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Teach Yourself

Teach Yourself Chardonnay Through 12 Bottles

A fun and delicious way to immerse yourself in this important grape

Vicki Denig By July 12, 2022
view of the village Fleys in Chablis area of Burgundy
Chablis in Burgundy is the home of some of the world's greatest Chardonnay. Photo courtesy of iStock.

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Chardonnay is one of the most popular — and polarizing — grapes in the entire world. Yet despite the varied opinions it elicits, there’s a reason why Chardonnay finds itself planted in basically every viticultural region of the planet.

Dubbed a chameleon grape variety, Chardonnay is beloved by winemakers for its ability to adapt to a variety of soils, climates, and topographies, as well as its malleability in the cellar. For those with an aversion to Chardonnay, the likely culprit is to be found in vinification choices and not from the grape. 

Fortunately, there is a Chardonnay out there for every budget and palate preference. 

Quick Facts

  • Origin: France 
  • Key regions: Burgundy, California, Champagne, Australia, South Africa
  • Viticultural characteristics: Cylindrical clusters, high yielding, thin skins 
  • Grape characteristics: Moderate acidity

Regions that produce Chardonnay

Originally from France, Chardonnay is now a key player in most wine-producing regions, mainly for its ability to produce high yields, as well as its adaptability in the vineyard and the cellar.  Although specific wine flavor profiles depend on the producer and vinification methods, Chardonnay is generally known for showing flavors of citrus, green apple, and tropical fruit. When grown in certain soils, Chardonnay can also show flinty or saline characteristics. Flavors of vanilla, coconut, cinnamon and other baking spices often come from oak aging, while flavors of butter and popcorn are usually byproducts of malolactic fermentation. To avoid these flavors, winemakers will often choose to vinify their Chardonnay in stainless steel and/or block malolactic fermentation. 

Note that as well as in the regions listed below, Chardonnay thrives in vineyards from New Zealand to Austria and beyond.

Note: Chardonnay is also a key player in sparkling wine production, specifically within Champagne, California, and beyond. The recommendations below are dry, still wines.

Burgundy, France

Extensive DNA research at UC Davis has shown that Chardonnay is a cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc and is believed to have first originated in eastern France. Today, the most prestigious wines produced from Chardonnay come from France’s Burgundy region. Chardonnay-based wines from Burgundy are most often referred to simply as white Burgundy, as it is the key white grape variety here.

California, USA

Chardonnay has also found a prestigious home in California. The grape is cultivated all over the Golden State, though its most famous expressions hail from Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Barbara. Despite being synonymous with richer, more “buttery” expressions of the grape, many California Chardonnay producers are working to revamp its image and are crafting more restrained, less opulent wines from the grape. 

Oregon, USA

Where Pinot Gris once had its moment in the sun as Oregon’s signature white grape variety, Chardonnay has quickly taken the spotlight. It’s not surprising, given that Oregon’s main growing regions sit on the same latitude, and have similar growing conditions, to those of Burgundy. Contrary to the ‘buttery’ expressions that long came out of California, Oregon’s Chardonnay reputation has generally always been one of restraint and balance, with lively acidity.

Australia

Chardonnay is also a key player in the Southern Hemisphere, and Australia’s viticultural scene is no exception. Here, key regions include the coastal areas of McLaren Vale in South Australia, the Yarra Valley in Victoria, and Margaret River in Western Australia, the latter of which is one of the country’s most westerly appellations. The strong coastal influences of these areas lead to acid-driven, saline-focused Chardonnay that generally shows the perfect balance between Old World inspiration and New World fruit. 

12 Chardonnay to try:

France

bottle of Domaine Louis Michel et Fils Chablis 2019

Louis Michel & Fils Chablis (~$32)

For anyone unsure about Chardonnay, Chablis is the perfect region to start, not least because it’s devoted to this single grape. These zesty, high-acid bottles of wine are generally steel vinified rather than oak-aged, meaning that the divisive flavors of vanilla, coconut, and butter are generally not present. The Louis Michel estate has been vinifying Chardonnay in Chablis since 1850 – and has remained family-owned the entire time. These easy-to-find bottles are a great starting point.

bottle of 2018 Giroud Bourgogne Blanc

Giroud Côte de Beaune Bourgogne Blanc (~$26)

As Premier and Grand Cru Burgundy prices continue to rise, the best place to find value is in the high-quality expressions of Bourgogne Blanc. Fruit for these wines generally comes from various parts of the region, meaning that well-crafted wines paint a perfect mosaic of the area’s unique terroirs. Founded by Swiss entrepreneur Camille Giroud, this long-standing Burgundian négociant has been producing high-quality wines since 1865. This particular wine is creamy and rich, yet certainly doesn’t lack in the acidity department. 

bottle of Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon Mâcon-Villages

Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon Mâcon-Villages (~$22)

As well as seeking out well-made Bourgogne Blanc wines, looking to lesser-known areas — particularly within the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais — offer more wallet-friendly selections than their Côte d’Or counterparts. Even top producers, such as Aubert de Villaine and Dominique Lafon are setting their sights on these up-and-coming areas. Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon is the secondary venture of the latter, founded in 1999. Crafted entirely from biodynamic fruit, this zesty Chardonnay jumps with flavors of stone fruit and citrus, as well as hints of musk, white flowers, and grilled nuts. 

bottle of Domaine des Marnes Blanches 'En Quatre Vis' Chardonnay Côtes du Jura

Domaine des Marnes Blanches 'En Quatre Vis' Chardonnay Côtes du Jura (~$41)

While the Jura neighbors Burgundy, their two expressions of Chardonnay are quite different. For a comprehensive dive into what Jura’s Chardonnays are like, look no further than the numerous cuvées at Domaine des Marnes Blanches. Founded by oenologists Pauline and Géraud Frémont in 2006, this organic estate focuses on low-intervention wines made from Chardonnay, Savagnin, Trousseau, Pinot Noir, and Poulsard. The couple also uses low amounts of sulfur, as they believe that this allows the land to better speak through the wines. “En Quatre Vis” comes from white marl soils, known as marnes blanches in French, which bring a distinct acidity to this refreshing Chardonnay.

USA

bottle of Brick House Ribbon Ridge Chardonnay 2019

Brick House Ribbon Ridge Willamette Valley Chardonnay (~$28)

In contrast to the many opulent Chardonnays coming out of California, Oregon’s Chardonnay reputation has always been based on restraint. For an interesting taste of what the state’s Chardonnay is all about, check out this wine from Brick House Vineyards. Founded by Doug Tunnell, a former foreign correspondent for CBS, Tunnell founded the estate back in 1990, after purchasing 40 acres of land in the Chehalem Ridge sub-area. Today, 30 of the 40 acres are dedicated to vines, all of which he farms biodynamically. This rich expression of Chardonnay oozes with flavors of tropical fruits and stone fruit, with hints of baking spice. 

bottle of Mayacamas Mt. Veeder Chardonnay

Mayacamas Mt. Veeder Chardonnay (~$48)

For those with an affinity for bold, full-bodied expressions of Chardonnay, this iconic expression from Mayacamas is just the ticket. The property was founded in 1889 by John Henry Fisher and is one of the most historic in all of California. The winery has continuously operated for nearly 130 years and is best known for its textbook expressions of varietal wines from California. Despite its full body, this big-boned Chardonnay remains textured, juicy, and acid-driven.

bottle of 2020 Hirsch Estate Chardonnay

Hirsch Vineyards Sonoma Chardonnay (~$65)

Hirsch Vineyards was founded over 40 years ago by David Hirsch, one of California’s most forward-thinking pioneers. Hirsch was one of the first to truly believe in the potential of high-quality wine from the Sonoma Coast, which today, is dubbed one of the premier growing areas for high-quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This restrained expression of Chardonnay is one of the top expressions of Old World style meets New World fruit on the market. 

bottle of Au Bon Climat Chardonnay Santa Barbara County

Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Chardonnay (~$23)

Founded by the late Jim Clendenen, Au Bon Climat is also a leading player in the revamping of California Chardonnay’s image. He was one of the key faces of In Pursuit of Balance, a California-based organization of winegrowers focused on lower alcohol, terroir-driven wine expressions from the Golden State. This affordable, easy-to-find bottle is the perfect happy medium for fans of various styles of Chardonnay — it’s rich and complex, yet remains laden with acidity and freshness.

Argentina

bottle of Chacra Mainque Patagonia Chardonnay

Chacra Mainque Patagonia Chardonnay (~$51)

While many Argentina-based winemakers have flocked to Mendoza’s prestigious growing regions, the brains behind Chacra set their sights on Patagonia. Situated at soaring altitudes, the estate’s hillside vineyards are cultivated organically and biodynamically, and little intervention is used in the winery. Chacra was founded by Piero Incisa della Rocchetta, best known for his famed Tuscan estate, Sassicaia. While better known for their Pinot Noirs, the winery’s Chardonnay is absolutely unmissable. World-class vigneron Jean-Marc Roulot also consults on the project. 

Australia

bottle of Mac Forbes, Chardonnay Yarra Valley, 2019

Mac Forbes Yarra Valley Chardonnay (~$33)

A native of the Yarra Valley, Mac Forbes didn’t discover his passion for wine until heading to Europe at the age of 18. After working harvest in France, Forbes returned to his home of Victoria and began seeking out fruit from Australia’s cool-climate areas. This sustainably farmed Chardonnay is a delicious expression of just how thought-provoking Chardonnay from Australia can be. It’s taut, mineral-laden, and loaded with vibrant acidity. 

New Zealand

bottle of Greywacke Chardonnay 2016

Greywacke Marlborough Chardonnay (~$40)

Although New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc tends to get all of the love, its Chardonnays are absolutely worth seeking out, too. Greywacke is the passion project of Kevin Judd, a pioneer of the viticultural region of Marlborough, specifically the Wairau and Southern Valleys areas. His Chardonnay is concentrated yet bright and is produced using low-intervention methods in the cellar. Greywacke, pronounced Gray-wacky, gets its name from the dark sandstone soils that are commonly found in the region.

South Africa

bottle of De Wetshof Limestone Hill Robertson Chardonnay

De Wetshof Limestone Hill Robertson Chardonnay (~$18)

Located 100 miles from the capital of Cape Town, De Wetshof was the first officially registered winery in the Robertson area. Although its roots date back to 1694, the estate’s fine wine production took off in the 1970s. Their pioneering of “Burgundy’s noble white grape” has earned them the reputation of being one of the most prestigious Chardonnay producers in all of South Africa. This zesty expression is ripe and fruit-driven, and aged entirely in steel.