What is Chardonnay?
Everything you need to know about Chardonnay.
Chardonnay is one of the most versatile and expressive grapes out there.
It’s one of the first varietals that came into my awareness, thanks to Zakk’s mom (hi, Cheryl!) It’s her drink of choice with everything, everywhere we go.
For the longest time, however, I thought that I, at best, could just barely tolerate Chardonnay. Due to the style of the day that was popular as I was coming into wine awareness, I had no interest. It was somehow both over oaked and overly acidic at the same time, completely unappealing to me. I was part of club ABC (anything but Chardonnay).
Then I had Ram’s Gate. Ram’s Gate 2015 Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay, to be exact. And it changed my life.
Not only did it awaken me to Chardonnay, but it also made me realize that I could truly love white wines, and that whites were just as capable of being rich, complex, and luxurious as red wines.
Chardonnay is one of the most expressive and moldable grapes out there. It can be a luscious expression of tropical notes of pineapple, starfruit, and mango when grown in a warm climate; it can demonstrate refined acidity and refreshing characteristics of apples, green fruit, and citrus if from a cool-climate. When oaked, it can be full of creamy, delectable butter notes. Or if aged in stainless steel it can be a lean, light-bodied wine that lets the fruit-notes shine.
Chardonnay is also one of the three varietals used in Champagne (the other two are Pinot Noir and Pinot Meuneir. More on Champagne here). And if the Champagne bottle is labelled “Blanc de Blanc”, it’s from 100% Chardonnay grapes.
Starting to get the picture? Chardonnay isn’t just one thing, and there’s something out there for every wine lover.
I, personally, am obsessed with creamy Chardonnays that are rich with notes of toasted butterscotch and creamy butter. Malolactic fermentation? Yes, please!
How to Find Your Perfect Chardonnay
Oaked vs. Unoaked Chardonnay
An oaked Chardonnay has been aged with the use of oak in the winemaking process. This introduces more oxygen in the winemaking process, as oak barrels are porous and allow aging wine to “breathe”. This process results in more baked apple, almond, and pie crust flavors. The oak itself lends notes of vanilla, clove, and cinnamon, and if the barrel has been toasted on the inside, you’ll notice additional layers of butterscotch. As the Chardonnay matures in the oak barrels, it also often goes through Malolactic Fermentation; this process changes tart-tasting malic acid (naturally present in grapes) to softer, creamier lactic acid, adding rich notes of butter and an oily-like texture.
An unoaked Chardonnay is more “varietal pure” and expresses more notes natural to the grape varietal. Typically these are aged in stainless steel, which limits oxygen exposure and doesn’t impart any new flavor characteristics onto the wine. These will be lean, mineral, and fresh with floral and citrus notes.
Warm Climate vs. Cool Climate Chardonnay
Chardonnay is the world’s most planted with wine grape and is adaptable to many different climates. You’ll find it in hot, sunny regions as well as cool regions. The highest rated Chardonnay tends to come from cooler climates, the most notable being Burgundy, France. This is due to the grape’s ability to maintain acidity as it ripens – in cool climates, Chardonnay is able to ripen slowly, maintaining its acidity over time. Cool-climate Chardonnay tends to demonstrate more “cool” fruit varietals, such as green apple, lemon, and lime.
Warm-climate Chardonnay, on the other hand, gravitates towards fruitier, more tropical notes and a fuller body. You’ll notice flavors of pineapple, mango, and guava.
By mixing the above four options in varying degrees, you end up with a wide range of Chardonnays. There’s something out there for everyone!
2015 Ram’s Gate Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay
My favorite of all favorites, this holds a special place in my heart. It was aged 11 months in 33% new French oak and demonstrates beautiful precision, finesse, and balance. This wine opens its pretty aromatic profile with notes of white pineapple, citrus oil, Gardenia, and chamomile followed by a distinct flinty brioche. Sur lie aging brings a dynamic and playful texture to the palate. Light coriander and juicy Meyer lemon oil lead to a long, mineral finish.
Grown by the same family that supplies for the Ram’s Gate Chardonnay, this bottle also holds a special place in my heart. Hyde Vineyards is located in the heart of Napa Valley’s Carneros region and has been long hailed a grand cru-caliber site. In 2009, Larry debuted his own small-lot production of wines; this particular Chardonnay was only crafted in 231 cases. Focused and expressive, this wine starts with a big bouquet of spring flowers, followed by beautiful bright apple, pear, ripe gooseberry and peach. The palate is full-bodied and supple, followed by a long, succulent finish. It was aged in 30% new French oak and 70% neutral French oak.
2016 La Pitchoune Sonoma Coast Pratt Vineyard Chardonnay
This Chardonnay hails from the Sonoma Coast, a cool-climate area that encompasses the wild, wind-swept norther coast to the gently rolling hills more inland. La Pitchoune means “the little one” in French, and speaks to their small production, small lots, and their idea that their small size is their greatest asset. Their wines are crafted in a food-friendly, classic Burgundian style. This particular bottle is hazy golden-yellow in color with aromas of tangerine oil, Mayer lemon blossom, green apple skin, and yeasted dough, highlighted by an underlying flinty, smoky component.
2017 Educated Guess Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
100% barrel fermented, this Chardonnay is all about balance. There’s a pleasing presence of rich acidity and delicious tropical fruit flavors combined with creamy, toasted notes of spice and vanilla. It’s also an affordable option that’s sure to please a crowd!
2014 Partage Santa Cruz Mountain Chardonnay
With laser focus and purity, this Chardonnay features mineral tones that fill the wine with pineapple and green apple. Planted 920-1050 feet above the ocean, the 40 acre vineyard where this grew is covered with white Zayante sand. You’ll find gorgeous aromas of lemon oil, apple and pineapple in a symphony of complexity.
2016 Brasswood Cellars Chardonnay
White stone fruit, sea brine, and sweet Meyer lemon aromas rise from the glass. One sip brings flavors of bright citrus, preserved peach, and toasted marshmallow, finished with a bright minerality and subtle baking spices. Brasswood is one of my favorite wineries in Napa. See the full winery review here!
How to Serve Chardonnay
Full-Bodied whites, such as Chardonnay, Albariño, Trebbiano, and Viognier should be served at 0–55°F to enhance their layered aromatic characteristics and rich flavors. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re looking to get super specific, the less oaky the wine, the closer to 50°F it should be served.
If taking the temperature seems to be too much work, I recommend placing wines in the fridge overnight or at least for a few hours. You then want to take it out of the fridge approximately 30 minutes before you’re ready to serve. The fridge will take the wine’s temperature down too low, but after 30 minutes it should be the ideal temperature to serve.
Chardonnay should be served in white wine glasses.
Want to learn more about drinking and serving Chardonnay? Check out my self-paced online course: 7 Days to Wine Confidence.
Can You Age Chardonnay
How long will Chardonnay age? It depends on the style and quality of the wine. Top Chardonnays aged in fine oak can be cellared for several years, though most American white wines are consumed within 1-2 years of their release. Some of the best Chardonnays in the world, such as Burgundy, can be aged for decades and still retain their beautiful balance, developing complex tertiary flavors of spice, nuts, and earth. Higher quality wines equal greater aging potential.
Is Chardonnay Sweet or Dry
Most Chardonnay is dry. While the style of the wine can vary greatly based on winemaking practices and growing conditions, for the most part Chardonnay is a dry white wine with a medium to full body, moderate acidity, and moderate alcohol.
Occasionally you will find a sweet or dessert Chardonnay, but these are usually very limited in production and will be marked clearly on the label as such.
Can Chardonnay be Used for Cooking
Cooking with Chardonnay is an absolutely wonderful idea! If you’re planning on cooking with your wine, I recommend looking for one with low-oak contact, as oak can be overpowering when paired with food.
Cooking with Chardonnay will impart a richness to your food that’s not found with other white wines. It’s best in heavy cream dishes, such as gravy or cream sauce for pasta. In these dishes, it will balance out the acidity while bringing out its flavors. I also love it on scallops with a butter/wine sauce.
Chardonnay is Versatile
If you’re currently opposed to anything Chardonnay, I encourage you to keep looking. Try a warm climate, try a cool climate, try oaked, try unoaked. Experiment freely and chat with your friends at the wine shop; they’ll point you in the right direction.
There are so many different styles of Chardonnay out there. I’m convinced there’s one for everyone.