it — both good and not so good. Even if you don't regularly drink this popular white wine, you've certainly seen it mentioned in countless mom memes. Or maybe you watched Renée Zellweger use it to drown her sorrows in 2001's "Bridget Jones's Diary."
Much like once-maligned Merlot, Chardonnay was overproduced (and overoaked) for a time — particularly in the 1990s — leading to its notoriety as a cheap, overly oaky, and "uncool" wine. But this dry and versatile white wine is here to stay, and wine lovers aren't going to let a few sour grapes ruin the whole show.
In this guide, we'll review everything you need to know about this persistent varietal, including where it originated, where it's grown, what it tastes like, and how it's produced. We'll also share tips for how to best enjoy this enduring white wine, including ideal serving temperature, tasty food pairings, and the type of stemware to use. (Yes, it matters.)
What Is Chardonnay Wine?
Chardonnay is a white wine that comes from the green-skinned grape variety of the same name. A cross between the Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc grape varieties, Chardonnay grapes were first grown in the small village of Chardonnay, located in the Burgundy region of France.
Despite its mixed reputation in more recent years, Chardonnay continues to be one of (if not the) world's most popular white wines. One reason for its widespread presence: Chardonnay wine grapes are easy to cultivate because they can adapt to different conditions, including cool climates and warm climates.
Along with its Old World origins in the Burgundy wine region (including Chablis, Mâconnais, Meursault, and Pouilly-Fuissé), Chardonnay is grown throughout Europe, most notably Italy and Spain. It's also grown in New World wine regions from California (Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Central Coast) and Oregon (Willamette Valley) in the United States to Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.
Another reason winemakers love Chardonnay is because of its neutral, malleable character — it will take on the flavor brought on by terroir and the use of oak barrels. As such, it's used to make a broad spectrum of styles from crisp and sparkling wines like Blanc de Blancs (a.k.a. "white of whites" Champagne) to rich and buttery white wines.
Fun fact: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier account for almost 100% of the grape varieties used to make Champagne.
What Does Chardonnay Wine Taste Like?
Depending on the wine region and winemaking process, Chardonnay can have a wide range of flavors. But in general, Chardonnay is dry, medium- to full-bodied with moderate tannins and acidity. It typically has tropical fruit flavors (think pineapple, papaya, and mango) although it's not sweet.
If Chardonnay is aged in oak barrels, it will have a creamier texture and buttery taste with hints of vanilla and spice. If it's unoaked Chardonnay that's aged in stainless steel barrels (or plastic tanks), it will have a crisper consistency with bright and fruity flavors of green apple and lemon — similar to Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc.
Either way, Chardonnay has a higher alcohol content than the U.S. standard for the average glass of wine, which is 12% ABV. When produced in cooler climates like France, Chardonnay averages about 13.5% ABV. If the wine comes from warm climates such as California, Chile, or South Africa, it'll be closer to 15% ABV.
How Is Chardonnay Wine Made?
As with all types of wine, Chardonnay winemaking begins in the vineyard with the grapes being harvested, pressed, and fermented. As detailed in our essential guide to viniculture, if the wine is interrupted before the fermentation process is complete, there will be more residual sugar, resulting in a sweeter wine. If the winemaker lets fermentation run its course (as with Chardonnay), it'll be a drier wine with lower sugar levels.
For Chardonnay, the winemaker must also decide if oak will be part of the equation. If the goal is to produce a crisp and bright Chardonnay, the vintner will forego oak and opt for stainless steel (in most cases) to ferment and store the wine before bottling. Doing so reduces oxygenation, which helps to retain the white wine grape's fresh character.
When a wine producer wants a more full-bodied Chardonnay with that signature buttery taste and those woody, vanilla notes, then the wine will ferment and age in oak. Or, it could ferment in stainless steel and then age in oak barrels afterward.
How to Enjoy Chardonnay Wine
Before you pop open that bottle of Chardonnay, we have a few tips to share on how to drink wine like an expert. (We have a lot of experience in this department. Just take a look at how busy we've been with our ever-growing collection of Usual Wines and you'll see what we mean.)
Whether you're having a wine tasting party or just need to unwind from a long day of adulting, Chardonnay is one of those wines that fits just about any occasion you can imagine. Use the pointers below to make the most of your next glass, including the best temperature for serving, fabulous food pairings, and the type of glassware to use.
When serving Chardonnay, it's a good idea to follow the basic guidelines for ideal wine temperature. As with lighter and fruitier white wines like Pinot Grigio, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc, unoaked Chardonnay tastes best at colder temperatures, between 45-50 degrees. Doing so will maintain its crisp, bright flavors and acidity.
Fuller-bodied whites like oaked Chardonnay are best served between 50-60 degrees to bring out their rich textures and creamy, buttery flavors. If you don't have hours to cool down your bottle, don't worry. Our guide on how to quickly chill wine will have your Chardonnay (and you) chilling out in no time.
Since you have your pick of unoaked or oaked Chardonnay, take a look at these food and dessert suggestions along with wine and cheese pairings that are suited for each style.
No-oak Chardonnay makes an excellent partner for fresh seafood. Think sushi, white fish, oysters on the half shell, clams, lobster, crab, and other lightly seasoned shellfish. The crisp notes of unoaked Chardonnay play well against light and buttery poultry dishes like chicken piccata and mild, creamy cheeses, including brie, mozzarella, and fontina. For dessert, try fresh fruit, lemon cheesecake, vanilla pudding, or apricot tarts.
Oaky Chardonnays can stand up to more substantial and fatty seafood, including grilled or smoked salmon, crab cakes, and herb-crusted halibut. The bolder style of this white wine also complements pork tenderloin and meatless pasta dishes like mushroom risotto and butternut squash or pumpkin ravioli. Choose semi-hard cheeses like cheddar or Comté. For a sweet finish, you can't go wrong with flaky, crusty pastries such as apple strudel, strawberry cobbler, and citrus soufflé that will bring out the wine's toasty, buttery notes.
Type of Glassware
Believe it or not, the type of wine glass you use makes a difference. (You'll believe it once you read the science behind it.) As researchers have pointed out, the shape of a glass affects how wine vapor rises, which impacts the taste and fragrance. With this in mind, it's best to serve Chardonnay in a standard white wine or sparkling wine glass — the smaller bowl preserves the wine's delicate, delightful aromas while the longer stem keeps your hands from warming it up.
That said, we won't discourage you from drinking wine straight out of the bottle. In fact, we encourage it. (At least in certain circumstances.) Just take a look at our Usual Wines Brut sparkling white wine and you'll understand why.
Hooray for Chardonnay
Whether you're planning a special event or just staying in for the evening, Chardonnay wine is always a good time. Even though Chardonnay had gotten a bad rap for a while (you can blame some of it on the Bridget Jones Effect), this incredibly popular white wine continues to endure. This resilient little grape is found worldwide and offers a wide breadth of flavors depending on where it grows and how it's made. In other words, there's a Chardonnay for every palate, including yours.
For more ways to enjoy wine to the fullest, don't miss our Usual Wine blog and get ready to raise a glass.