Varietals - Chardonnay


: Chardonnay is the most planted white grape variety on Earth. For that, it shares the same position as Cabernet Sauvignon. However, that's where the similarities end. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay is not as distinctive in taste, and therefore can often be confused with another grape. It is so malleable, that its varietal character can disappear with the use of oak and other treatments.

In its classic style, Chardonnay is a medium to full-bodied white wine that often suggests hints of green apples, pears and, sometimes, spice. It can go from a simple cocktail wine to one of the most complex, long-lived dry white wines made. Recently, the debate on Chardonnay has centered almost exclusively on the use of oak. To oak, or not to oak, seems to be the question. Oak adds flavors of spice and vanilla to the wine that many gravitate toward. Others think it is obtrusive and distracting, but the time in and type of oak used along with the age of the barrels can impact the final wine quite differently. It's the winemaker's judgment call.

Unfortunately, there is no way to tell how the wine is going to taste when you look at the label, even knowing where the grapes were grown. You really have to rely on the producer, and more importantly, your own experience with different producers. From dull and lifeless, to oak and extract, to light and delicate, to tart and piquant, Chardonnay will fool more than it will be favored.

The principle factors determining the outcome of the finished wine are: the ripeness at harvest (riper grapes have less acid and are thus softer tasting); Malolactic Fermentation, the converting of the harsh malic acid (found in green apples) to the softer, creamer lactic acid (found in milk) thus the terms "creamy" and "buttery" are used to describe the wine; and finally oak. Whether used during or after fermentation, the age of the barrels and the length of time held, oak could either enhance or obliterate the flavors of the finished wine.



At the low end, the wines have some similarity to Chile; light, simple, and refreshing. The upper end tends toward the California style of big, buxom, and oaky offerings that often intensify the oak by using American oak, which tends to be stronger than the French


Most wines are made in a bigger, riper style, with appreciable oak, but that has been changing in recent years. Some wines from the cooler areas like Santa Barbara, Carneros, and Mendocino, make a leaner, crisper style, but the linchpin is always the presence or absence of oak. Malolactic fermentation also plays a large role as well. It gives the soft, buttery components that seem to be a favorite of most consumers.


Burgundy is the top of the world for Chardonnay. From the simplest, yet appealing Macon, to the gigantic and imposing Montrachets, no area offers the presence and power of this grape like the Cotes de Beaune. Price here, however, is not a guarantee of quality; although generally the expensive wines are better than the less expensive wines.

For those not fond of oak, there is a little corner of Burgundy called Chablis that they gravitate toward. Most wines see no oak whatsoever. They are very clean, crisp, and generally higher in acid. The grapes are grown on chalky soil and you can almost taste it in the wine. Most wines do not go through malolactic, so the harsh malic acid gives the wine an even more bracing component. Some call Chablis the truest expression of Chardonnay. Once you've had one of the great ones, it's hard to argue.


Most of the Chardonnay is grown in the northeast, specifically Trentino, Friuli, and the Veneto. Those producers tend to make a lighter, less oak influenced wine as has been the style for over a century. Small pockets in Tuscany, Sicily and Piedmont produce handsome, large-scale wines that have rivaled the best in the world in both quality and price.

New Zealand

The cool climate here forces a predisposition to cleaner, crisper wines with higher acids than most areas. But again, the style is still up to the desire of the winemaker and, while plantings are increasing here, there isn't enough around to form a consistent opinion regarding style. 

South Africa

Runs the gamut from Australia's big, oak driven style, to New Zealand's crisper style. Still evolving, but promising.

South America

Chile's price point doesn't allow for much oak maturation or fermentation. Thusly, most of their wines are of the lighter style with some oak influence, but generally not a lot. Argentina has produced several larger scale wines that mimic their California counterparts, but are not priced as high. Of course, that can always change.


Most comes from the northeast, around Catalonia. They tend to be California in style, but there's not enough with which to make a style judgment. Other areas are using Chardonnay as a blending grape as opposed to on its own to elongate simpler wines into a more appealing one.

United States

New York's climate can create a wine with cleaner, crisper components. Once again, the amount of oak will determine the outcome, especially when combined with malolactic fermentation. Washington tends to follow California's style. Oregon tends toward a leaner, less oak-driven wine.

Other Regions

Austria calls it "Morillion" and makes some very unique and exciting offerings. Mexico has had a few standouts on the Ensenada plateau.