So is chardonnay dry or sweet? This is a frequently asked question from those who are new to learning about grape varieties. Initially, the answer seems obvious… chardonnay is a dry wine, isn’t it? But hold fire for a second… chardonnay is a very versatile and widely grown grape, and there are a few issues that complicate the issue.
Firstly, during manufacture, some chardonnays undergo a process called malolactic fermentation. This is where the harsh malic acids are converted to soft, milky lactic acid, giving the wine an almost creamy/desserty texture. Some people might associate this with sweetness on the palate.
Also, chardonnays can be very fruity, with aromas of apple, pear, melon and apricot — all, of course, sweet fruits. And if, as is common, the wine has been stored in oak barrels, you’ll likely get hints of honey and vanilla too.
Perhaps the most common reason people think chardonnay is a sweet wine is that a lot of cheap brands add sugar, producing nasty stuff that tastes more like an alcoholic cordial than wine.
Last, but certainly not least, you can actually get “late harvested“, chardonnay, which produces a proper sweet wine. As the name suggests, late harvesting is when the grapes are left on the vine for longer so that the sugars become more concentrated. This isn’t so common with chardonnay, but the Austrians love a sweet wine and they’ve been known to do it.
So… chardonnay is generally dry then. But due to its versatility, its flavours can vary greatly between producers. A Chablis or a Champagne (made from chardonnay mixed with pinot noir), for example, will taste dry as a bone compared to an oak-aged chardonnay from the New World.
If most of the chardonnay you drink tastes very sweet, I’d recommend paying few bucks extra for a decent bottle and laying off the sugary stuff. Some of the best examples come from Burgundy (France), Stellenbosch (South Africa), the Napa Valley (California) and Margaret River (Australia).
And remember, as a dry wine, chardonnay goes well with white meats, seafood and pasta. So (unless it’s a late-harvested one), don’t pair it with your apple pie and ice cream.