How to Tell the Difference Between Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio

Next time you see these two white wine options on the list, you'll know what you're getting into.



Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio are often perceived as the alpha and omega of the white wine world, the Beethoven and the boy band, respectively: The former is typically stereotyped as being richer and more complex, while the latter is light and often seen as sort of forgettable.

That’s just not right…at least, not in the wine part of the metaphor.

Both Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio are capable of great complexity when grown in the right places, farmed, and vinified with vision and intention. The issue is that on the mass-produced end of the spectrum, oaky and buttery Chardonnay, and easy-drinking, uncomplicated Pinot Grigio tend to dominate.

But the real stuff — the good stuff — is very different.

Related: How to Tell the Difference Between Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio

There is nothing inherently oaky or buttery about the Chardonnay grape itself — those characteristics are the result of winemaking decisions and techniques. And while the use of oak, which at best lends the sweet-spice notes of vanilla, cinnamon, and the like to wine, is an age-old technique that can help build complexity, texture, and richness in a Chardonnay, it also can dominate when used without enough care. Some bulk-produced Chardonnays incorporate the use of oak chips into their Chardonnay production, a literal recipe for unbalanced wine.

But some of the greatest white wines in the world are Chardonnays that have spent some period in oak barrels. Top bottlings of Le Montrachet and Meursault, cult-classic Chards from Napa Valley and Sonoma County, prove that judicious use of oak barrels (with serious consideration as to where they’re from, the level of toast, what percentage of them are new, second use, third use, etc.) can result in pure magic.

As for butteriness, this is the result of the wine having gone through what’s called malolactic fermentation — malo for short — that converts the tart malic acid in the liquid to more buttery lactic acid. As with oak, this can be a beautiful thing when done judiciously (malo doesn’t have to be 100%), but putting a wine through too much malo, especially when it doesn’t have the inherent structure or character to stand up to it, results in a Chardonnay being in many ways defined by the presence of lactic acid (and lack of acidic pop on the palate). Full malo and lots of new oak can often seem to magnify one another, which can run the risk of amping up the wine too much, rendering it the vinous equivalent of a steroid-addled wrestler. Again, though, when used smartly, malo (and oak) can add a plushness and character to the genuinely lovely wine.

Still, Chardonnay doesn’t have to spend time in oak or undergo malo at all: Many of the great wines of Chablis prove that in particularly delicious ways. This is one of the most fascinating secrets of Chardonnay — how transparently it conveys the character of the terroir in which the vines are planted—that makes it so exciting. The Chardonnays are full of energy and light, and often a wonderful core of chalky minerality that runs counter to the grape’s usual reputation.

Related: 15 Best Bottles of Chardonnay Worth Splurging On

Speaking of energy, Pinot Grigio is bursting with it. Known for its lovely citrus notes as well as occasional forays to the apple and pear end of the produce section, Pinot Grigio tends to have a pop of mouthwatering acidity.

Even the bulk-produced stuff showcases that verve. Once you start tasting Pinot Grigios that have grown in the best regions (Alto Adige and Alsace have to be at the top of that list), and even single vineyards, you'll notice wines that, in addition to their mouthwatering fruit, can also lean in the direction of springtime blossoms.

Some Italian producers are also making less-familiar styles of Pinot Grigio. Look for bottles labeled “ramato,” for example, which indicates that they’ve been crafted with extended contact between the juice and the skins. In Alsace, Pinot Gris is the base of some of the most important wines of the region: Grand cru vineyards like Schlossberg, Mambourg, and Kessler are among the most respected in France.

Pinot Gris can be dry or sweet, crisp or with some oak, picked clean or with the influence of botrytis—the range of this grape is outstanding. Whether you’re tasting it from Italy, France, Oregon, California, or elsewhere, it is capable of infinitely more than the generic stuff would indicate. Just like Chardonnay, too.

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