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What is it that makes chardonnay the most popular white wine variety in the world? Is it the fact that it’s an easy grape to grow, or is it popular because it’s delicious? The answer is obviously both.
By general consent, the green-skinned chardonnay grape originated in France’s storied Burgundy region (though others believe the grape’s ancestral roots derive from Lebanon). No matter where it came from, it has swelled over time to be a sort of Dolly Parton of wine fruit—universally beloved.
One of the reasons it may have gotten so popular is because of its incredible versatility and wide range of styles. Winemakers love putting their personal stamp on the grape, but it’s not just about the winemaker. The final result of a chardonnay wine is strongly dictated by where it grows: the soil, weather and climate. Meaning that even the slightest sea breeze can make a lasting impact on the outcome of a finished chardonnay wine.
Even cheap chardonnays can be great, but shell out a few extra dollars and you will not be disappointed. And for those of you who don’t know where to begin, don’t worry, we do. Take a trip around the world with this list of the best chardonnays to drink right now.
Best Overall: 2018 Benovia Chardonnay Russian River
Benovia winemaker Mike Sullivan cut his teeth serving as assistant winemaker to the great Helen Turley before making a name for himself as one of the most highly regarded grape whisperers of Sonoma County. There’s no going wrong with any bottle made by Sullivan’s hands. His work with Benovia is marked by a trail of dynamite chardonnays (and pinot noirs for that matter), but the jewel amongst jewels is this classic, accessible, beautiful 2018 Russian River.
Royally complex and under $50, this golden straw-colored bottle drinks like a wine twice its value. Oaky and lemony with great minerality, there are notes of pear, citrus and vanilla. This bottle pairs well with most evenings and is the star of the show during wedding celebrations and other moments of bliss.
Best Under $20: 2019 Avalon Chardonnay
It’s always welcome when there’s a wine that can impress you and your friends and doesn’t weigh heavily on your checking account. Behold, the 2019 Avalon Chardonnay, a product of the western edge of Sonoma County where the Pacific Ocean breezes give shape to every grape. The magic in this bottle’s simplicity is not to be overlooked.
Spicy vanilla over notes of apple, orange, pear and citrus give way to a smooth texture and mild acidity. This is a perfect wine for a last-minute dinner engagement or a layover flight.
Best Under $50: 2018 Flora Springs Family Select Chardonnay
With its misty mornings and sunny afternoons, Napa Valley has the natural climate for peak chardonnay production. Winemaker Ken Deis at Flora Springs knows how to romance the land to make that chardonnay soar. Their refreshing 2018 Family Select was aged for ten months in French oak barrels, culminating as one of the top bottles representing the region, variety and vintage.
Bold, dry, and easy to love, this wine is creamy, lemony and toasty with a nice mineral tension. Make it a match with shellfish, creamy soups and sauce-covered meats.
Best Under $100: 2017 Maison Champy Pernand-Vergelesses En Caradeux Premier Cru
Maison Champy, Burgundy’s oldest wine company, has been in business for some 300 years. You don’t get that kind of longevity by messing around with the quality of your product. Their Pernand-Vergelesses chardonnay benefits from the diverse soils of their hilly vineyards and the experience of many generations of winemakers. How they managed to keep this bottle under $100 is still a mystery.
Lemon aromas with white nectarine, apple and peach flavors are on the palate. Wispy minerals add to the ripe texture making for an extended and satisfying finish.
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Best Splurge: 2010 Marcassin Vineyard Chardonnay
Are you one of those “money is no object” people? Well, congratulations, because you’re in for an object of pure excess that’s worth every penny. Helen Turley is best known as a highly regarded wine guru and consultant, but the Marcassin Vineyard is her own boutique winery. And by “boutique,” we mean “very, very small” which makes it easier for Turley to give her extra close attention to each individual grape berry.
A lemony-emerald-tinged color reveals rich notes of apricot and pear, with a tropical zest striking the palate. The experience is layered the longer it lingers; creamy, full-bodied, jammy. Does chardonnay get better than this? It might be hard to prove.
Runner-Up Best Splurge: 2013 Louis Latour Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru
You can always trust Louis Latour to pack a wallop with their esteemed Burgundy wines. It would only be the right thing to do to include one of them on this list. So it is, with their innovative winemaking processes and commitment to sustainable agricultural practices, their Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru makes it hard for other chardonnays to compete.
One whiff of the cherry plum aroma and you’re hooked, reeled in by the sweet caramel and toasty marzipan on the palate. This is pleasantly dry and flavorful. Don’t wait for a celebration to drink this wine. Indulging in this bottle is itself a reason to celebrate.
Best California: 2017 Baileyana Firepeak Chardonnay
This is the part of the list where we give a shout-out to the Edna Valley in California’s Central Coast as a hotbed for awesome and affordable chardonnays thanks to its long, robust growing season and Mediterranean climate. A true standout among them is the 2017 Firepeak Chardonnay from Baileyana. This winery began as a boutique vineyard at its founding in 1973 but has since become an Edna Valley champion.
With elegant peachy aromas, crisp apple, pear and tropical accents, this wine has just a touch of oak. Bold, mildly acidic and with a rich complexity, it pairs well with seafood. Also worth mentioning is that this wine is a pretty great value.
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Runner-Up Best California: 2018 Landmark Overlook Chardonnay
Landmark vineyards was founded in 1974 when they nestled their perch at the foot of Sonoma Valley’s Sugarloaf Mountain. Since then, they’ve been consistently delivering delicious wines, and to prove it, we need only sample their Overlook Chardonnay. Sourced from a range of Sonoma appellations and aged for ten months in French oak, the result is some solid craftsmanship from a solid California label.
This wine is unabashedly rich and mouth-filling with generous creme brûlée notes, soft caramel, lemon buttercream, stone fruit and toasty oak. The layers of fruit are supported by a framework of classic Sonoma Coast fresh and zippy acidity.
Best Australian: 2017 Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay
Between the regulating ocean breezes, the warming coastal current, and the oldest gravel loam soils in the world, Australia’s Margaret River region on the continent’s south-western tip has a confluence of ideal conditions for making excellent wine. The folks at Vasse Felix exploit this pristine landscape to their best advantage with their Heytesbury Chardonnay. The 2010 vintage won 11 wine show trophies and put their chardonnay on the map. This 2017 vintage is a delicious continuation of that tradition of excellence and acclaim.
Oaky and buttery, with notes of lemon, grapefruit, peach and honeydew, this bottle harbors both nutty and toasty elements with a crisp acidity. The fruit flavor is strong with this one and it’s immensely satisfying, boasting a hearty finish on the way down.
Best French: 2017 Domaine du Pavillon Meursault Premier Cru 'Les Charmes'
Sometimes you get a craving for a chardonnay that can only be satisfied by going to the source: the Burgundy region of France where the variety got its start. For a deeper dive, you could hardly do better than with the Domaine Albert Bichot whose founding dates back to 1831, but whose family lineage in the Burgundy region dates back all the way to the mid-1300s. For all we know, the Bichot family and chardonnay fruit might share some DNA; a notion that wouldn’t shock you if you had a taste of this smoldering bottle, a pure Burgundy any way you drink it.
This is nutty, lemony and floral with a tender texture and sturdy structure. There are flavors of peach, apple and butter pecan. Drink it sitting down because the finish could take a while.
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Best New Zealand: 2017 Dog Point Chardonnay
Dog Point is known not just for employing organic growing practices, but also for being one of New Zealand’s most lionized winemakers. New Zealand as a whole gets oceanic climates with plenty of cool fog and marine layer, but the Marlborough region at the northern tip of the South Island is one of the nation’s rare dry and warm spots, making it a popular place for winemaking. It’s just one of the factors that make Dog Point a top-dog chardonnay.
The faint oakiness in this wine makes room for other notes to shine, like vanilla, lemon, grapefruit, apple and peach. Minerals abound, painted with a nutty cashew brush. This is bold and dry with a citrus burst on the finish.
Best Oaked: 2018 William Hill Napa Valley Chardonnay
The William Hill estate is one of Napa’s true hidden treasures—hidden in plain sight, situated on rolling benchlands in the foothills of Atlas Peak, overlooking the town of Napa. For their full-bodied, rich and lively chardonnay, they source grapes from St. Helena, Oak Knoll and Carneros. The wine then undergoes a full malolactic fermentation sur lie while aging in 25% new American oak.
The result is a creamy, round, and vivid chardonnay, packed with jasmine and honeycomb, toasted coconut, lemon cream, brioche, pear and dried apricots. The key here is that this “best oaked” chardonnay is not over-oaked. It’s the best because it has incorporated the oak so seamlessly.
Runner-Up Best Oaked: 2016 Stonestreet Upper Barn Chardonnay
Winemaker Lisa Valtenbergs makes the most of Stonestreet’s mountain terroir on the Black Mountain range of the Mayacamas. Known for their distinctive cabernets and sauvignon blancs, Valtenbergs and her Stonestreet team also have a gift for chardonnay that matches the intensity of the flavor to the altitude of their mountains.
In this wine, you'll find ripe apricots and candied pineapple with candied ginger, burnt honeycomb and Marcona almonds. The nose is bright and clean and the texture is rich, full-bodied and long.
Best Unoaked: 2018 Morgan Metallico Unoaked Chardonnay
Every once in a while, a winemaker does away with their warm, toasty oak barrels only to ferment their chardonnay juice in stainless steel barrels, coaxing out bright, vivid, fruity flavors. Such a twist in the process is best left to professionals like the folks at Morgan winery who whole-cluster press their grapes to keep their chardonnay bright and cold.
The result is a lovely white with honeysuckle florals, and lemon and lime zest. There's a poached pear richness and a vein of wet-river rock minerality coursing through a long, almost tropical-fruit-driven finish.
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Jonathan Cristaldi has written about wine and spirits for over a decade. He regularly tastes wines from around the globe, and personally tasted every wine in this roundup, except for the Ormes de Pez and Unico. Cristaldi was named a "Wine Prophet" by Time Out New York for his witty and often avant-garde approach to wine education.