Culinary Arts

Learn About Chardonnay: Grape, Oaked vs. Unoaked, How to Serve, and Pairings

Written by MasterClass

Mar 15, 2019 • 4 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 grape variety grown in most wine regions around the world as well as a buttery white wine. The grape is easy to cultivate and can adapt quickly to different climate conditions, making it a dependable choice for winemakers.

Characteristics of the Chardonnay Grape

The chardonnay grape is green-skinned and grows on a sturdy vine with ample leaf cover. This prevents the 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 the Sonoma coast wine region, often produce unoaked chardonnays, which are known as “naked” Chardonnays. These 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 converts 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.

Oaked Versus Unoaked Chardonnay: What’s the Difference?

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.

What Is the Difference Between Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc?

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’s 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.

The Best Food Pairings With Chardonnay

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:

Learn more about chardonnay from wine critic James Suckling here.