Made from a flavorful green grape that packs a punch, Chardonnay is one of the world's favorite white wines. Chardonnay grapes are grown all over the world, though they were first cultivated in the Burgundy region of France. Though they reached the peak of their popularity at the end of the 20th century, there are still more acres devoted to this Chardonnay than any other white wine grape. Though its popularity has made it unchic in some circles, there are so many ways to style Chardonnay that most people who claim to dislike it would probably appreciate at least one of its incarnations.
Since it's a relatively hardy varietal, Chardonnay can be grown in many different regions. Depending on the weather and the quality of the soil, wine made from these grapes can show flavors of apple, pineapple, ripe fruit, or vanilla. There are a number of ways to style Chardonnay wines. These wines can be aged in oak and finished with a malolactic fermentation, resulting in the big oak and butter flavors frequently seen in California chardonnays. Alternatively, they can be aged in steel, a fermentation technique that allows the green apple tartness of the grapes to shine through. In Champagne, France, Chardonnay grapes are also the only grape that can be used to make blanc de blanc Champagnes.
Best Chardonnay Overall:
The bold flavor of the Chardonnay grape has made it the most popular white wine around the world. Chardonnays can be aged in oak or steel, resulting in wines that are either rich and woody or clean and crisp, respectively. When looking for the best chardonnay, we chose wines that showed off the popular oaky complexity, as well as those that strike a nice balance between the crisp acidity of the raw grape and the smoothness of most finished Chardonnays. All of the wines that made this list show off the best qualities of the grapes, including bold flavors that hold their own when paired with rich pasta, fish, or white meat. We also looked for wines that were well regarded by wine critics, as well as wines that performed well in international competitions. Finally, though there are plenty of incredibly Chardonnays that are 10 or more years old, we chose to represent only current vintages that are readily available at wine shops. We chose wines from 2011 and 2012 because these years were excellent in many regions known for making excellent Chardonnay, including Northern California and South Africa. When these wines would benefit from a few extra years in the wine cellar, we noted it in their descriptions.
Half of each batch of Failla Sonoma Coast Chardonnay '12 is aged in oak and half in steel, giving this wine the perfect balance between the big, oaky California Chardonnays and the crisp, acidity inherent in the grapes. This wine has received numerous awards and features flavors of lemon and pear, as well as aromas of stone and lime. Read Full Review
Kongsgaard Napa Valley Chardonnay '11 is one of our favorite Chardonnays. It's a big wine with lots of oak and butter and a fruit-forward flavor that features notes of honey and peach balanced by a little citrus fruit bitterness. This is a big chardonnay that's been aged in oak for two full years. It's quite complex and will develop nicely over the next few years. Read Full Review
2012 was a good year for South African chardonnay, and the Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay '12 is one of the best wines to come out of that corner of the world. This wine is barrel fermented, and features flavors of pear, lime, and clean stone. Unlike many Chardonnays, this one's a bit on the acidic side, making it an ideal wine to pair with seafood. Read Full Review
A big Chardonnay that gets its complexity from 25-year-old vines, Willamette Valley Chardonnay '12 is one of our Best Picks. This wine has flavors of caramel apple and butterscotch, and aromas of honeysuckle, brown sugar, and lemongrass. It's barrel aged and will no doubt continue to condition in the bottle for the next few years. Read Full Review
A deep, rich wine with notes of vanilla, tropical fruit, and crisp citrus, Carneros Chardonnay '12 is one of our Best Picks. This wine has enjoyed 10 months in oak barrels, which has provided plenty of time for flavors to develop, though this is a big enough Chardonnay that it is sure to gain some complexity as it ages. It's also incredibly soft on the palate, with a long, buttery finish that's perfectly suited to the rich fruit flavors of the wine. Read Full Review
Best Chardonnay under $20:
For wine drinkers who don't have money to burn, there are plenty of excellent Chardonnays for less than $20 a bottle. The wines that made this list as the best are all complex and feature plenty of layers of flavor, thanks in part to the time these wines spend fermenting in oak barrels. All of the wines on this list are also from recent vintages or non-vintage wines, which means that they'll be relatively easy to find in both specialty wine shops and large grocery stores. We favored wines produced in 2011 and 2012 because mild weather and cool summers made these two of the best years in recent history, producing large harvests of small, intensely flavorful Chardonnay grapes. The wines on this list are also well-regarded by wine critics and well-loved by wine enthusiasts who love getting a great deal on a great wine.
Featuring notes of vanilla, tropical fruit, lime, pear, apple, and pineapple, Husch Chardonnay '12 is an incredibly complex wine that was a favorite at competitions. It's rich, layered, and features a long, buttery finish. Though this wine will hold up for a few more years, it's ready to drink right now and is excellent paired with seafood or any light meal. Read Full Review
A full-bodied, complex Chardonnay that's been gaining popularity for the past few years, Cupcake Chardonnay '12 is one of our favorites. This wine has notes of vanilla, spice, oak, and plenty of tropical fruit. It has a beautiful, deep gold color, and a smooth mouthfeel that gives it a long, satiny finish. Read Full Review
A 2012 vintage wine that's a great value, La Crema Chardonnay Sonoma Coast '12 is one of our Best Picks. This is an incredibly complex wine, with fresh, crisp fruit notes that are well-balanced against candy, cream, and toasted oak. It's partially aged in oak to give it a richness and partially in stainless steel to help bring out some of the subtleties of the Chardonnay grape that can get lost in over-oaked wines. Read Full Review
Francis Ford Coppola Diamond Chardonnay '11 is an excellent Chardonnay that embodies all the best qualities of the New World Chardonnay style. It's oaky and buttery, with lots of rich fruit, creme brulee, and just a bit of spice. Overall, this is a well-balanced wine and pairs well with seafood and light, spicy dishes. Read Full Review
One of our favorite Chardonnays is also one of the easiest to come by. Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay '11 is a complex wine with aromas of lime peel and grapefruit, and flavors of tropical fruit, vanilla, and cinnamon. Though the yield in 2011 wasn't the best, the grapes grown this year were intensely flavorful and these wines are excellent. Read Full Review