White Wine Grapes and Their Personalities

What we call “white” wine grapes actually run from green to golden in color. We call these grapes and the wine they produce “white” for convenience. No prizes will be awarded for guessing which one we start with.


Chardonnay: The Lady

Chardonnay’s original home is the Burgundy region of France, including the non-contiguous northern area known as Chablis.


Chardonnay has a second home north of Burgundy in the Champagne region.


As to why Chardonnay came to be Burgundy’s white grape, we have to go back to Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, or more precisely to his queen.

The Hill of Corton-Charlemagne.


The land on which the Burgundy Grand Cru wine of Corton-Charlemagne is located was once the private vineyard of the emperor

Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD.

Img055 Caption: “Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD.”

Apparently, Charlemagne’s queen disliked the fact that Chuck’s beard seems to be constantly stained from red wine. She forced him to switch cultivation to from red to white, and the rest is history.


The not-so-happy royal couple.



  • Green-skinned grape variety.
  • Originated in Burgundy
  • Grown wherever wine is produced.
  • Very easy to cultivate in a wide variety of soils and climates.
  • A true international grape.
  • Tends to be neutral, and so affected by terroir (the character of the land) and winemaking techniques like barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation and lees stirring

Barrel Fermentation

  • Most white wine ferments in stainless steel
  • Fermenting in small oak barrels highlights texture, body, and mouthfeel
  • Wines fermented in oak have less oak influence than wines aged in oak, with better integrated oak flavors and well-defined fruit
  • Chardonnay takes particularly well to barrel fermentation

Malolactic Fermentation

  • Lactobacillus bacteria consume harsh malic acid (the acid in apples) and turn it into softer lactic acid (the acid in milk).
  • Malolactic fermentation is encouraged for most red wines, and some white wines.
  • When done with Chardonnay, this process is what gives the wine its buttery character (although “malo” is often overdone).

Lees Aging

  • Fermentation creates enzymes which break down yeast cells in a process called autolysis
  • Cells release flavor and texture compounds such as mannoproteins, amino acids, esters, aldehydes, ketones, and others
  • These compounds add creaminess, richness and body to white and sparkling wines
  • Chardonnays may often be aged more than a year this way, possible with stirring

French Chardonnay – Styles

  • Lean crisp mineral wines of Chablis, un-oaked
  • Sensuous oak aged wines of Côte de Beaune. Fleshy apple, pear, truffle and mushroom notes. Rich, sumptuous mouthfeel
  • A variety of Chardonnay styles in southern Burgundy, including the Côte Challonaise and the Máconnais

International Chardonnay Styles

  • In cool climates, more acidity, green plum, apple and pear.
  • In warmer locations, citrus, peach and melon.
  • In very warm locations, fig and tropical fruit – banana and mango.

California Chardonnay

  • Most planted wine grape – 100,000+ acres
  • One-fifth of all table wine purchased in the US
  • Prohibition largely killed Chardonnay
  • Wente Vineyards developed a successful Chardonnay clone in the 1940s
  • Resurgence in 1970s
  • Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena Chardonnay beats white Burgundies in blind test – 1976 (Judgment of Paris)

A California Style of Chardonnay Develops

  • Harvest at advanced degrees of ripeness and higher sugar levels in the juice
  • Aggressive aging in new American oak
  • Big-bodied wines with big mouthfeel
  • High alcohol
  • Aromas and flavors of tropical fruit
  • Malolactic fermentation for butter flavor
  • Not particularly food friendly

ABC – “Anything But Chardonnay”

  • In the 2000s, heavy, over-oaked Chardonnay lost business to crisp, lemony southern hemisphere Chardonnays and food friendly wines like Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc
  • Trend is now to use less oak (or none at all), to pick grapes earlier to preserve acidity
  • Ripe apple and citrus notes have taken over from tropical fruit

Cooler Heads Prevail

  • Chardonnay does best in cool climate regions with coastal fog that slows ripening of the grapes and protect development of flavor and acidity
  • Monterey County (number one county), Los Carneros in Sonoma (number two county), Russian River Valley in Sonoma, Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County
  • Much cheap Chardonnay is produced in the hot climate Central Valley of California. It has- little character