Chardonnay Throwdown: California vs. Chile

Chardonnay is the world’s most beloved white wine grape. It is still the most consumed grape (white or red), largely due to its adaptability and versatility. It is grown in every wine production region in the world, expressing terroir and winemaking techniques possibly better than any other grape. When thinking of Chardonnay California is likely one of the regions that immediately comes to mind. What about Chile? Possibly not. Today let’s have some fun in a head to head Chardonnay competition, California vs. Chile.

Chardonnay is unusual because of its versatility. It can be grown in cooler climates such as Chablis, or warmer climates such as parts of California. The style of Chardonnay in the glass varies depending on the climate where the grape is grown and the winemaker’s techniques.

Cool climate Chardonnay can result in notes of green apples, green pears, citrus, and vegetable notes such as cucumber; white stone fruit and melon may also be present where the climate is moderate. Warmer climates can produce tropical fruit notes such as peach, banana, pineapple, mango, and even fig.

Chardonnay is also highly responsive to winemaking techniques, three techniques are commonly associated with the resulting wine.

  • Malolactic Fermentation: a process that takes the harsh malic acid (think tart green apple) and converts them to softer lactic acids (milk). It’s similar to the difference between sorbet and ice cream. The result in the wines is a buttery, nutty flavor.
  • Lees: lees are the dead yeast cell sediment left behind in the bottom of the tank after fermentation, these lees can be stirred through the wine to add a creamy texture and savory flavors.
  • Oak: chardonnay is highly responsive to the type of oak treatment used by the winemaker, depending on how oak is used it can add flavors of toast, vanilla, and coconut to the wine.

Due to Chardonnay’s easily understood flavors and at times voluptuous texture on the palate, Karen McNeil states in the second edition of The Wine Bible, “[Chardonnay] is the Marilyn Monroe of white grapes, to be sure” (57).

The diversity of Chardonnay allows it to be grown in France (its home), Spain, Italy, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, and the US. Within the US Chardonnay is grown in many states, but is best known from California.

Karen McNeil explains in the second edition of The Wine Bible that Chardonnay’s popularity is a relatively recent phenomenon. “As of the mid-1960’s, there were but a few hundred acres of [Chardonnay] in all of California” (58). But as Kevin Zraly shares in the 2017 edition of Windows of the World, Chardonnay is the most widely planted grape in California (2016 figures = 97, 826 acres), there are about 800 different California Chardonnays available to consumers, a third of all grapes grown in Sonoma are Chardonnay, and California has more Chardonnay grapes planted than in any other country in the world. In California, Chardonnay performs well in cooler climate regions such as parts of Santa Barbara County, Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, Carneros, and Monterey County. There are some who feel some Chardonnays from these regions even rival Burgundy.

2014 Balletto Chardonnay Russian River Valley USA ($28): pale lemon; medium+ aromas of green apples, pears, jasmine, citrus zest, valencia almonds, trailing nutmeg; elegant wine, a touch of cedar blends with fruit on palate, medium acidity, full-body, lush yet judiciously oaked for maximum enjoyment, click here to locate this wine.

2015 Robert Mondavi Private Selection Chardonnay Monterey County USA ($10): medium lemon with straw hues; medium+ aromas of baked apple pie with cinnamon baked apples, pie crust, and caramel drizzle, or a decadent creme brulee; creamy palate with a touch of butter on the palate balanced with high acidity that takes over and coats the palate in a long tart apple finish; the nuances of the 2 months this wine spent in aged Bourbon barrels is evident, added depth of texture and delicious notes of caramel, pie crust, spice, and vanilla; however, it is not overdone due to high acidity; fun concept; click here to locate this wine.

2014 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Spring Mountain District USA ($32): medium- straw; medium+ aromas of orchard fruit, tropical fruit, yellow stone fruit, white floral notes, touch of nutmeg and valencia almonds; loads of juicy citrus and orchard fruit erupt on the palate, fresh and clean, judiciously oaked for maximum pleasure, rich and round yet balanced with medium acidity; medium+ body with long toasty finish; click here to locate this wine.

Chile is not exactly known for Chardonnay; rather, it is thought of when seeking a high quality Carmenere or Cabernet Sauvignon. However, Chile is such a unique wine growing region, its geographically located to produce a wide array of wines. Chile’s cooler climate regions of Casablanca, San Antonio, and Limari are ideally suited for Chardonnay. All three regions are centrally located, climates receive the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean, have sandy soil, and a long ripening season allowing for high acidity. Chilean Chardonnays tend to be under appreciated, making them a great value for delicious wines.

2016 Casillero del Diable Chardonnay Central Valley Chile ($9): pale gold; medium+ aromas apples, white stone fruit, citrus zest, butterscotch, cedar; high acidity that coats the palate and makes the mouth pucker, a touch of creaminess but overall racy and refreshing, elegant with long tart finish; click here to locate this wine.

2015 Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay Limari Valley Chile ($20): medium- gold with a green hue; medium aromas of apples, pears, lemon, white stone fruit, crushed stone; high acidity with loads of orchard fruit on the palate, racy, balanced, oak hints are subtle, refined with a long fruit forward finish; click here to locate this wine.

2016 Emiliana Natura Chardonnay Casablanca Valley Chile ($10): pale lemon; medium- aromas of fresh picked green apples, white stone fruit, lemon curd, tropical fruit, white floral notes; loads of tart fruit on the palate, medium+ acidity, refreshing and zesty, highly drinkable, medium body, long clean finish; click here to locate this wine.

So it was not exactly a throw down competition; rather, a fun and tasty exploration of two Chardonnay producing regions. As Chilean Chardonnay continues to grow in recognition of quality, the wines will be easier and easier to find. I do not recommend you replace one region with another, what I do recommend is buy some Chardonnay from both regions and share them with your friends, perhaps host your own throw down this summer with some BBQ.

6 comments

    • I was actually surprised by it. To me it did not taste different than a lot of other CA chardonnays I have had over the years. But I completely understand what you are saying. Something different and fun but not a classic chard. I enjoyed the experimentation, you never know till you try. Cheers Lori!

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