Chardonnay is, of course, one of the best-known grapes in the world, responsible for some of the most famous wines.
If it were not for the fact that it is topped by the relatively unknown airen – grown in bulk in Spain mainly for brandy and grape spirit – it would be the most grown green grape in the world in terms of acres planted.
It is certainly the most widely distributed and probably the most versatile grape, making it extraordinarily food friendly – more suitable on the dinner table than as an aperitif or party glugger.
From its original home in central France, it now thrives almost everywhere white wine is made – including in high altitude Argentine vineyards, foggy Californian valleys, sun-baked Australian hills and in lush, green English shires.
What is remarkable about Chardonnay, compared to many other grapes, is its ability to take on wildly different characters according to varying combinations of soil, climate and wine making traditions and particularly the use of oak ageing.
In Chablis, the pristine, mineral wines, with restrained flavours of green apples and peaches, seem almost to be derived from a different grape to the full bodied Burgundies to the south and the delicate, citrus inflected wines now being produced in English vineyards.
These wines are half a world away from the riper, more full on chardonnays of the New World, both literally and in their flavours.
And here it’s important to point out that the over-oaked style that gave some of those Aussie chardonnay’s a bad name is now very much a thing of the past.
Let’s also not forget that chardonnay is also usually the dominant grape of both complex vintage champagne and aromatic English sparkling, yet are mostly grown on very similar soils.
But sparkling wines are for another day – here are the best still chardonnays, to celebrate International Chardonnay Day on 21 May–truly both a noble and a global grape.
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Vasse Felix ‘filius’ chardonnay 2019, 12.5%
It was a surfeit of generously-oaked, buttery, bulk-produced Australian chardonnay, high in alcohol and served in large, hangover-inducing glasses to what became known as the “Bridget Jones” generation, that gave the grape a bad reputation.
That is now largely a thing of the past, unless you buy your wine from certain branded labels in corner off-licenses. The grape’s reputation in Australia has been redeemed by some very well-made wines from producers who understand that while oak can enhance natural flavours and add spice and complexity – too much of a good thing can destroy it.
Vasse Felix are one of the pioneers of the Margaret River area of south-west Australia, one of the most remote wine making regions and not all their wines reach these shores, so we should be grateful this one has: full bodied with complex spicy flavours of tropical fruits – think vanilla and ginger inflected grilled pineapple – it nevertheless has freshness and lift, dances lightly on the palate and the alcohol is restrained.
While it is easy to match with any kind of fish, white meats or salads, this is a wine for the Aussie’s favourite cooking method so get some big prawns on the barbie. Very good value for the quality on display here.
Nathalie & Gilles Fevre, premier cru Fourchaume, Chablis 2018, 13%
Chablis Premier Cru wines are often a better bet than Grand Cru, which can attract much higher prices and often require ageing. This bottle from the Fevre’s Fourchaume vineyard epitomises classic, timeless Chablis – the grapes planted on soils composed of limestone, clay and fossilized oyster shells.
These are similar soils to those on which Champagne and English sparkling grapes are grown – and which deliver restrained, precise mineral wines, with great purity of flavours, normally a mix of citrus and orchard fruits like apples and peaches. The Fevre family can trace their winemaking expertise in Chablis – a self-contained area producing only white wines but technically part of the larger Burgundy region – back to the late 18th century and their tradition and expertise shines through in all their wines.
Once part of the larger Chablis cooperative they have been producing wines under their own name since the early 2000’s and that tradition is now encompassing sustainable viticulture and organic practices on some parts of the estate. Perfect for oysters and seafood, naturally and any fine white fish – but avoid anything too spiced or rich which overwhelms the delicate flavours.
Cantina Tramin Troy riserva DOC 2017, 14%
Located in the Alto Adige region of northern Italy, sandwiched between Germany and Austria, the Cantina Tramin wine co-operative is a rarity. Many cooperatives around Europe consist of small growers who share production and usually produce decent, but often less individual or distinctive wines, branded in the name of the co-op rather than individual producers.
The Tramin co-operative has taken a different route, aiming firmly upmarket and from its range of vineyards in the foothills of the Southern Alps produces a variety of highly regarded wines from different, mostly white grapes, including chardonnay, which thrives on the high-altitude limestone soils at around 500m.
Some oak is used to age the wine, which gives it a serious body and thus the wine has a substantial, weighty structure balanced with lovely citrus and orchard fruit flavours. A big, elegant, well-made wine for special occasions, to be carefully savoured.
Domaine Etienne Sauzet bourgogne blanc la tufera 2018, 12.5%
Alongside Chablis and until oaked Australian and Californian chardonnay came along, white Burgundy was the main source of the finest chardonnay wines. Although like the former and unlike the latter, it was always known by local names such as Puligny-Montrachet, Mersault and Pouilly-Fuisse – bywords for classy white wines, usually medium oaked, richer and full bodied than Chablis, with flavours of honeysuckle and ripe stone fruits and capable of decent ageing.
These wines are justly celebrated, but do attract high prices and so we are going for something a little different here. “La Tufera” comes from a highly regarded Cote de Beaune producer, whose wines can normally retail at around £100 each, but is made from declassified Puligny-Montrachet vines, so has all the class and quality at what is, for prime Burgundy, a great price. Ageing in both oak and stainless steel gives the wine a fine combination of elegance and power, with creamy, citrus fruit flavours.
Hattingley Valley still 2020, 12.6%
In a relatively short space of time – its first vines were only planted in 2008 and the first wines released in 2013. Hattingly Valley, near Alresford in Hampshire, has become one of England’s leading wine producers, known for high quality and multi-award winning sparkling wines. Made in an eco-friendly state of the art winery under the supervision of winemaker Emma Rice, trained at Plumpton College, the source of much of the expertise in English winemaking.
This is its first still white, made from Kent and Essex grapes grown in an exceptional year – “2020 may have not been the best year for humankind, but it was a brilliant one for grapes,” says Emma – and released only last month. Chablis-like, there is a little oak ageing to soften the natural acidity of the wine and give a little spicy depth, it retains the refined nature of their sparkling wines, delivering fresh apple flavours, with just a touch of creaminess. Pair with fine seafood, salads, vegetable pasta dishes or mild goat’s cheese and relish the fabulous potential of English still wines.
Catena alta historic rows chardonnay 2018, 13.5%
Argentina is, of course, more well known for malbec and the greatest wines are grown in high altitude vineyards, where the combination of hot sun and cool nights bring out the best in the grapes. So, as a producer of prime malbec and winner of Drinks International’s “World’s Most Admired Wine Brand 2020”, Catena Zapata’s expertise in high-altitude winemaking is perfectly suited to make the most of these chardonnay grapes.
Grown in vineyards at an astonishing 4,757m above sea level – more than double the height of Ben Nevis. This gives them a long ripening period that allows gorgeous flavours to develop and mature, delivering notes of pear, peach, apricots and honeysuckle, with jasmine aromas, but with that unmistakable high altitude freshness. A complex and serious wine that would match a range of foods, from fish to baked chicken or spiced pork belly.
Bercher chardonnay 2017, 13%
The Bercher family can trace their winemaking roots in the Kaiserstuhl hills in the Baden region of southwest Germany back to 1457, so they know a thing or two about coaxing the best wines out of their vines. Chardonnay is relatively rare in Germany, where whites are usually made from riesling, gewurztraminer or pinot gris, but the grape thrives in the climate of the Kaiserstuhl which is the warmest in the country.
Grapes from two vineyards combine in this wine – one has volcanic soils, which deliver rich flavours and one from a higher altitude, which brings freshness and acidity to the mix. The result is a real gem – barrel fermenting adds complexity and wine is packed with tropical fruits like papaya, some melon and herbal notes and just the merest hint of white pepper. Again this is another wine that is perfect for a big fish like sea bass or turbot, but is also great with roasted white meats and poultry.
Chateau Ste Michelle Colombia Valley chardonnay 2018, 13.5%
Washington state, in the north west of the United States is, after California, the country’s second biggest wine growing region and an increasing amount of their wines are reaching these shores. They are worth seeking out because the quality for money value is high and they are often carefully made wines by small producers. The Columbia Valley, sheltered from the wet and breezy Pacific Coast by the Cascade Mountains is the main wine growing region and this chardonnay is from a long established concern that is one of the few producers in the world to have separate wineries for red and white wines.
This chardonnay is made from grapes from lots scattered around the valley, giving complexity and depth, there is some barrel aging, but the oak is well integrated with the fruit to give a smooth, rounded, gently spicy and full bodied, but accessible wine that is a wonderful match for salads and simple fish dishes.
Reata Sonoma Coast chardonnay 2018, 14.5%
To the south of Washington, California’s west facing hillsides and valleys are prime Chardonnay territory, where the day-time heat is balanced by cool foggy breezes and Napa and Sonoma have reputations for producing world class wines, both red and white. But, like Australia, winemakers have often succumbed to over-oaking, this wine, made by Linda Trotta, the Napa Valley Winemaker of the Year in 2018, is much closer to the classic Chablis style – a balanced, stylish affair, lively on the palate with careful use of oak a refreshing underlying acidity and lovely creamy, lemony, flavours, with a crisp finish on the plate. A simply perfect wine for shellfish, oysters or as an aperitif.
Scott Base Central Otago chardonnay 2018, 13.5%
The Scott family are one of the pioneering producers of sauvignon blanc in the famed Marlborough region of New Zealand’s South Island but they also make this fabulous chardonnay in the Central Otago area of the island, which is home to the world’s most southerly vineyards, sheltered by the nearby mountain ranges. The quality here certainly demonstrates that New Zealand can work the same magic on chardonnay as it has on sauvignon, giving its own distinctive edge.
This is a bright, restrained wine, with lovely aromas and a fine mineral acidity running through the citrus and apple flavours. If you can resist the temptation, this will age and develop into something more round and richer, but it is wonderful to drink right now – ideally with sushi or a rare tuna steak.
Calmel & Joseph villa blanche chardonnay 2020, 13.5%
Calmel and Joseph is one of the best names to look for in southern France, producing well priced, well-made wines and this brilliant chardonnay demonstrates that you don’t have to pay high prices to get real Burgundian quality. Drawn from a number of vineyards around the Languedoc region and from what is turning out to be an excellent vintage, this has real substance in the mouth, while retaining freshness and acidity – not an easy job when the vintage was so hot.
The aromas are orchard fruits and white flowers and the flavours a complex mix of apricot, peach, tropical fruits and some very restrained oak. A lovely wine that works well as an aperitif or to accompany any kind of fish and vegetable dishes and it is ideal with creamy pasta sauces.
Giant Steps Yarra Valley chardonnay 2020, 13%
The Yarra Valley, close to Melbourne in Victoria, is one of Australia’ s cool climate regions where pinot noir and chardonnay grapes thrive. From a small producer, this bottle is appropriately subtle and restrained. While the wine is fermented and aged in oak barrels, the richer, buttery style of Australian chardonnay is now discouraged and it does not dominate the rounded, mellow flavours of stone fruits and nectarines and the finish, as with the best chardonnay’s remains crisp and fresh on the palate. A special occasion bottle – try this one with roast loin of pork or as a midweek treat with a mushroom risotto.
The verdict: Chardonnay wines
The wide variety of chardonnay styles makes it very different here to pick out a single bottle because individual preferences can vary so much, as can the occasion and the type of food it is accompanying.
But in terms of overall value for money, adaptability to different dishes and a style that combines the freshness of great Chablis and some the richer, rounded flavours of the new world, while distancing itself completely from the Aussie/oaky/high alcohol/chardonnay cliches of the past, then the Vasse Felix “filius” chardonnay 2019 has to be our Best Buy.
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