The Differences Between Chardonnay and Riesling

White wines range from super dry to sweet, fruity, citrusy, crisp to oaky. Chardonnay and Rieslings are two very popular white wines, but cater to different tastes. 

What is the difference between Chardonnay and Riesling?

Chardonnay is a medium to full bodied white wine that is characterized by buttery or oaky flavors. Rieslings are light bodied wines that tend to be crisp and acidic, but may be dry or sweet. Each wine tends to vary depending on where they are grown and how they are produced. 

We’ll explain the basic differences between Chardonnay and Rieslings as well as why you might choose one wine over the other. 

Origin and Profile of Chardonnay 

Chardonnay comes from a green skinned, or white grape fruit of the same name. The variety is thought to have been developed in the Burgundy region of France, but there were many theories on its ancient origins. One theory thought that the variety might have origins in the Middle East, however DNA sequencing showed that it is a cross between the Pinot Noir variety and a variety called Gouais Blanc that may have been brought by the Romans from Croatia. 

Chardonnay was brought to the United States in the 1940s, and a Chardonnay wine from Chateau Montelena won a blind taste test in Paris in 1976 called the Judgement of Paris that gave California wines prominence in the wine community. As a result, Chardonnay plantings in California exploded to account for 25% of the world’s total Chardonnay plantings. 

The variety is known for its ease of cultivation and ability to adapt to climates and soil types, though the best quality fruit in the United States comes from vineyards that are prone to coastal fog. The fog and cooler weather allows the fruit longer to ripen, further developing it’s flavors. 

Since Chardonnay is so popular and the crops are usually bountiful, the varietal lends well to low cost, mass produced box and bulk wine. However, many quality winemakers produce high quality Chardonnays that elevate the varietal above the masses. 

Many Chardonnay wines are aged in oak barrels that lend notes of caramel, smoke, cream, or spice. Other Chardonnays produced with malolactic fermentation lend towards more “buttery” flavors. Grapes grown in colder regions tend to have more tropical flavors like mango or pineapple. Unoaked Chardonnays may be referred to as “naked” Chardonnays. They tend to be lighter bodied and crisper tasting, with the tropical or fruity notes. 

The variety is also popular to use in many blends, especially with producing sparkling wine. 

Origin and Profile of Riesling

The Riesling grape variety appeared in references in the 15th century, either in Germany or in France. It’s parentage is a bit convoluted in that it is a cross between the Gouais Blanc, making it a step sibling of the Chardonnay. The other cross variety may have been a wild variety crossed with the Traminer variety. There may even be a red-skinned variety of the white skinned Riesling variety, similar to the generic differences between the Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris varieties. 

The fruit typically needs to be handled very carefully as it’s prone to breaking or bruising, which can impart tannins into the wine that cause undesirable bitterness in the finished wine. Most Rieslings do not use malolactic fermentation to retain a crisp acidicness. Typically, bottles also go through cold stabilization, stopping fermentation early to leave residual sugar in the wine. 

Riesling has been in the United States longer than the Chardonnay variety, having been brought by German immigrants in the 19th century. Despite its long history, riesling is not nearly as popular as Chardonnay. Depending on where the variety is grown, the flavor changes dramatically. The flavor profile may range from dry and acidic to sweet and mellow. 

Expensive, late harvest Rieslings may be sweet enough to be dessert wines. German Rieslings tend to favor this style traditionally, and typically are not aged in oak barrels. However, other styles may include high alcohol content wine aged in oak barrels. 

Chardonnay vs Riesling

Generally, Chardonnays can be described as oaky or buttery, while Rieslings can be described as acidic and crisp. However, these wine styles can vary dramatically depending on where the grape is grown and how the winemaker ferments the wine. Chardonnays tend to be medium to full bodied, depending on whether they are unoaked or oaked, while Rieslings are generally classified as a light bodied wine. 

Chardonnay pairs well with white meats, such as roast chicken and turkey, but oaked Chardonnay typically is not paired with delicate foods, such as fish or seafood. Instead, oaked versions may be paired with smoked fishes, rich creamy dishes, or heavier dips. Unoaked versions may also go well with tomato based dishes or sweet onions. 

Rieslings typically go well with white fish and pork, but can also stand up to spicy dishes such as Thai or Chinese. Rieslings tend to be lighter and crisper than Chardonnays and pair better with a wider range of foods.

Unoaked chardonnay should be chilled down to 50F before serving, while an oaked chardonnay should be served at 55F. Dry Rieslings are served around 50-52F, while sweeter Rieslings are served slightly warmer. 

Chardonnays are better served in a stemmed glass with a large bowl and wide mouth that help dispense the wine to the back and sides of the tongue. Rieslings should be served in a stemmed glass with a U-Shaped bowl that helps express the fruity and floral aromas. Stemmed glasses help keep the heat from the hands from warming up the wine in the glass and affecting the flavor. 

Chardonnay is the sixth most popularly grown grape variety in the world, while the Riesling variety is much lower ranked, as the twentieth. Both wines are highly popular. For your next dinner party or social gathering, be sure to pair one or both wines with the menu, but be sure to check where the wine was grown and produced!