The Secret of Chardonnay
The wine you’ve always needed (but never knew)
I know what you’re thinking. “Chardonnay? No, thanks. That’s what mom drinks.”
Bear with me for a second.
You’ve heard of its overpowering oaky taste. You’ve drunk thick buttery glasses you could barely stomach. You may have even walked into a shop and uttered the phrase “anything but Chardonnay.”
The truth is, you don’t know Chardonnay.
At least, not all of Chardonnay. It is the most popular white wine to date, and also the most polarizing.
But Chardonnay is actually one of the rare completely versatile wines. You can sip it with delicate fish, hearty steak or even enjoy it entirely on its own. There is no one type of Chardonnay. In fact, there are as many varieties as there are wineries!
All you need is to pick the right one for you. I guarantee, there’s a chardonnay out there for everyone. Who knows, you might just find dear old mom has better taste than you think!
I’m not convinced…what makes Chardonnay so great?
Take a look at its origins.
Chardonnay is grown in nearly every wine-producing region on earth. But it originated in Burgundy under the name “White Burgundy,” which has hints of apple and citrus.
Then the grapes moved to Champagne where warmer climate dramatically increased hints of honey and pineapple.
BTW: When you drink Blanc de blanc champagnes, you’re drinking 100% sparkling chardonnay!
You see, the little green grape was considered neutral with relatively low acidity. But as the grapes spread across the world, winemakers noted its ability to change flavor profiles based on climate and soil, or terroir, of the regions.
In cool climates like Burgundy, Chardonnay grapes produce wines with earthy and fall flavors like apples and pears. But in warm climates like Champagne, the grapes produced wines with light tropical flavors like pineapple, mango, and peach. This lead to a whole array of delicate and subtle wines across Europe.
It has since spread across the world to the United States, Italy, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, and Argentina. Easy to grow and versatile quickly labeled it the “winemaker’s wine.”
So then why does it have a bad reputation now?
Some of those same winemaking principles that make it so great for winemakers!
Introducing Chardonnay to oak produces a rich, full-body palette and brings out spices like vanilla and nutmeg.
But you can have too much of a good thing. Too much oak and your chardonnay becomes overpowering. The result? That wine that tastes like a tree.
This brings us to the second technique: malolactic fermentation.
Most highly acidic wines contain malic acid. It gives them that zing you like.
In malolactic fermentation, the bacteria Oenococcus oeni converts the malic acid into lactic acid and smooths out the wine.
But it also creates the byproduct diacetyl, which tastes like butter. (See where I’m going here.)
The combination created the wine you know and love…or hate.
But, there are unoaked Chardonnays. Just as many as oaked ones in fact!
If you hate oak and butter, don’t despair! Look below and you just might find a Chardonnay that has you renouncing your “ABC”s.
How do I decide which to buy?
Below are current popular Chardonnays that you could find in your local wine shop or wine bar. They are all between $15 and $30 and rated based on the below characteristics.
- fruit/floral flavors
- oak and butter
- balance and harmony
1 – 2017 Pascal Henry, Bourgogne Blanc, Burgundy 2017 $20
A very classic White Burgundy, good for every day drinking. A soft white floral bouquet greets you, followed by lemon and green apple notes. There is a slight tangy finish, but overall this is a delicious delicate wine.
- Color: Pale Lemon
- Oaked: No
- Buttery: No
- Balance/Complexity: 8 / 4
- Pair it with: A mild fish like cod or halibut; pasta with lemon butter sauce; Creamy cheese like Camembert or Brie
2 – 2016 Chardonnay Buissonnier, Bourgogne Cote Chalonnaise, Burgundy 2017 $20
Another White Burgundy. A lemon and jasmine nose. Notes of green apple and wet stone follow to create a crisp and charming wine. A slight butter gives a full texture in the midpalate. Overall a refreshing wine with an electric finish. Very similar to a Sauvignon Blanc.
- Color: Soft Gold
- Oaked: No
- Buttery: Slightly
- Balance/Complexity: 9 / 6
- Pair it with: Mild flaky fish like bass or flounder; Creamy cheese like Camembert or Brie
3 – 2016 Bourgogne Hautes-Cotes De Beaune, Domain Rollin Pere et Fils, France, $27
A very light oak goes almost unnoticeable in this vintage. The older oak only adds a sweet touch of honey to an otherwise clean wine. The nose is heavy with lemon followed by notes of peach, gardenia, and minerals. It finishes quickly with a zing that makes you long for a second class. Be careful what you pair it with, as the delicate flavors might be lost!
- Color: Pale Yellow
- Oaked: Minimal
- Buttery: Very Slightly
- Balance/Complexity: 8 / 8
- Pair it with: Shellfish of any variety; use as a pre-dinner wine
4 – 2016 Les Brandes Bruyeres, Domaine Cheveau Macon-Fuissé, France, $20
The nose is heavy on citrus and stone fruit. Notes of vanilla, baked apple, toasted pears, and crème brulee. The texture is buttery but still retains a surprising amount of acidity. A quick finish of lemon and vanilla follows. Aged in stainless steel, the rich complexity comes from keeping contact with lees for a year. These 40-year-old vines produce 6,000 bottles that are almost entirely sold in the United States.
- Color: Golden
- Oaked: Yes
- Butter: Yes
- Balance/Complexity: 7 / 5
- Pair it with: Medium fish such as grouper or snapper; creamy pasta; Fontina or Gouda
5 – 2016 Calme et Joseph Villa Blanche 1GP Pays d’Oe, $15
You’ll get instant notes of lemon and extremely ripe honeydew melons transitioning to tropical fruits and peaches in this mid-body wine. While the nose has soft pleasing hints of white flower and very ripe fruit, there is a fullness to the midpalate the ends with a long fruity finish.
- Color: Rich Golden
- Oaked: No
- Butter: No
- Balance/Complexity: 8 / 6
- Pair it with: Salmon or trout; a creamy pasta; Fontina or Gouda
6 – 2014 Shooting Star Aligoté, Jed Steele, Washington, $14
Butter is evident from even the first whiff of this wine. A strong lemon nose greets you followed by notes of caramel, honey, baked apple, peach and other stone fruits. The lack of acidity and strong oak and butter can make this wine overpowering, but pair it with food and it goes down smooth.
BTW: Aligoté is not technically a Chardonnay. However, the grapes also originated in Burgundy and are often mixed with Chardonnay grapes. They have a slightly more herbal and lemony flavor.
- Color: Bright deep Gold
- Oaked: Yes
- Butter: Strong
- Balance/Complexity: 6 / 4
- Pair it with: A meatier fish like shark, tuna, or swordfish; a creamy pasta; bleu cheese
The Best Of… Series
Planning your next wine and cheese soiree?
Below are some great recommendations for any budget, whether you splurge or keep it casual.
Each price point includes an Oaked and Unoaked recommendation to determine what’s best for you and your elegantly refined dinner guests!
Best Chardonnay Under 50
Oaked: 2017 Kutch Chardonnay, Sonoma Valley, California, $39
Kutch consistently produces excellent oaked Chardonnays without overpowering the floral and fruit notes. Really any vintage you can find from this winery is excellent. This particular vintage is an old school chardonnay with surprising richness and a balanced combination of citrus, minerality, and just a hint of smoke and matches.
Worth Noting: 2017 Chardonnay Reserve, Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley, $50
This oaked wine was the #1 White Sweepstakes Winner at the 2019 San Francisco Wine Competition. I haven’t tried it personally, but rumor has it the wine is a perfect fall combination of apple, pear and cinnamon with a well-balanced oak overlay.
Unoaked: 2017 Domaine Pinson Freres Chablis Mont de Milieu Premier Cru, Chablis, $44
This wine has the slightest hint of wood and flint, but the nose is lemon and peach and soft white botanicals. Midpalate volume brings with it flavors of wet stone and minerality that ends on high acidity and fruit. Drink it now or age it a few years!
BTW: Chablis, France is widely recognized as the best region for Chardonnay. In 2006 an international trade agreement prohibited new wines made anywhere else to use the “Chablis” brand.
BTW: Premier Cru is the second tier of Chablis wines (the top being Grand Cru.) You’ll find the occasional lightly oaked wine in these upper tiers, as they occasionally ferment in old oak to add complexity.
Best Chardonnay Under 30
Oaked: 2016 Topiary Chardonnay, South Africa, $25
Aromas of white flowers like jasmine on the nose. Primary hints of citrus and honey with clean and balanced acidity. The oak in this wine is moderate, just a hint of hazelnut and toast. This isn’t the most complex wine, but the body is full and pleasant.
Unoaked: 2017 Morgan Metallico Unoaked Chardonnay, California, $22
For those who like Sauvignon Blanc, this is your Chardonnay of choice! Grass, stone, and lemon flavors mingle with honeysuckle to create a refreshingly ripe wine. High in acidity, it finishes with bright mango and citrus notes.
Worth Noting: 2017 Winc The Independent Chardonnay, California, $25
If you like unoaked chardonnays but miss the buttery texture, this might be the wine for you. Winc picks their grapes a little early to preserve acidity and ferments them in stainless steel. But, they also low a complete malolactic fermentation process to add in the butter complexity found in oaked wines. The flavors are heavy on apricot, pear, and stone with a honey and peach nose.
Best “Chardonnay” Under 20
It can be difficult to find a really excellent oaked Chardonnay under $25. In some cases, prolonged oak is used to cover up poor fruit quality or add flavor to fruits that were picked too early. However, in some cases there is just enough oak to enhance a vanilla or smoke aroma. If you don’t mind a little oak and butter, try these!
Oaked: Butter Chardonnay, California, $15-16
Butter is heavily oaked with smoky overtones. The rich creamy butter flavor combines with fruity notes to give an aroma like apple pie. Overall a fairly well-balanced wine for this price range.
Unoaked: 2017 Gilbert Cellars Unoaked Chardonnay, Washington, $19
What is in a name? Well in this case, exactly what you need to know: no oak. There is also no malolactic fermentation leading to a crisp acidic wine with hints of ripe fruits like pineapple, lemon, and kiwi. There is just a touch of white pepper spice in the nose mingled with a hint of rose florals.
Worth Noting: 2017 Kim Crawford Chardonnay Unoaked, New Zealand $19
Hints of stone fruit and butterscotch are the highlights in this full-bodied wine. There is a slight creamy texture here as they do use malolactic fermentation. Drinks this for a clean, easy, well-balanced wine.
Best “Chardonnay” Under 15
Oaked: 2017 The Heritage Collection Chardonnay, Peirano Estate, $13
The lemon citrus aroma is strong in this wine, followed by toasted vanilla. The ripe tropical fruits like pineapple and mango give it structure and the faint hint of crème brûlée gives it a seductive finish.
Worth Noting: 2016 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve, California $14
Kendall-Jackson is America’s #1 selling Chardonnay, and with reason. The Vintner’s Reserve is full of tropical flavors aided by a citrus acidity. This medium body wine has a slightly creamy texture but still remains bright and balanced with a long finish.
Unoaked: 2017 Louis Jadot Macon-Villages, Burgundy $13-14
Like most French wines, the floral bouquet is soft and delicate. Hints of lemon combine with strong fruity flavors like apple and melon. The texture is soft with a bright lingering finish for a charming and refreshing wine.
Worth Noting: 2016 A to Z Chardonnay Unoaked, Oregon, $13-14
A crisp and light wine that finishes brightly on pear and honey flavors. This is a medium-bodied wine, but it’s vibrant and goes down smooth. There is no oak, as the grapes were age entirely in stainless steel, giving it that balanced, sleek feel that highlights the flavors of the grape itself. Slotted into the worth noting category since the vineyard uses Green growing and winemaking practices!
Best “Chardonnay” Under 10
Oaked: 2017 Bogle Chardonnay, California $8-9
This oaked wine avoids the overpoweringly smoky and buttery flavor by only using 50% oak. The other 50% of grapes are stored in stainless steel tanks and only combined at the end. This allows a softer mingling of oak and butter that highlights the vanilla and honey notes while still allowing apple, pear and guava to shine through. Freshness and creaminess all in one!
Unoaked: 2017 Joseph Drouhin Laforet Chardonnay, Burgundy, $9
A truly elegant vintage from the heart of Chardonnay’s origins. You’re met with a white floral bouquet and citrus aromas. The vanilla and honey notes are followed by a vibrant and striking finish.
Worth Noting: 2016 Smoking Loon Steelbird Unoaked Chardonnay, California $9
Also fermented in stainless steel, there is a tangy edge to this wine. No oak flavor, but there is still a hint of cream for those who miss the butter flavor of some unoaked wines. In general, it is crisp and medium bodied full of golden apple, apricot, and a floral bouquet.
Best Years for Chardonnay
Because Chardonnay grapes are so versatile and adopt aspects from their growing regions, different years can produce completely different results.
- The grapes grow well in cooler ranges, but the risk is frost.
- Picked too early to avoid the frost, and the grapes lose their flavor.
But even on a year when the cold destroys some crop, Chardonnay’s versatility shines through and there are usually at least a few regions with an excellent product!
Since France and California are two of the biggest growers of Chardonnay grapes, we’ll focus on those two here.
- Best Year: 2014
- A drought hit California is 2014 and most of the crop was lost.
But from great struggle comes great triumph and the remaining grapes created a year of pristine and exquisite wines.
If you can find a bottle of the 2014 Kutch Santa Cruz Mountains, you’ve found a truly remarkable wine. However, that was a rare fruit source combination for Kutch as they used a blend of Trout Gulch and Zayante grapes to create an exotic and tropical nose.
The 2014 Ceritas or Rhys wines are also excellent choices
Other Years to look out for:
- 2007 – almost all regions, except Santa Barbra, produced excellently balanced bottles
- 2002 – strong full wines across all regions
- 1997 and 1996 – monumental, crops produced were highly complex and ripe
Since 2016 vintages are newer now, be aware that there was a frost that year and crops were reduced. You’ll have to comb through for the elegant bottles.
For the Europhiles who need a good French Chardonnay or White Burgundy, your best bets for recent vintages are:
- 2015 – yielded sweet and full wines
- 2014 – yielded more classic and acidic wines
- 2002 – created balanced wines with high acidity
- 1996 – clean and elegant
If anyone still has a 1978 or 1966 still in their cellars, more power to you!
Most Chardonnays are meant to be consumed as young wine.
However, there are a few notable varieties and years that benefit from aging the allowing the flavors to mature and mingle.
Chablis, some high-end White Burgundies, and many 2005 French vintages are included in this group.
Unless you have those unwelcome dinner guests who just won’t leave and a bottle of Chardonnay you want to throw out. But then, we can’t be friends.
There you have it!
Most critics will tell you to find a good Chardonnay, you’re going to want to stay around or above the $25 price point.
But the truth is, Chardonnay is exceptionally varied. This lucky little grape can transform into any combination of flavors you can imagine.
Don’t be blinded by the oak and butter reputation. Do some taste tests. Try some samples. Find out what flavors work for you.
The good news about Chardonnay is, there’s something for everyone.
Over to you! What’s your favorite bottle?