The beauty of Chardonnay is that it can be crafted in a number of styles, each with its own flavors. But for some drinkers, it’s Chardonnay with the creamy, rich flavors of butter and vanilla that they crave — a style that others wouldn’t drink if you paid them.
Back in the ’80s, Chardonnay was a favorite among wine drinkers. Top winemakers were creating well-balanced wines that offered hints of buttery barrel fermentation characters. However, as the wine style grew in popularity, some wineries began to churn out coarser wines, where butter and oak dominated the flavor profile. Buttery Chardonnay became a cash cow.
A backlash was inevitable. By the mid-1990s, an entire movement dubbed ABC, aka Anything but Chardonnay, was launched. According to some, ABC was an effort to push back against the style and challenge people to try other types of white wine.
Today, American wine drinkers are enjoying a cornucopia of grapes, styles, and flavors, and balance and elegance in wine are highly sought after.
Yet buttery Chardonnay is still flying off the shelves. To understand why, it helps to take a closer look at Chardonnay itself.
The world of Chardonnay
- Where does Chardonnay come from
- Why Chardonnay is a popular category
- How Chardonnay gets its diverse flavors
- Chardonnay styles for everyone
Where does Chardonnay come from?
Chardonnay hails from the French region Burgundy, where some of the world’s most sought out — and costly — bottles of the wine can be found. A green-skinned grape, Chardonnay is the darling white wine of the most prestigious regions of Burgundy, including areas in Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune. It’s also found in Champagne, where it is used to make sparkling wines.
It made its American debut in 1882, when Charles Wetmore, California’s first agriculture commissioner, brought cuttings to California from France’s Meursault. Nearly 100 years later, California Chardonnay proved itself when it beat its Burgundy cousins in the seminal 1976 blind tasting now known as the Judgment of Paris.
To no one’s surprise, California’s victory resulted in increased consumer demand for Chardonnay throughout the 1980s. That ultimately led to an uptick in plantings across the state, including at some wineries that weren’t so focused on quality.
Why Chardonnay is a popular category
Chardonnay is the most planted variety in the U.S. When it comes to sales figures, Cabernet Sauvignon was the number one wine in volume and value in 2020, with $3.2 billion in sales compared to Chardonnay’s $2.8 billion, according to Nielsen data.
It’s a versatile grape with many expressions, from peach and apricot flavors, to wines with tropical flavors. It can be oaked or unoaked, and can be made in styles from simple to rich and complex. Today, many of the bottles on store shelves are much leaner than the rich and oaky Chardonnays of the past. And yet, there are still plenty of wines to be found that offer more than a hint of movie theater popcorn.
“I love buttery Chards these days,” says Jason Ostrander, a fitness trainer living in New York City. “It’s nostalgic to the taste that got me into wine in the first place. I had it at a country club in Michigan where I worked and could actually taste fruits and vanilla.”
How Chardonnay gets its diversity of flavors
One of the beauties of Chardonnay is that it’s not hard to grow, and it will mirror its terroir, the environment the wine is produced in.
The grape can thrive in cool climate regions from France to Oregon, where it displays more pronounced acidity. Chardonnay also grows in warmer areas like California, South Africa, or South Australia, where it ripens faster and shows more of the fruit’s natural sweetness. Volcanic, chalky, limestone soils? Higher chance that the grapes will exude mineral characteristics.
There are also dozens of Chardonnay clones, each yielding different flavor profiles. That’s one reason it’s possible to find lush tropical examples alongside crisp, minerally Chardonnays.
“Chardonnay clones are like apples. There are tart green apples. There’s Fuji. There’s Red Delicious. They’re all apples, but they don’t necessarily taste the same,” says Sarah Quider, head winemaker for Foley Family Wines, which produces labels like Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery, Chalk Hill Estates, and Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery. “Chardonnay is the same in that there are clones of Chardonnay grapes that when you taste them, if the fruit tastes floral, the wine tends to be floral. Same with notes like lemon, citrus, stone fruit.”
Then there’s the winemaking technique to consider. Winemakers can incorporate malolactic fermentation, during which the grape’s tart malic acid is converted to softer lactic acid, which gives the wine a richer, creamier texture. The malolactic conversion of citric acid, also present in grapes, can also release diacetyl, an organic compound with an intense buttered popcorn flavor.
Aging plays an important role, too. Barrel nuances impact the wine’s flavor, especially when new barrels are used. That’s how some Chardonnays develop spice, coconut, and vanilla flavors. By contrast, fermenting and aging in stainless steel tanks tends to give purer expressions of the fruit.
“It’s the vineyard. It’s the clone. It’s the winemaking process. It’s the barrels. There are so many little nuances that make the wine. It’s vintage too. Different years taste different, even though you have the same grapes, same winemaking, same protocols,” says Quider. “It’s like a big puzzle, and all the little pieces come together to make the wine.”
With so many winemaking options to consider, there’s likely a style of Chardonnay that can accommodate any type of palate.
Chardonnay styles for everyone
“I am not a buttery Chardonnay type of person. I love the crisp, citrus, concentration without viscosity, subtle floral and tropical fruit Chardonnays that the grape itself can provide without adding oak or over-oaking,” says Odila Galer-Noel, founder of PRonCall. “The butteriness makes it too heavy and opulent for me to enjoy more than one glass.”
It’s that opulence that makes richer styles of Chardonnay so enjoyable to others, like Ostrander, who appreciates the fact that buttery Chardonnay can be both “refreshing on a hot day, and hearty enough to keep you interested.”
While Quider likes to drink unoaked Chardonnays in warmer weather, she can’t deny creamy, buttery, richer styles of the wine are still appealing to many.
“I truly believe that Chardonnay is the queen of all wines,” she says. “And no matter your preference, I feel like there are more options to satisfy all types of customers. There’s truly something for everyone.”
Bottles to try:
Harken Barrel Fermented California Chardonnay (~$13)
“Oaky, buttery, and bold” are the best words to describe this shining straw yellow Chardonnay. Made with fruit sourced from vineyards across California, the medium-bodied white wine displays warm, toasted oak aromas, and flavors of tropical fruit and pear.
Bota Box Mini Nighthawk Gold Buttery California Chardonnay (~$14)
Here’s a Chardonnay that’s as easy to drink as it is to open. One of Bota Box’s most popular boxed wine varieties, this single-serving boxed Chardonnay hits the mark for simplicity all while maintaining a rich and complex profile. Intense aromas of toast slathered in warm butter lead, while the palate is saturated with green orchard fruit nuances. Cleansing acidity balances out all of the flavor intensity through the quick but enjoyable finish.
Bread & Butter California Chardonnay (~$16)
If the name wasn’t a big enough hint, this wine is perhaps the closest you’ll get to drinking bread and butter. With toasty notes of oak and vanilla bean, this wine is rich with almond and tropical fruit characteristics. The finish is long and smooth.
DAOU Vineyards Paso Robles Chardonnay (~$16)
DAOU Vineyards makes this wine from Chardonnay grapes grown on its estate in Paso Robles. The wine is vibrant with pronounced aromas of pineapple and green apple that spill out of the bottle. On the palate, the wine is dense and rich with floral and spicy essences of jasmine, nutmeg, and vanilla bean balanced with peach and mango. The finish is long, lush, and mouth-filling with hints of zesty lemon and hazelnut.
Buena Vista Carneros Chardonnay (~$19)
This Chardonnay hails from the Carneros wine region of California. It displays aromas and flavors of lemon and apple while hints of butter and vanilla spice linger in the background. Fresh acidity gives the wine a polished edge that only seems to enhance the rich, voluptuous texture through the finish.
La Crema Winery Sonoma Coast Chardonnay (~$20)
If you like your Chardonnay well layered, with fragrances of florals and butterscotch, citrus flavors, and a light touch of oak, then La Crema’s Chardonnay is the one for you. Produced from grapes grown in the Sonoma Coast AVA, the wine spends seven months barreled in French, American, and new oak before it’s bottled and ready to go.
Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards Sonoma Coast Chardonnay (~$25)
Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards has specialized in producing a variety of styles of the Chardonnay in California for 40 years. This one, in particular, was primarily barreled in oak, although 15% of the juice spent some of its eight-month fermentation in stainless steel. The result is a wine that expresses juicy notes of melon, pear, and peach as well as rich flavors of spiced oak and toasted nuts.
Chalk Hill Estate, Chalk Hill AVA Chardonnay (~$20)
This wine, made in Sonoma’s Chalk Hill appellation, has both fruity aromas of crisp apple and orange blossoms as well as fragrances of vanilla and toasted marshmallow. It’s creamy and rich on the palate, a product of the malolactic fermentation and the 11 months spent in French and new oak barrels.
Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Chardonnay (~$27)
Produced by Duckhorn Vineyards, this Napa Valley Chardonnay sings with melodies of creamy lemon meringue and stone fruit nuances. On the nose, the wine smells of sweet baked breads, while citrus and peach flavors emerge on the silky palate. Fresh acidity brings it all together for a buttery smooth and long finish.
Ferrari-Carano Tré Terre Russian River Valley Chardonnay (~$35)
For the Tré Terre series, the winemakers at Ferrari-Carano hand harvest, whole-cluster press, then barrel ferment the wine with native and cultured yeasts. The wine undergoes malolactic fermentation followed by aging on the lees — meaning the wine has contact with yeast cells for flavor and textural enrichment — during which the wine is stirred weekly for five weeks before its barreled again in neutral oak until bottling. The final result? A lush and full-bodied wine dripping with rich, buttery complexity.
Beringer Private Reserve Napa Valley Chardonnay (~$39)
Beringer Vineyards produces this Chardonnay in Napa Valley. Bright and invigorating, this wine is bursting with stone and tropical fruit aromas and flavors. Mouthwatering acidity provides a backbone while toasty notes of brioche, spiced oak, and apple lead to a decadent lengthy finish.
Elyse Sonoma County Chardonnay (~$45)
Take one whiff of this Sonoma County Chardonnay made by Elyse Winery and you’ll be greeted with ample aromas of sweet and toasty apple pie. The mouth is rich and full of orchard and stone fruit nuances supported by crisp acidity. The finish is long and inviting with notes of warm vanilla and a hint of oak.