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What is Chardonnay? This Popular Wine Might Surprise You

You think you know what Chardonnay wine tastes like. But you might not have the whole story.

By: Kristin Anderson, Editor,
What is Chardonnay
What is Chardonnay
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Chardonnay is one of the most popular types of white wine. You can walk into any supermarket or wine shop and pick up a bottle. But have you ever wondered, "Exactly what is Chardonnay?"

Don’t let the accessibility and popularity of Chardonnay wine (pronounced Shar - doe - nay) fool you. This grape and wine are full of surprises, and a wide variety of styles means that you can find a Chardonnay to suit your individual tastes.

Originally from the Burgundy region in France, Chardonnay is a dry white wine that displays a vast array of aromas, flavors, and styles. One bottle of Chardonnay may be light-bodied, lemony, and crisp. Another may be full-bodied, creamy, and bright.

Which one might you like? The best way to find out is to learn more and then start tasting!

Learn more about what Chardonnay wine tastes like below, and discover why this is such a popular type of white wine around the world. Plus, if you want to learn more about other wines, be sure to subscribe to The Wine Buying Guide free e-mail newsletter!

What is Chardonnay wine? Here are some things to know.

Chardonnay may be oak aged, also known as "oaked."

Chardonnay is a crisp, usually dry (not sweet) white wine that's made from Chardonnay grapes. Beyond that, many factors affect the taste of a bottle of Chardonnay. Whether the wine is "oaked" or "unoaked" is one of the most important.

Unoaked Chardonnays, like most other white wines, have not been aged in oak barrels. They are bright, crisp, citrusy, and don’t have any tannins.

If you like light-bodied white wines like Pinot Grigio, then you will probably prefer unoaked Chardonnay's taste.

Oaked Chardonnay is aged in an oak barrel, which gives the white wine a distinct flavor and texture. Expect a medium or full-bodied wine with caramel, butterscotch, vanilla, or toast flavor mingling with the fruitiness of the wine.

Chardonnay may be lightly oaked (kept in the barrels for a short period of time), or left to mature in the barrels a little longer, leading to a richer and more full-bodied wine.

While Chardonnay is aged in oak barrels, it usually undergoes a process called malolactic fermentation. This fermentation changes the texture of the wine from bright and tangy (imagine the texture of apple juice) to creamy (the texture of milk).

This is because malolactic fermentation changes malic acid, found in fruit, to lactic acid, found in dairy. This process contributes to the famous "buttery" Chardonnay.

A Bit of History: During the 1980’s and 1990’s, winemakers in California responded to oaked Chardonnay’s popularity by producing heavily oaked versions of the wine.These were so rich that they were called “butter bombs,” and they actually diminished the popularity of Chardonnay in general for a period of time. This “overoaking” is now much less common.

How can you tell if a Chardonnay is oak aged?

  1. Look at the back of the wine label. If you see tasting notes like butter, cream, or toast (i.e. not fruit flavors), then the Chardonnay has probably been oak aged.

  2.  You can also look at the winemaking notes, like those on Notes like, "Aged 8 months in French oak," will tell you that the wine has been oak aged.

Chardonnay's characteristics can vary based on where the grapes were grown.

One of the reasons why Chardonnay is popular across the world is the grape’s ability to grow easily in a variety of places. The grape tends to reflect the terroir of wherever it is grown, leading to a variety of flavors in the wine. If you're wondering "What is Chardonnay like?" part of the answer includes where it was grown.

Grapes grown in a cooler climate produce crisp fruit flavors such as apple and pear, with occasional fall earthy notes. Chardonnay wines from France, such as the Jacques Prieur Puligny-Montrachet Les Combettes, have these flavors. The same goes for Chardonnay from Oregon and Washington. 

Grapes grown in a warmer climate produce more tropical fruit flavors, like pineapple and mango. This Josh Cellars Chardonnay, from California, has warm climate flavors.

Chardonnay vs. Sauvignon Blanc
These two common white wines are often talked about together. Both are dry white wines that can have incredible aromas and flavors. They also each have a history of production in France.

What are the differences between the wines? Chardonnay usually has riper fruit flavors, ranging from crisp apples to pineapple and mango. Chardonnay is also sometimes oak aged, leading to a full-bodied texture and secondary flavors of toast, cream, vanilla, and butter.

Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, is known for its electric acidity and tart, herbal flavors. You might find flavors of grass, lemon, herbs, and minerals in this white wine. It's also much rarer to oak age a Sauvignon Blanc.

In short: Chardonnay is richer and riper, while Sauvignon Blanc is crisp and acidic. Both are fantastic white wines!

  1. Click to view larger image.

What is Chardonnay like with food? It's a perfect match.

Oaked Chardonnays are a great choice if you like to drink white wine with red meat.

The more structured wine stands up better to hearty food choices like veal chops with mushroom, roasted squash, and cheddar cheese. It's also delicious with creamy pasta dishes or roasted chicken. 

Unoaked Chardonnay pairs well with lighter dishes like lightly cooked shellfish, creamy vegetable soups, or white meat dishes.

Tips for Buying Chardonnay

Chardonnay wine price varies, but you can expect to pay between $12 and $25 for a Chardonnay of good quality. Premium bottles of excellent quality can cost $25-$50, or even more.

Most Chardonnay should be enjoyed while it's young (i.e. within a few years of the vintage date). With the exception of some white Burgundy wines, don't buy a bottle of Chardonnay with the intention of saving it in your cellar for 15 years.

There are many great Chardonnay brands to choose from. It would be very difficult to make a complete list! However, some good brands to try include: Bogle, Charles Smith (both very affordable); Kendall-Jackson, Meiomi (affordable); Dutton-Goldfield, Iron Horse, and Wente Vineyards.

Here are some other suggestions from our wine catalog. If you have any more recommendations, please let us know in the comments below!

Do you prefer light and crisp white wines? Or do you enjoy rich white wines, like oaked Chardonnay? Let us know in the comments below!


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I think chardonnay is my favorite wine and I can already see myself being the annoying tipsy girl relating every detail of this article to everyone I see once I'm half way through a bottle.


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