Getting to Know Chardonnay

Chard cover

I’m sure you’ve drank or heard of it before, but let me reintroduce you to another one of my favorite varietals, Chardonnay. This often polarizing grape sometimes gets a bad rap, but if you leave with nothing else, I hope this encourages the Chardy-party-poopers to give it another chance. For my Chardonnay lovers – I’m right there with you, and let’s dig a little bit deeper into why we love this grape so much!

If you ever want to play a clever trick on a friend when you’re having them blind taste a couple wines, grab a Chardonnay from Napa/Sonoma and one from Chablis in France. Pour them a glass side-by-side and have them tell you what they think. More often than not, at least for my US-based friends, the Chablis will be mistaken for a Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, or some other light, minerally, acidic wine. It’s a fun way to show them how geography (“terroir”) and winemaking techniques can have a large impact on a grape’s typicity – especially when it comes to Chardonnay.

Chardonnay is like the Ms. Frizzle or Bill Nye of grapes. It’s a versatile varietal (say that five times fast) that heavily reflects the wine making techniques used on it, acting as the perfect canvas to teach the drinker about differing wine making styles.

Diving into this grape, let’s talk about typical aromas to start. The rule of thumb is that Chardonnays from the “New World” (e.g., USA, South America, Australia) have more of a new oak influence which imparts vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and other toasty smells along with higher alcohol from hotter growing temperatures. They’ll also have more of a baked fruit character with a range of lemon merengue, canned peach, and maybe some tropical fruits like banana or mango.

And speaking of typicity, Chardonnays from the old world (e.g., France) will often have more racy acidity and more minerally scents upfront — think about fresh oysters when I say “minerally” here. The fruit character tends to be more tart with lower alcohol due to colder climates – a style of Chardonnay that Sauv Blanc lovers might be more inclined towards. 


So what does this distinction really mean? There are general rules of thumb: a) nomenclature/geographical component and b) wine characteristics.

For a), old world wines are essentially all European and new world are all other prevalent countries (US, Australia, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, etc.). Naming can also be confusing. Because wine laws are far more restrictive in old world regions, the name of the wine is often tied to the region it’s produced in, instead of the actual grape it is made from (e.g., Burgundy red = Pinot Noir, Chianti Classico = Sangiovese, etc.). New world wines are much more free form.

For b), old world wines tend to be more acidic, lighter in body (e.g., less alcohol), exhibit more earth, floral, or mineral-first notes, and characterized by tart fruit. New world wines tend to be heavier in body (e.g., more alcohol), less acidic, and exhibit ripe, stewed, or jammy, fruit-forward notes.

There are exceptions to every rule, and as winemakers become more exploratory, there are increasingly blurred lines between each region stylistically.

Now there are a couple of other very important winemaking techniques worth talking about in the context of Chardonnay and the various ways in which it can taste: malolactic fermentation and stirring the ‘lees.’ Both of these winemaking techniques play a role in imparting key flavors in Chardonnays. 

In layman’s terms, malolactic fermentation is converting one acid into another, taking a wine that may be too acidic and giving it a more creamy, round finish. Scientifically, it’s converting the more tart malic acid into the creamier lactic acid. This leads to a creamy or buttery taste in wine that is often a hallmark of typical Chardonnays. I frequently find that this manifests itself as buttered popcorn in Napa/Sonoma Chardonnays, while Burgundy (French) Chardonnays have more hints of ricotta cheese. 

What are lees? They are literally the dead yeast cells that float to the top of wine while it’s fermenting. And although it may sound gross, they can actually impart some tantalizing flavors in wine when they’re stirred around in the fermentation tank. If you ever get hints of cheese rind or bread dough aromas in your Chardonnay, you should ask if this technique was used for some brownie points ;).

Other common tasting note characteristics of old world Chardonnay are tart yellow apple, pear, lemon, and mushroom, while new world has more baked characteristics including yellow apple, banana, and pineapple.

The versatility in the ways Chardonanny can manifest itself lead to versatility in what it can pair with. Cooler climate Chardonnays with less or no oak, like that Chablis from earlier, can counterbalance richness in foods and pair very well with mild shellfish and oysters because of their high acidity and minerality. Warmer climate Chardonnays with heavier oak influence will pair well with dishes with rich textures and flavors, butter, cream, or melted cheeses. Think cheesy grits, creamy pasta, smoked fish, or lobster with butter/cream sauce. Pitfalls when pairing often involve Chardonnays that are too oaky that ultimately overpower the food, or spicy dishes that do nothing but blow out the alcohol and oak in the wine.

So where did Chardonnay originate? In this case, the grape started within the region it’s most well-known for, Burgundy. There’s a small commune in the southern Burgundy region, Maconnais, that is known for high-value Chardonnays (e.g., reasonably priced compared to its more famous neighbors to the north, Cotes de Nuits and Cotes de Beaune). Chardonnay came to California during the 1880’s when Charles Wetmore brought it over from Meursault and established it in his Livermore vineyard (at least that’s the first documented account). 


If you’re a huge Burgundy Chardonnay fan, you should try some Chardonnays from the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

During the mid-1960’s, David Lett, Charles Coury and Dick Erath made their way to the north Willamette Valley, despite being cautioned by other folks in the wine growing world, because they were convinced that it was a pristine region for cold-climate varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Turns out they were right! Over the next few decades, as the valley’s reputation grew, even famous Burgundy winemakers, like Domaine Drouhin for example, set up shop there. In my opinion, it’s still underappreciated relative to other wine regions in the US, so definitely give it a try if you haven’t!

I’d recommend any of Lingua Franca or Walter Scott Chardonnays to start. But there are plenty of great Willamette and Oregon producers!

P.S. Willamette is pronounced will-AM-it, and locals have a saying that goes, “it’s Will-AM-it, damn-it” to help you remember!

Can’t wait to try some Chardonnay for yourself now that I’ve spent so long talking about it? Some of my favorites are:

Louis Michel & Fils, Chablis 1er Cru Forets, 2018 (less oak)

Domaine Cheveau, Pouilly-Fuisse Les Vieilles Vignes, 2017 (more oak)


Chiron, Nectar Dance, 2018


Caroline Morey, Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Champs Gains, 2018 (old world)

Kistler, Trenton Roadhouse Chardonnay, 2018 (new world)


Looking for the tl;dr on Chardonnay so you can impress your friends the next time you’re out at a wine bar? Look no further, your cheat sheet is below. Just remember, the versatility of Chardonnay makes it the perfect grape professor, teaching the drinker about differing wine making styles.

Illustration by @irregularbeets