We’ve all been there…in the grocery wine aisle rubbing our head wondering which bottle of Chardonnay to buy. Is it the one with the awesome graphics? The one with the pretty cursive writing….fancy means quality, right??? Don’t worry, I got your back and will make sure you walk away with the right Chardonnay for YOU.
With so many styles, price points, and regions that produce Chardonnay there can be a daunting amount of choices to scan through. Let’s get started!
First, why is wine priced differently? Next, let’s review 4 main Chardonnay wine styles & where they originate. Lastly, where to find them in your grocery wine aisle. This is not exhaustive, but should be super helpful!
STEP 1: SO MANY PRICES! WHAT FITS YOUR BUDGET?
There are a few price points to consider when walking into a grocery store: $10-20, $20-30, $30+. Think of these as good, very good, and premium wines. Price is not always the best indicator of what you could enjoy. Most “good” Chardonnay wine is made in an easy-to-drink, international style that is cheaper to produce because the vineyards might be in less expensive areas and the harvest is likely done by machine. If oaked the less expensive bottle may use oak chips or flavoring instead of oak barrels. If they do use oak barrels, they are older or of lesser quality.
For very good to premium wines, think of all these factors getting increasingly better & therefore the wine becomes more expensive. Also, winemakers tend to bring out more secondary & tertiary aromas in premium wines (those are the aromas you get after you put your nose back into the glass for a 2nd & 3rd time).
If you are looking for a wine that expresses more “terroir” (see wine tool kit), then you will need to pony up the budget. Each wine north of the $20 will show more expression of its place of origin and be smoother. You will be able to find more aromas in your Chardonnay and the oak flavors will be better integrated. You may detect some buttery creaminess from lees stirring.
Personally, I find good value for flavor around the $18-22/bottle price. For weeknights, I spend between $13-18 a bottle. Weekends when J is home to linger over a glass with me, I tend to pick something with a little more terroir which typically translates into more than $18. The point is you can find something you like at your budget no matter what it is.
STEP 2: WHAT’S YOUR CHARDONNAY & WHERE DO YOU FIND IT?:
Chardonnay Style 1: full-bodied, buttery, oaked (think crumbled up cheerios smell….click here to learn how to detect oak in wine), aromas of bananas & melon, typically a deep lemon color. These Chardonnays tend to come from warm climes.
For the $10-20 budget you will find value & this style of wine in South America – specifically the Central Valley of Chile & Mendoza, Argentina, South Australia, and California’s Central Valley.
For $20-30+ you look at areas of southern Burgundy, France such as Macon & Pouilly-Fuissé, Casablanca Valley of Chile, the Russian River Valley/Sonoma/Los Carneros in California, the Yarra Valley/Adelaide Hills/Margaret River in Australia.Chardonnay Style 2: medium+ body, moderately buttery, toasty, but instead of tropical fruit flavors on the nose there are savory notes of apricot, earth, and minerals. These come from warm climates that are cooler than those made in places like Style 1. They typically are quite complex and have layers of aromas that open up more each time you smell. Most of these are premium wine that have been barrel fermented.
This style of wine tends to start at the $20+ end of the spectrum. Closer to $20 try California (Sonoma & Carneros), Washington State (Columbia Valley), Australian Chardonnay from the cooler parts of the country like Yarra Valley & Adelaide Hills within South Australia or Margaret River in Western Australia). North of $30 are the Chardonnays from the famed French Burgundy villages known for their white wine: Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Cassagne-Montrachet.
Chardonnay Style 3: medium-bodied, unoaked, aromas of peach & citrus, typically medium lemon color. These wines come from slightly cooler regions or areas that are cooled by elevation or winds. They are made without barrel fermentation and put into stainless steel tanks to give more purity of fruit component and freshness.
A lot of these Chardonnay wines will say “unoaked” or “unwooded” on the label. Think of them as the Chardonnay cousin of Sauvignon Blanc. California is making a lot of great examples in this style. Also look to South Africa (Walker Bay, Coastal, Robertson) & Australia (South Australia, Margaret River). These are predominately found around the $15-40 price range.
Chardonnay Style 4: medium-light bodied austere, bone-dry, smokey with smells of flint, straight citrus, pale lemon color, high acidity. This straight shooter pairs well with many meals because of its high acidity. It pair from any dishes like chicken piccata to seafood. This style of wine is typical of wine from Chablis, France in northern Burgundy.
This style of wine appears in the US market around $20+ under the label Chablis AC. There are 7 Grand Crus villages within the Chablis appellation in Burgundy, France. These are north of $30 and what they offer over regular Chablis AC is a wonderfully smokey finish and complex aromas. The Grand Crus will specifically have Grand Crus written on the label.
STEP 3: FIND YOUR WINE IN THE GROCERY AISLE
Now you know how wine is priced, your budget, and your Chardonnay style type. Now it is time to find your prized Chardonnay in the grocery wine aisle.
Most grocery stores organize their wine aisles by origin; either by country (e.g. France, USA, Spain) or region (e.g. Burgundy, Napa Valley). Luckily, once you have picked your style and price point from above, you know what country and/or wine region to look for your Chardonnay.
Other grocery stores organize their wine by grape varietal. This means grouping the Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Cabernet Sauvignons, etc., together. While this makes sense to many US wine consumers since we varietally label our wines, it can be trickier when dealing with other countries. For instance, in France wines are not labelled by their grape varietal, but by the town of production and it is up to you to know what grape that is. Luckily, this article has taken the detective work out of that problem!
Now you are ready to go to the grocery store wine aisle alone and pick a Chardonnay that you will LOVE.
Swirl, Sip, Sigh…
Image “Chardonnay” by Hung Thai is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0
Image “A Small Glass of Chardonnay” by Alex Brown is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0
All other images are personal photographs