Culinary Arts

Chardonnay Wine Guide: Grape, Oaked vs. Unoaked, and How to Serve Chardonnay

Written by MasterClass

Mar 15, 2019 • 5 min read

Chardonnay is the most popular white wine in the world. The green-skinned grape originated in the Burgundy region of France but now grows in almost all major wine regions across the world, from Chile to New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.

The chardonnay grape is sturdy, easy to grow, and naturally neutral, making it a winemaker’s dream to work with. It can quickly take on a variety of different characteristics, depending on where it is grown, and how it is matured. The result is an endlessly sippable, easy-to-enjoy wine with low acidity.

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What Is Chardonnay?

Chardonnay is a white wine grape variety grown in most wine regions around the world, as well as the buttery white wine of the same name.

  • The grape is easy to cultivate and can adapt quickly to different climate conditions, making it a dependable choice for winemakers.
  • The only risk with chardonnay grapes is that they bud early (about a week after pinot noir) which means cool-climate areas (such as Chablis and Champagne in France and the Casablanca Valley in Chile) are vulnerable to frost.

Where Did Chardonnay Originate?

Chardonnay’s history goes back to the Middle Ages, during which time Chardonnay’s parents, the Pinot and now nearly extinct Gouais Blanc grape varieties, grew all over northeastern France.

The grape’s versatility means that it has a long history of cultivation throughout France and the rest of Europe, especially Italy. Chardonnay, whose name means “place of thistles” in Latin, arrived in California as early as the 1880s. A hundred years later California plantings would outnumber those in its native France. (France would catch back up in a few years.)

In France, Chardonnay was sold as high-quality white Burgundy until the switch to varietal naming from geographical naming in the late twentieth century. Although French chardonnay’s popularity peaked with the “Chardonnay mania” of the late 1980s, the classic old world white has survived the ABC (“anything but chardonnay”) backlash of the 1990s and continues to be one of the most-grown wine grapes in the world.

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What Are the Characteristics of Chardonnay Grapes?

The chardonnay grape is green-skinned and grows on a sturdy vine with ample leaf cover. This prevents the white grape from receiving too much sun. The chardonnay grape is characterized by its malleability, meaning it can effectively take on the influences of its terroir and different winemaking techniques.

For this reason, different varieties of chardonnay can taste very different according to where the grape was grown and how the wine matured.

What Is the Flavor Profile of Chardonnay Wine?

In cooler climates, chardonnay grapes tend to produce medium to light-bodied wines with high acidity and essence of green apple, pear, and plum. In warm climates, chardonnay varietals tend to be more medium-bodied, with heavier fruit flavors, like peach, melon, and tropical fruits.

California’s warm climate, particularly Napa and the Sonoma Coast wine region, often produces unoaked chardonnays, which are known as “naked” Chardonnays. These new world California chardonnays are lighter, fresher-tasting wines that are not matured in oak barrels and have notes of apple, citrus, lime, and peach.

Why Is Chardonnay Called “Buttery”?

Chardonnay wine is commonly characterized as tasting “buttery.” This is due to a process called malolactic fermentation, which involves adding a special bacteria—Oenococcus oeni—to the grapes as they ferment. The bacteria convert malic acid, which has a distinct tart taste, to lactic acid, which is softer. This reduces the overall acidity of the wine and results in a wine that is creamier and richer, with more body.

Malolactic fermentation is common in the production of both red and white wine as a quick, easy, and inexpensive way to inject texture and body. In chardonnay, it usually results in a white wine underpinned by notes of butter and hazelnut. When aged in oak barrels, this chardonnay demonstrates a full body and creamier, dessert-like notes, including nuts, butterscotch, vanilla, honey, and wood.

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What Is the Difference Between Oaked and Unoaked Chardonnay?

Chardonnays vary in taste and body depending on whether they are oaked (aged in oak barrels) or unoaked (aged without oak influence, usually in stainless steel vats).

Oaked Chardonnay has:

  • A full body
  • A rich texture
  • A sweet bouquet, characterized by notes of vanilla and butterscotch
  • A creamy, buttery taste, characterized by hazelnut, honey, and caramel

Unoaked, or “naked,” Chardonnay has:

  • A light body
  • A bouquet centered on fruit and citrus, notably apple, lime, and peach
  • A brighter color
  • A crisp taste

Is Chardonnay Dry?

Chardonnay is sometimes considered a dry white wine—if it is unoaked, or “naked.” Unoaked chardonnays can be dry, crisp, and refreshing, similar to a pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc.

Is Chardonnay Sweet?

Chardonnay is sometimes considered a sweet white wine—if it has been matured in an oak barrel. Maturing chardonnay in oak gives the wine a richer taste, with hints of dessert flavors like butterscotch and vanilla.

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What Is the Difference Between Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc?

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Chardonnay and pinot blanc are often mistaken for one another since pinot blanc grapes produce a smooth, semi-dry white wine that is very similar to chardonnay. The grapes themselves share many characteristics, including size, color, and the abundance of leaves at the top. However, there are several key differences:

  • Grape color. As chardonnay grapes ripen, they become a golden-green color, whereas pinot blanc grapes remain a grass-green.
  • Oak influence. Pinot blanc does not usually mature with oak influences while oaked chardonnay does.
  • Sweet and sparkling. Pinot blanc can be crisp and light, but also sweet, which makes it a common choice in making sparkling wine and dessert wine. Chardonnay, however, is the primary choice for making Champagne.

What Is the Difference Between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc?

Chardonnay is the more neutral grape than sauvignon blanc, with slightly lower acidity and aromas of apple, lemon, and pineapple.

  • Chardonnay takes on oak flavors readily when aged in barrel, producing a full-bodied, vanillic, and sometimes buttery style.
  • Sauvignon blanc’s aroma is more floral and green, and it is usually not treated with oak.
  • One exception is fumé blanc, as some sauvignon blanc wine is labeled in California, which gains richness and smoky depth from oak aging.

Learn more about sauvignon blanc in our complete guide here.

What Is the Right Temperature for Serving Chardonnay?

Chilling chardonnay before serving brings out its aromas and rich flavors.

  • A less oaky, naked Chardonnay should be served chilled at around 50°F, for at least an hour.
  • A more oaky, full-bodied Chardonnay should be served chilled at 55°F, for at least an hour.

What Are the Best Food Pairings With Chardonnay?

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Chardonnay is highly versatile, which means it can be paired with a wide range of foods. For example, heavily oaked chardonnays pair well with stronger-tasting foods—anything smoked, spicy or garlicky, as well as some Asian cuisine.

Lighter or naked Chardonnays will pair well with chicken and turkey, pasta, and tomato-based dishes. Other pairings to consider are:

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