What’s The Difference Between Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio?

The Difference Between Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio

Did you know that two of the most popular wines in the United States are Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio?  With that in mind, have you ever wondered is there a distinct difference between these two wines? Let’s find out the difference and take you on the history of the development of these wines.

The History of Chardonnay

Let’s start with the history of Chardonnay. The name ‘Chardonnay’ derives from the term ‘place of thistles’ and got its name from the village Chardonnay in the Burgundy region of France, it’s ancestral home. It is now the second most widely planted white grape in the world and 5th most widely planted of all grapes. It is planted everywhere wine is made and is often seen as a rite of passage for up and coming wine growing regions. Climate has a big effect on the flavor of Chardonnay, with cooler climate versions being crisp, and lean even to the pointy of being described as racy. Warm climate Chardonnay can be rich and fatty, with high ABV, and caramel apple flavors. The grape is well known for it’s proclivity for oak, and can seem fairly neutral without some contact with a barrel. This has lead to many swings in Chardonnay’s popularity over the years, making it highly susceptible to trend. The positive side of this is in today’s market you can try on Chardonnay of all shapes and sizes from all over the world, with flavors varying from pineapple, mango, or papaya to creme brulee and butter.

The History of Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris) is a distinctive blue-grey grape grown all over the world, but excelling in cooler climates like Oregon, Washington, Northern Italy, and Slovenia. It’s origins are again in Burgundy, where the grape is believed to be a mutation of the Pinot Noir grape, the blue-grey color being a remnant of it’s time as a red varietal. Pinot Grigio given some skin contact time will produce a light pink/orange rose style, but is much more commonly a very light colored white wine These grapes are usually the first grapes picked each year making them very susceptible to frost and other agricultural hazards. Some of the grapes popularity among wine makers stems from its quick production time usually taking about six months to go from grape to glass, and rarely going into an expensive oak barrel. Although it’s history is in Burgundy it is no longer grown there in any substantial volume. It left France in the 1300’s where the flavorful drink traveled into Switzerland where it became the emperor’s favorite and was widely planted. From Switzerland the grape made it’s way across the Alps to Italy where the grape has seen it’s greatest successes and started it’s naming confusion being Pinot Gris in France (gris meaning grey in French) and Pinot Grigio in Italy. In the North of Italy in the Alto Adige the grape is lean and steely with very delicate aromas of white flowers and honeysuckle, whereas in the center of Italy the grape is grown in Vineyards thousands of hectares big and use to make inexpensive, super easy to drink dry table wine, that’s passed around like water.

What is the Difference in Taste?

The Taste of Chardonnay

Chardonnay is said to have a richer taste than Pinot Grigio. Some wine drinkers perceive hints of fresh cut grass aromas in the aftertaste. It also frequently has a creamier taste than Pinot Grigio.

The Taste of Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio has more of a tart flavor. For those who drink Pinot Grigio, an aroma of green melon is common in the aroma. It is a sharp dry wine.

Chardonnay Has a Hint of Fruit

Chardonnays characteristic flavor  is a hint of fruit in their taste. That fruity taste may range from peach to citrus. The fruit taste varies between cooler and warmer nations.

  • Colder Cimates: Sharper tone in fruit. Have an apple or lime aftertaste
  • Warmer Climates: Tropical fruit

Chardonnay and its History with Oak

Chardonnay is often fermented in oak and regularly aged in oak barrels. This leads to an increase in the wines viscosity and mouth feel. It also imparts some oak tannins that contribute to its flavor, its weight, and helps make the wines ageable. French oak was the preferred source of wood for Chardonnay for many years, as the tight grain of French oak imparts a smaller more subtle vanilla flavor, which comes from vanillin, a naturally occurring compound extracted from the wood by contact time with the wine. Vanillin can contribute a wide variety of flavors from oak, vanilla, coconut and even butter. In the US as oakier, buttery Chardonnay became more popular a shift to American Oak occurred. American Oak has a looser grain and higher concentrations of vanillin and was primarily used for bourbon barrels up until the 1980’s. It’s also about 1/2 as expensive for an American Oak barrel. When you consider that a barrel that’s been filled and emptied twice is considered neutral and is no longer imparting any oak flavors, this cost saving can be huge to a winery. The toast level of a barrel can also impact flavor, but the most common in Chardonnay production is Medium Toast barrels. Starting in the mid 2000’s a swing away from heavily oaked Chardonnay has become popular leading to a rise in unoaked Chardonnay. A down and dirty way to think about the difference is:

  • Unoaked Chardonnay: Has a lean, mineral, white flower and citrus flavor, with pale coloring
  • Oaked Chardonnay: Gold color with vanilla, brioche, butter, and cream taste, can age up to 5-10 years

How Do These Wines Contrast in Production?

Chardonnay

Production of Chardonnay in California started in 1883 by Carl Wente. After studying as a winemaker, Went immigrated to the United States and bought 48 acres in Livermore Valley with his sons. Using Chardonnay cuttings from the University of Montpelier in France Wente grew his original plantings into one of the most important grape varieties in the US. The Wente clone of Chardonnay is one of the most popular clones due to it’s relatively high yields, and strong flavor profile. Today, Chardonnay grapes are planted on over 100,000 acres throughout the United States. In the vineyard Chardonnay is right in the middle of harvest, being on the earlier end of blooming but taking a long time to ripen into the deep rich flavors winemakers are looking for. Once harvested, Chardonnay grapes undergo a variety of approaches, but the most common approach is to put the grapes, stems (also called rachi) and all straight into the wine press. The rachi serve as a natural fiber bed making it easier for the press to extract the juice from the grapes increasing yields. Many winemakers will taste the grape juice as the grapes are being pressed, making calls as to when to stop squeezing the grapes. First press, the lightest and easiest press, yields some of the highest sugars, and fruitiest flavors, but lack in tannin and structure. Many producers will capture multiple pressings into different vessels, ferment them separately then blend to achieve the best tasting Chardonnay from the vintage. This has lead to some misconceptions around Chardonnay being a blended wine. Once the wine has been pressed into it’s fermentation vessel (this could be an oak barrel, a concrete “egg”, or a stainless steel tank) it will go through primary fermentation. After the yeast is no longer chewing up sugar and spitting out alcohol, the winemaker will make a decision about malolactic fermentation, which is a bacterial fermentation that converts malic acid, a minor but prominent acid, into lactic acid, the creamy acid found in milk. This fermentation will change the texture of the wine, and can lead to some additional stability, but may not be what the wine maker wants. Once the wine is finished with all of it’s fermentations, winemakers will age Chardonnay anywhere from 6 months to multiple years, all depending on style and flavor. The wine will then be cold stabilized (check out our article on Frozen wine) and bottled. All of this means that Chardonnay is one of the slowest white wines to make in the winery, and therefore most expensive to make.

Pinot Grigio

The process of making Pinot Grigio is very similar to Chardonnay, right up until the aging decision. It is very rare for Pinot Grigio to be aged at all. To preserve its fresh crisp flavors and it’s bright citrus aroma, Pinot Grigio will usually forgo malolactic fermentation (not always but often) and go straight to cold stability then bottle, meaning Pinot Grigio can easily be ready to be bottled in as few as 4 months. If a winemaker wants there Pinot Grigio to have a little color, choosing to make it in the Rose style, they would simply crush the grapes, and allow the juice to come in contact with the skins for a few hrs before pressing the juice off. Either way , rose or clear, the wine will be ready by late winter or early spring. Pinot Grigio can be challenging to make well as it is delicate and prone to rapid oxidation, but a well made Pinot Grigio can be vibrant and crisp with green apple and steely characteristics, making it the perfect accompaniment to cheese boards.

The Difference in Alcohol Content

Chardonnay

Chardonnay has the potential to make higher alcohol wines than Pinot Grigio do to its ability to ripen longer in the vineyard, therefore producing more sugars and by extension more potential alcohol. Cooler regions with shorter growing seasons and less sugar ripeness will lead to lower alcohol levels, while warmer regions can yield grapes capable of making 15 percent ABV. Chardonnay is best served chilled not cold, to allow the more subtle aromas of the grape to come through.

Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio is a fast ripener and not capable of achieving the same level of ripeness as Chardonnay. Additionally the most popular style of Pinot Grigio is a lean tart style, so winemakers will often make the call to pick the grape earlier, when acid levels are higher, but sugar is lower. Pull the wine out of the fridge a half hour before serving so wine-tasters can taste the delicate flavors and really enjoy the bright refreshing aromas. Alcohol level can range but on average Pinot Grigio is in the 10 to 11.5 range.

Difference in Characteristics

Chardonnay

  • Dry, bold, and full-bodied palate
  • Various fruit characteristics
  • Most common fruit aftertaste flavors include: apple, starfruit, pineapple, and melon
  • Two forms: Unoaked and Oaked
  • Made from green-skinned grapes
  • Creamier wine
  • Fresh cut Grass Aroma
  • Complex compared to other wines

Pinot Grigio

  • Light-bodied
  • Fruity/tangy fragrance
  • Primary Fruit Character: Citrus
  • Flavors: Apple and Pears
  • Three Types of Pinot Grigio: Dry and mineral, Dry and fruity, sweet and fruity
  • Made from grayish-blue grapes
  • Tart and light flavor
  • Light

What Foods Should I Pair Each Wine With?

Yes, it matters what meals you serve the wine with. To see what meals you should serve with each wine, here is a breakdown.

What Should I pair Chardonnay With?

Chardonnay is one of the great pairing wines in the world. It’s complex flavor profile and ability to have rich flavors and high acid lend it to food. Richer fuller Chardonnays will stand up to heavier dishes and cream sauces, with the natural acidity working to clean the palate between bites, while the rich buttery character contributes to flavor and fullness of a dish. The classic pairing for Chardonnay is a simply prepared lobster, where the sweet richness of the lobster meat is complimented beautifully by higher acid styles like Burgundy, or Oregonian Chardonnay.  Chardonnay is also fun to pair with many different styles of cheese, but be careful not to pair like on like. A creamy rich camembert and a buttery oaky California Chardonnay won’t contrast each other enough to really heighten the experience. Instead try a full bodied Chardonnay with a fresh goats milk cheese, or a nutty manchego with a light fruity honey. The fear would be that the heavier Chardonnay would mask the flavors of the cheese but the tartness of the goats milk and the acidity of a light young honey will cut through the richness of the Chardonnay and brighten up the whole experience. Be sure to try lots of different styles of Chardonnay with lots of different meals to find pairings that you really enjoy.

What Should I Pair Pinot Grigio With?

It’s great to have a glass of Pinot Grigio with dishes like pasta, chicken, and light seafood dishes. Foods with butter and cream are balanced by the sharpness of Pinot Grigio’s acidity. Avoid pairing this delicate wine with heavy red meat dishes as the light body of Pinot Grigio will be overwhelmed and disappear behind the food. Also avoid pairing Pinot Grigio with acidic foods. Since Pinot Grigio is already acidic the combination is like eating a grapefruit while drinking orange juice. Too much. Instead try dried fruit and salumi, maybe a sweet green apple and some good Emmentaler cheese. Or better still find a nice field lay out a blanket and enjoy the refreshing wine with strawberry’s and a nice nap.