What is the Most Popular White Wine in the World?
Photo: Wine Enthusiast Magazine

Chardonnay is so popular that it is nearly synonymous with white wine. We feel comfortable with it. It’s easy to say, and it sounds like it ends with a smile. And because chardonnay is so ubiquitous, it can be easy to take for granted. And it's not surprising that chardonnay is the most popular white wine in the world!

What is Chardonnay? It's actually a grape and a type of wine

When you buy a bottle of Chardonnay, you're getting a bottle of wine that's made from all (or almost all) Chardonnay grapes. You can see below that these grapes are green-skinned white wine grapes. What you can't tell from the photo is that the grapes grow very well all over the world. They also develop different flavors depending on where they are grown, which makes them great for making wine! Chardonnay grapes grown in France will taste different from Chardonnay grapes grown in California or Italy. As such, Italian Chardonnay will taste different from California Chardonnay, and so on. This is part of what made the grape so popular and why Chardonnay is so widely available today.

What is the Most Popular White Wine in the World?
Photo: Decanter Magazine

Chardonnay grapes aren't only used in Chardonnay wine! White Burgundy, a French wine, is made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. Because French wine is named after the region where the grapes are grown, the wine is called Burgundy instead of Chardonnay (Chablis is a type of white Burgundy, so you may have also heard it called by that name). Champagne is also made using a blend of grapes, one of which is Chardonnay, Vivino cites.

Moderate Climate Chardonnay:

Chardonnay that makes its home in moderate climates has a fuller body and a titch more alcohol compared to cooler growing Chardonnay. Aromas and flavors range from yellow peaches, to melon and ripe pear.

Key Regions: Marlborough in New Zealand, along with the Adelaide Hills, Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula in Australia. The Western Cape in South Africa, including the Walker Bay District and the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The Russian River Valley and Carneros in northern California.

Hot Climate Chardonnay:

These Chardonnays have the fullest body, are often a deep golden hue, and sport the highest alcohol, some reaching upwards of 15%. These wines display rich, ripe tropical fruit notes like pineapple and mango, bananas or figs.

Key Regions: California's Central Coast region and Napa Valley, along with the Penedès region of Spain, where Cava is made.

Cool Climate Chardonnay:

Grown in a cool, maritime or continental climates, Chardonnay possesses a lighter body and lower alcohol levels. It expresses crisp green apples, pear, and lively citrus notes. Depending upon the soil, there is often a discernible flintiness or steeliness.

Look out for Chablis grown on Kimmeridgian soils that give Chardonnay a fabulous, very distinctive chalky finish.

Key Regions: Burgundy, including Chablis, the Mâconnais and Côte de Beaune, as well as the Niagara Peninsula in Canada, the Finger Lakes in New York, and the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

Chardonnay Styles: Chardonnay may be "oaked" or "unoaked"

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, as cited by USA Wine Ratings.

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.

Chardonnay: Some great-valued suggestions

1. Oceano Chardonnay Spanish Springs Vineyard 2016/2017

San Luis Obispo County, $38

What is the Most Popular White Wine in the World?
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Oceano was created three years ago by Rachel Martin, formerly the director of Boxwood Vineyards in Middleburg, Va., and her husband, Grammy Award-winning music producer Kurt Deutsch. I raved about the 2016 when it was released, and I’m just as enthusiastic about the 2017, which is now reaching the Washington-area market (it is already available in New York City.) Martin and winemaker Marbue Marke enjoy tinkering with the blend from this vineyard just 1.5 miles from the Pacific, near Pismo Beach, mixing different batches of juice from various spots on the undulating coastal hills. The result is a roller coaster in a glass — there’s a lot going on here. Can a $38 wine be a “great value”? Yes, when it’s this good. This is a fun label to keep track of in years to come. ABV: 13.6 percent.

Distributed by Lanterna. The following stores have the 2016, except where noted: Available in the District at Calvert Woodley, MacArthur Beverages, Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, Wide World of Wines (2017). Available in Maryland at the Tasting Room Wine Bar & Shop at National Harbor (2016 and 2017). Available in Virginia at Chain Bridge Cellars in McLean, Gentle Harvest in Marshall.

2. Soutiran Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs

Champagne, France, $58

What is the Most Popular White Wine in the World?
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Grand cru champagne, the three little words that say “I love you” to wine fiends. The Soutiran blanc de blancs is so good and complex, combining ripe fruit flavors with a toasty brioche note from extended aging on the lees and a refreshing chalky salinity, that to describe it any further would diminish it. And it is well-priced for a grand cru champers. ABV: 12.5 percent.

Imported and distributed by Simon N Cellars: Available in the District at Cork & Fork. Available in Maryland at Wine Cellars of Annapolis. Available in Virginia at Tastings of Charlottesville, Unwined (Alexandria, Belleview).

3. Sylvie & Alain Normand, Mâcon la Roche Vineuse 2017

Burgundy, France, $21

What is the Most Popular White Wine in the World?
Photo: CellarTracker

Grape historians place chardonnay’s birthplace in the Maconnais region of southern Burgundy, perhaps even near the town of La Roche Vineuse, so this wine may be as close to the origin story as we can get. It is rich with history and fruit, laced with exotic spice and a sense of timelessness. ABV: 13 percent.

Imported by Vintage ’59, distributed by Winebow: Available in the District at Rodman’s. Available in Maryland at Beer, Wine & Co. and Bradley Food & Beverage in Bethesda, Wells Discount Liquors in Baltimore. Available in Virginia at Dominion Wine and Beer in Falls Church, Swirl & Sip in Fairfax.

Chardonnay Expresses Terroir

That blank canvas aspect means chardonnay is a good mirror of its climate and location — the mysterious quality wine lovers call terroir. In warmer climes, it can taste tropical (pineapple, mango), while cooler settings match the grape’s refreshing acidity with flavors of orchard fruit like peaches and apricots. The winemaker’s art is to capture that expression without obscuring it with too much oak or other techniques.

Some of my favorite chardonnay producers, other than the French classics and those mentioned above, come from cooler climates that emphasize racy complexity. Look for wines from Tasmania (Tolpuddle), the high-altitude vineyards of Argentina’s Mendoza (Catena, Salentein), Sonoma County (Gary Farrell, Hirsch, Flowers), Oregon (Domaine Drouhin, Adelsheim), and Virginia (Linden, Michael Shaps).

Good chardonnay can be found up and down the price spectrum, including some pricey grand cru burgundies and blanc de blancs champagnes. Two bargain chardonnays I find consistently delicious and easy to find are Cousiño-Macul from Chile and Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi from California.

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