Often referred to as the queen of white grapes, Chardonnay is the world’s most popular white grape variety. Since it performs well in different climatic conditions, winemakers in most wine regions, including California, willingly use it to produce Chardonnay wines, various blends, and sparkling wines.

Want to learn more about one of the best-selling white wines in the United States? In this article, we will discuss the features of California Chardonnay and share five fun facts you probably didn’t know about.


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Where exactly do California Chardonnay wines come from?

Grown on 90,228 acres, Chardonnay is the most-planted white wine grape in the United States. The most significant areas of Chardonnay vineyards are in the state of California. But where exactly do the best California Chardonnay wines come from?

As of 2021, the top California county for Chardonnay acreage was Monterey, followed by Sonoma county. Next on the list of regions producing the best Chardonnay in California are San Joaquin, Napa Valley, Yolo, and Sacramento.

Chardonnay grape characteristics

According to DNA studies conducted in the USA, the Chardonnay grape is a result of a cross between Pinot noir and Gouais Blanc. These grapes are small, rounded, and juicy, and their skins are thick and yellow-green.

Chardonnay is very popular among wine producers because of its versatility. As it adapts to different climatic conditions, producers can make wine from it in almost any style — from still and dry to sparkling wines. Chardonnay wines can also vary in terms of alcohol content.

Chardonnay can produce the varietal wine of the same name and various blended wines. As winemakers say, this grape variety is so good that it is almost impossible to make a bad wine out of it. 

Chardonnay derivatives

Chardonnay has quite a few clones — vines derived from the parent vine. All clones are derivatives of the same variety designed for greater adaptation to specific climatic conditions. Accordingly, winemakers choose the clone that best suits the intended wine profile.

There are also hybrid varieties associated with Chardonnay. One of them is Chardonel, a French-American hybrid, the result of crossing with Seyval Blanc. Mutations of Chardonnay include Chardonnay Rosé and Chardonnay Blanc Musqué.

Oaked vs. unoaked California Chardonnay 

Aging techniques often determine the properties of the future wine, and Chardonnay is no exception. Aging Chardonnay in stainless steel results in a crisp structure of the wine. Aging in oak barrels contributes to the richness of Chardonnay and may add notes of butter, vanilla, and baking spice.

Unoaked Chardonnay is close in its flavors and aromas to savory Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. However, it has fewer “green flavors” than in Sauvignon Blanc. Depending on the grape ripeness and the harvest time, Chardonnay aromas range from lemon and green apple in less ripe grapes to pineapple and fig aromas in riper ones.

Oaked Chardonnays are full-bodied wines with vanilla, butter, and caramel flavors. These rich varietal wines are among the best California Chardonnays that any wine enthusiast should try.

White grapes

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California Chardonnay wine profile


Chardonnay wine color palette can vary from pale and light to deep and rich, with a golden sheen. The drink’s color in your glass can indicate the aging techniques used and how much time (if any) the wine spent in oak. As a rule, long oak aging gives the wine a deeper color. Such techniques as malolactic fermentation or sur lie aging can make the wine color look cloudy.

Pale gold and straw colors are typical for Chardonnay wines aged in stainless steel. A pale color tells us there is no oxidizing effect of oak which tends to add color and texture to the wine. Pale golden or straw-colored Chardonnay has bright acidity and fruity notes.

Wines aged in oak have slightly brighter colors. Producers do this to combine the natural fruity characteristics of Chardonnay with the benefits of oak. Sometimes winemakers mix aged and unaged wine before bottling to achieve that effect. 

If the Chardonnay in your glass is golden in color, chances are it has spent more time in the oak barrel. These wines are popular among winemakers in Sonoma County, Napa Valley, and the Central Coast of California. Such Chardonnays may display pineapple, ripe apple, pear flavors, vanilla, coconut, and hazelnut aromas.

Finally, a deep golden color is typical for rich Chardonnays, often aged in new French oak barrels for quite a long time. Commonly described as buttery, such wines are the hallmark of many California wineries. Despite this, you can still feel the palate’s apple, pineapple, and pear notes.

Flavors and aromas

Bright aromas, as a rule, are inherent in any Chardonnay wine, although this is not always due to the natural characteristics of the variety. Most wines acquire certain aromas and flavors through the winemaking process. For example, malolactic fermentation gives Chardonnay its characteristic buttery flavors. In addition, fermentation and maceration in oak barrels will add notes of vanilla, smoke, and sweet spices like cloves and cinnamon to the wine.

The primary notes you can spot when tasting Chardonnay is fruity notes. Depending on the ripeness of the grapes, the flavors and aromas can display tropical fruit notes (banana, pineapple, melon, and guava), stone fruit notes (peach, nectarine, apricot), lemon zest, pear, and yellow apple notes. The secondary flavors are herbal, spice, floral, and mineral. Flavors derived from oak aging may include vanilla, toast, coconut, baking spices, butter, caramelized sugar, and praline.

With various possible flavor profiles, everyone can find their favorite Chardonnay in California.

Alcohol content 

Chardonnay wines tend to have a higher alcohol content than white wine varieties. The alcohol content in top California Chardonnays is between 13.5% and 15.% ABV.


The acidity level in Chardonnay is impacted by the aging techniques employed. As a result, oaked Chardonnays are typically low to medium acid, while unoaked Chardonnays are mainly medium to high. 

To make an excellent California Chardonnay, winemakers often try combining the bright acidity of juicy fruit with the rounded, creamy texture of oak.

Glass of white wine on the corner of a wooden table

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The body of Chardonnay wines is highly dependent on the winemaking techniques used. For example, unoaked Chardonnay is a lighter wine that is crisp and refreshing, while oaked Chardonnay is a full-bodied white wine with buttery notes. 

To make a light-bodied Chardonnay that maintains its bright acidity and freshness, wine manufacturers rely on a reductive environment. To lower oxygen exposure, they use stainless steel fermenters. As a result, the wine doesn’t get oak flavors and preserves a floral or fruity profile with notes of white flowers, pear, green apple, pineapple, or lime peel.

To produce full-bodied Chardonnays, winemakers rely on oak aging and malolactic fermentation. These techniques contribute to a richer tasting profile and a buttery structure of the wine. As a result, the wine gets notes of baked apples, vanilla, coconut, and hazelnut.

California Chardonnay food pairings

Now, how to pair Chardonnay with food? Since Chardonnay has so many variations, the perfect pairing will depend on the style of wine you are going to serve. Lightweight wines are not a good pair for fatty foods since the dish’s taste will displace the delicate flavors and aromas of the drink. Contrary to that, full-bodied wines aged in oak can easily outweigh the dish. Therefore, try to keep a balance in your white wine and food pairings.

Light-bodied Chardonnays are outstanding as an aperitif. Unoaked crisp Chardonnay pairs well with lighter foods like fresh salads, goat cheese, oysters, and shellfish. 

Medium-bodied varieties perfectly complement chicken, pork, swordfish, and robust cheeses.

Rich oaked Chardonnays go well with hearty dishes like grilled meats, steaks, game birds, oily fish (salmon, mackerel), lobster, and chicken with cream sauce. A full-bodied Chardonnay will also pair perfectly with Gruyère or Gouda cheeses.

For some dishes, Chardonnay is an unsuitable companion. These are smoked fish and meat, Chinese and Southeast Asian fare, and dishes with tomatoes.

California Chardonnay

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How to store and serve Chardonnay 

To preserve the best qualities of wine, it’s better to store Chardonnay in a cool place at 55-60°F. It is also essential to protect the wine from direct sunlight, as the action of ultraviolet radiation can negatively impact the quality of the drink. Take care of the humidity level in the room as well — it should not exceed 80%.

As for the serving temperature, it may vary a bit for different Chardonnay styles. However, to emphasize the freshness and brightness of unaged Chardonnays, it’s better to serve them chilled. Remember that serving Chardonnay too cold will mute its flavors and aromas. 

Due to their structure, rich oaked Chardonnays don’t give off their aroma that quickly, so you can serve them a bit warmer.

Generally, the recommended serving temperature for Chardonnay is between 50°F and 60°F. However, given the specific wine profiles, it’s okay to serve unoaked Chardonnays at 50-52°F and oaked Chardonnays — at 53-57°F.

To achieve the desired serving temperature, you can chill the wine in a fridge for a couple of hours or in an ice-water bath for 30-40 minutes. 

Don’t forget about glassware. To serve Chardonnay, use white wine glasses with a longer stem and a smaller bowl and fill them half or one-third. 

To keep the wine chilled after opening, a good idea is to put a bottle in a bucket with ice.

5 amazing facts about California Chardonnay

Now that you know the specifics of California Chardonnay wines let’s get to the fun facts about it.

#1 Chardonnay is a top-selling white wine in the U.S.

Chardonnay is the most popular wine variety in the U.S. and appeals to a broad audience of wine lovers. According to the stats, Americans consume over 840,000 bottles of Chardonnay annually. This may be why the United States dominates Chardonnay-based wine production.

#2 Chardonnay is easy to grow

Much of the reason for Chardonnay’s popularity lies in its vitality. Grapes used to produce Chardonnay are adaptable to almost any soil and completely different climatic conditions. This adaptability makes Chardonnay popular among winemakers, and Californians are no exception.

The taste of the resulting wine will vividly reflect all the conditions under which the Chardonnay grapes grew as well as the efforts of winemakers.

#3 Chardonnay is a winemaker’s canvas 

With Chardonnay, the winemaking process primarily determines the properties of the future wine. Unlike the flavor profiles of Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, Chardonnay’s natural flavors are not that distinctive. Such a “blanc canvas” feature makes Chardonnay a versatile variety, and a winemaker can craft the wine style on their own using various winemaking techniques. 

For example, vinification in stainless steel results in a light and crisp drink. Likewise, aging Chardonnay in French oak barrels will produce a full-bodied wine with a creamy texture.

#4 Chardonnay is a chameleon wine

By saying that Chardonnay is a chameleon wine, we mean the variety of its possible styles. Chardonnay can be low or high in alcohol content, dry or sweet, light-bodied or full-bodied. 

The wine from this grape variety readily reflects the specifics of its terroir, so the location of Chardonnay plantings matters. Chardonnays can have different flavors and aromas depending on the grape-growing region. Warmer regions like the Napa Valley produce rounder and richer Chardonnays with tropical notes on the palate. Colder counties like the Santa Maria Valley, in turn, produce lighter, crisper, and more citrusy Chardonnays.

#5 Chardonnay is a key component of many sparkling wines

In addition to varietal and blend wines, Chardonnay also produces sparkling wines. Chardonnay is one of the three varieties allowed for the production of champagne. Sparkling wine producers use significant amounts of Chardonnay to produce wines like Crémant, Franciacorta, and Trento. Blanc de Blanc Champagne is a sparkling wine made of white grapes, with Chardonnay being its most familiar component. 

There is also Sparkling California Chardonnay made with the Méthode Champenoise method. This method assumes adding the base wine to a bottle with yeast and sugar.

Grape vines at sunset

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As we can see, Chardonnay can be drastically different. Chardonnay styles range from mineral and elegant to dense and full-bodied. Therefore, trying to draw up a “portrait of a variety” is quite a challenging task.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and taste different options — from unoaked varieties with a crisp structure and natural acidity to oaked ones with buttery flavors. This way, you will find your best California Chardonnay.