Vineyards & Wine

The Master of Wine’s Guide to Spotting a Stand-Out Chardonnay

Heavy, over-oaked Chardonnays have dented the variety’s reputation—here’s everything to know about the best-of-the-best bottlings that still have the capacity to thrill

In the wine world, A.B.C. is often used as shorthand for Au Bon Climat, the California winery that makes highly regarded bottlings. In the past decades, it’s also come to mean Anything But Chardonnay—the collective term used by those fickle former fans of the grape, who made the variety a household name, but would now rather drink anything else. That may just be because this set aren’t drinking the right Chardonnay, says Anne McHale, a master of wine (a qualification issued by The Institute of Masters of Wine in the U.K., and one of the wine industry’s highest standards of professional knowledge).

After all, despite its unfashionable reputation, Chardonnay is still America’s best-selling wine. Chicago-based market research firm I.R.I. reports that the variety accounts for almost 20 percent of all retail wine sales. And McHale particularly adores the buttered-toast quality of the finest rich Chardonnays—something she says emanates from the judicious use of oak barrels in which the wine is matured, and which sets it apart from some heavy-handed lesser offerings.

Two glasses of Chardonnay wine with cheese on wooden box
Traditional Chardonnays are made through a process of malolactic fermentation, creating that hallmark buttery taste. Modern takes on the wine are more balanced and acidic, say experts. Image: Getty Images

A Malleable Grape

“Chardonnay is a grape that is easily influenced by a winemaker,” McHale explains. “It’s said it can show a vintner’s signature as clearly as an artist’s name on a painting.” The wine is not only influenced by the maker’s talent, she adds, but also its terroir. The soil in which vines are planted and where they are situated can lead to an enormous variation in taste—even within the same geographical area.

Chardonnay reflects its local conditions and is capable of intimately expressing a particular place—Alex Hunt

For example, Chablis, grown in northern Burgundy, has a flinty, mineral quality. Meanwhile, the rich Meursault or Montrachet—which McHale calls her “desert island wine”—from vineyards further south in the region have what she describes as an almost “animalistic” note, reminiscent of gamy, earthy flavors.

And even within these famous-name appellations, quality can be affected by where the grapes are grown on the slopes of the vineyard. Grand Cru traditionally indicates the best of the offering; Premier Cru the middle tier; and wines grown at the base of the slope are known as “village” wines, named only for the place.

Vineyards in the Chablis area of Burgundy, France
While the vineyards of Chablis are located in the Chardonnay-making wine region in the northwest corner of Burgundy, France, they are known for rarely oak aging their wines, resulting in a vastly different taste profile. Image: Getty Images

However, skill trumps geography, notes master of wine Alex Hunt. “This region is currently producing some of the most mind-blowing Chardonnays being made,” he says. “In the right hands, a village wine can be absolutely spectacular, and cost more than an inferior Grand Cru.”

New World Appeal

It’s not all about France. “New World Chardonnay is vital, not only because of the quality but availability,” says John Graves, director of wine importer Bibendum. “We sell an awful lot of Burgundy Cru, but it’s very susceptible to the climate, and we often can’t get enough.”

Today, he says, the best U.S.-grown alternatives—whether designed to be as crisp as a Chablis or as rich as a Meursault—offer quality as well as quantity. But he cautions that quality comes at a price: “Chardonnay is one grape in which you always get what you pay for.”

One of the first great Burgundy houses to plant in the U.S.A. was Drouhin, which planted Chardonnay vines in Oregon’s Dundee Hills in the 1980s after seeing an example from the state take second place to one of their own bottles in the Paris Wine Olympics.

Domaine Drouhin Oregon winery with blue sky in background
Established in 1987, Domaine Drouhin Oregon is owned by the Drouhin family of Burgundy. The winery’s expertise in both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir has earned it an international reputation for excellence. Image: Courtesy Domaine Drouhin

California has long made some fine bottles, notably in coastal areas. Its best offerings show the influence of mountain slopes, and cooling fog blowing in from the Pacific, with Santa Barbara and Russian River growers coming in for a special mention from McHale. Hunt rates Sonoma, but also points to Pisoni Lucia Chardonnay from Monterey County, and Radio-Coteau, Savoy Vineyard’s offering from Anderson Valley in Mendocino.

Also singled out for their prowess with the grape are the high-altitude vineyards of Argentina’s Uco Valley. In Australia’s Adelaide Hills, and throughout its state of Victoria, winemakers have made a concerted effort to emulate the citrussy taste of Chablis with their renowned unoaked Chardonnay. And due to climate change, growing conditions in England are coming close to matching those of Chablis, says Graves.

Chardonnay’s capacity to thrill often goes unrecognized—Alex Hunt

Hattingley Valley in Hampshire, which produces an astounding Chablis-style white that is rich in minerality, is one of a handful singled out by Clive Barlow, a master of wine who specializes in English varieties. “The climate here provides an opportunity to make Chardonnays with an unparalleled freshness and vibrancy,” he says, pointing out the high scores now regularly accorded to the English take on the wine in blind tastings.

A bottle of Hattingley Valley Still Chardonnay
Fresh and clean, Hattingley Valley’s Still Chardonnay is highly rated for its softened acidity and texture, thanks to being aged for only a short time in old oak barrels. Image: Courtesy Hattingley Valley

A Lasting Classic

So, what of that Anything But Chardonnay movement? “Chardonnay seems to attract a bad rap,” Hunt acknowledges, “but in reality, it remains top of the leader board. In fact, without Chardonnay our selection would be bereft,” he says of the list of no fewer than 180 wines that he curates for Berkmann Wine Cellars in London. “It would rob us of not only white Burgundy but also the strongest white wines produced by any New World country.”

Instead, he has another acronym in mind: “I call it the L.B.D. of wines. Fashion evolves—a little black dress from the 1980s is different from one designed today, but the underlying concept is of a timeless classic.”

4 Essential Characteristics of a Great Chardonnay

Hunt believes the very best versions of the wine should be…

1) Intense: “Chardonnay doesn’t have a particularly strong base character. It’s been likened to a blank canvas for winemakers but shouldn’t taste blank! I like my Chardonnay brimming with layered, carefully balanced flavor.”

2) Evocative: “The wine is capable of intimately expressing a particular place. A great Chardonnay should reflect its local conditions rather than a bland universal blueprint.”

3) Textured: “As a fuller-bodied variety, Chardonnay should offer a sense of substance, a physical impression, to the palate. From the drying, stony breadth of a Chablis to the gentle peach-skin grain of California’s Central Coast, it adds to both the pleasure and the sense of place.”

4) Exciting: “Chardonnay’s capacity to thrill often goes unrecognized. When all of the elements above are in place, perfectly taut and balanced, great Chardonnay provides one of the most exciting mouthfuls in the whole world of wine.”

To learn more about Chardonnay and other grape varieties from Anne McHale, check out her free video series, Understanding Wine, at

Banner image: Vidar Nordli Mathisen, Unsplash