They’re two of the most popular white wines worldwide, but Riesling and Chardonnay each have unique flavor and aroma profiles that set them apart. Discover the key differences between Riesling vs Chardonnay with this easy-to-follow guide.
Chardonnay is the most widely planted white wine grape variety in the world. And it’s also among the most wide-ranging. Depending on the region and the winemaking process, Chardonnay wines can taste rich and buttery — or crisp, dry, and clean.
Riesling is also a versatile white wine grape. While many wine lovers prefer a Riesling that has a sweeter finish, very good dry Rieslings are produced in various regions around the world.
In this guide, we’ll review the distinct characteristics that make each of these wine types unique. From the wines’ flavor profiles and aromas — to average prices and food pairings, this easy-to-follow tasting guide covers everything you need to help you choose your next great bottle.
- The origin of Chardonnay
- The origin of Riesling
- Chardonnay flavor characteristics and aroma
- Riesling flavor characteristics and aroma
- 6 Classifications of Riesling
- Acidity in Chardonnay and Riesling
- Riesling and Chardonnay: Body
- Riesling and Chardonnay: Color
- Chardonnay and Riesling food pairings
- Price of Riesling and Chardonnay
- Chardonnay vs Riesling summary
- More wine-related answers
The origin of Chardonnay
The Chardonnay grape originated in the Burgundy region of France, where it ranks as one of the two main grape varieties of the region (Pinot Noir being the other).
Recently, DNA research revealed that Chardonnay is actually derived from three other grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and the rare Gouais Blanc. Scientists believe the earliest forms of the grape and the wine date back to Roman times.
Chardonnay now ranks as the most popular white grape planted, with nearly 519,000 acres of vineyards worldwide.
It grows well in both warmer and cooler wine regions. In addition to Burgundy and other areas of France, Chardonnay is now widely produced in parts of Australia, Italy, Argentina, and the United States – particularly California, Oregon, and Washington state.
The origin of Riesling
Riesling is believed to have first been made in Germany in the 15th century, with the first vines originating in the Rhine Valley. By the mid-19th century, Riesling was one of the most widely consumed wines in Europe, rivaling the great wines of France.
During the first part of the 20th century, many of Germany’s vineyards were destroyed in World Wars I and II and Riesling production tanked. It wouldn’t be until nearly 50 years after the end of World War II that Riesling would reclaim the title of the most widely planted grape in Germany.
Now Riesling is grown in other areas as well throughout the Rhine Valley including Austria, France, and Switzerland. Winemakers in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand also produce Rieslings.
Chardonnay flavor characteristics and aroma
Since Chardonnay is so widely grown, its flavor profile can vary significantly depending on the region.
Chardonnays grown in warmer regions like California tend to exhibit richer fruity flavors like apple, pineapple, and peach. Cooler climate Chardonnays produced in Europe and parts of North America like Oregon often have more citrus flavors, along with apple, honey, and mineral characteristics.
Oaked vs unoaked Chardonnay
The winemaking method can also affect the flavor Chardonnay. Typically, Chardonnay is either oaked or unoaked, indicating how they are fermented and stored during the winemaking process.
Oaked means the wine is stored in oak barrels for at least part of the process, whether that’s for both fermenting and aging or aging only. The oak barrels often lend a softer, rounder flavor profile to the wine, imparting notes of vanilla and spice and resulting in a fuller body
Unoaked chardonnay is fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks prior to bottling. This results in a dry, crisp wine with bright flavors. Typically, cooler climate Chardonnay is unoaked.
What produces a buttery Chardonnay?
While aging in oak can lend Chardonnay a vanilla and sometimes nutty flavor, a separate winemaking process called Malolactic Fermentation (MLF) is what can lead to so-called buttery Chardonnays.
MLF is a second fermentation that occurs after the initial one. During the process, bacteria convert malic acid in grapes into lactic acid. While malic acid naturally tastes like tart green apples, lactic acid is soft and buttery.
The result is wines that have a creamy, velvety mouthfeel and a slight buttery flavor and aroma.
Riesling flavor characteristics and aroma
Riesling wines often exhibit citrus and stone fruit flavors, so it’s not uncommon to taste notes of grapefruit and meyer lemon in younger Rieslings, and pear and peach in wines that use more ripe Riesling grapes.
Some are also known for more earthy and flowery flavors like grass and rose blossoms. And sweeter Rieslings can also have green apple and honeycomb flavors.
In terms of aroma, don’t be surprised if you detect hints of gasoline or petrol. This is due to a natural compound called TDN that arises as the grapes are exposed to more daylight. Interestingly, the more pronounced the aroma, the better quality the Riesling tends to be. That’s because the more daylight the grapes are subjected to, the more they can ripen and develop flavor.
Other aromas include honey, ginger, and rubber.
6 Classifications of Riesling
When referring to a German Riesling, there are 6 different styles that they can fall into. They indicate the ripeness level of the grapes when they were picked, and by extension, they signify the sweetness of the wine. The wine label will indicate which classification it belongs to. The categories include:
Wines in this category are produced with grapes that are the least ripe when they’re picked. That means they tend to be dryer and lighter than other Rieslings.
Spätlese (semi-dry to semi-sweet)
Spätlese means “late harvest,” so the grapes have more time to mature on the vine and develop richer flavors before they’re picked. This also adds body and structure to the wine. Spätlese Riesling can range from a semi-dry wine to semi-sweet.
Auslese (semi-sweet to sweet)
Auslese is sweeter than Spatlese Riesling and denotes wines made from a select harvest of grapes. They are typically hand-picked and have noble rot — a fungus that causes wine grapes to shrivel and the juice to be more concentrated. This in turn adds to the sweetness level.
Though you can sometimes find a dry or “trocken” Auslese, this category of Riesling is usually a semi-sweet to sweet white wine. Some even consider them on the verge of dessert wine sweetness, though they do pair very well with Asian cuisine like curries and even duck breast.
A more traditional dessert wine, Beerenausleses are generally rich and very sweet wines. They pair well with desserts that enhance the wine’s stone fruit flavor like peach cobbler, as well as richer ones like crème brûlée. It is also suitable for aging.
Grapes for this classification of Riesling are picked very late in the harvest. In fact, they are left until they begin to shrivel, which allows the sugars in the grapes to become very concentrated. The intense sweetness of these wines goes well with sweet desserts like fruit pies, but they also complement soft, creamy cheeses.
Perhaps the most famous dessert Riesling are Eisweins. They’re produced using grapes that have frozen on the vine. The resulting juice is very concentrated and high in natural sugar. But the wine is traditionally low in alcohol and can have bright acidity.
Acidity in Chardonnay and Riesling
When it comes to acid levels, Chardonnay and Riesling are typically at opposite ends of the spectrum. Chardonnays tend to be lower in acid, whereas Rieslings have very high acidity levels. Let’s take a closer look.
Chardonnay grown in warmer climates tend to have medium to low acidity. The higher temperatures allow the grapes to ripen more and level off the acid.
Cool climate Chardonnay tends to have somewhat higher levels of acid, as lower temperatures delay ripening and keep natural sugar levels in the grapes low.
As noted above, many Rieslings are produced to be sweet or semi-sweet. That’s because they’re naturally very high in acidity. So some sweetness is added during the fermentation process to balance them out.
This is done not by adding sugar, but rather by stopping the fermentation before all of the grape sugars have been converted to alcohol. The extra sugar helps make Rieslings crisper and rounder, rather than overly tart. And it also can result in these sweeter wines having less alcohol.
Riesling and Chardonnay: Body
Both Chardonnay and Riesling have very slight tannins, though some Chardonnays, particularly oaked ones can be medium body to full-bodied, as the oak imparts richer flavors to the wine. Unoaked Chardonnay tends to be lighter and crisper in body.
In terms of alcohol levels, Chardonnay is usually around the 13-13.5% ABV range, but some can hover as high as 15% ABV.
Riesling generally has a light body and is usually crisp and clean. This is true for most Riesling regardless of the growing region. Because many are made sweet by stopping the fermentation process early, some of the grape sugar is preserved in the wine rather than converted to alcohol. So Rieslings tend to have a low alcohol content with many averaging around 10%-12% ABV.
Riesling and Chardonnay: Color
Dry Riesling tends to have a light yellow color, similar to pale straw. Sweeter Rieslings can be richer in color, often having a darker golden hue.
Similarly, Chardonnay can vary in color depending on the production method. Pale or light yellow Chardonnay is typically unoaked and aged in stainless steel. The lighter color indicates little or no exposure to oak during the fermentation and aging process.
Oaked Chardonnays are generally a darker yellow or gold. In many cases, the darker the yellow, the longer the Chardonnay has been aged in oak. This likely also indicates it has undergone malolactic fermentation and will probably have a buttery, creamy texture.
Chardonnay and Riesling food pairings
Unoaked, crisp, lighter-bodied Chardonnay pairs well with fresh cheeses and shellfish dishes, like Lemon Garlic Shrimp Pasta.
More fuller-bodied Chardonnays can complement white meat and hearty pasta and vegetable dishes like Citrus Herb Roast Chicken.
And try pairing a very buttery or creamy Chardonnay with richer foods with higher fat content like Mushroom Risotto.
Just as Rieslings come in a range of styles from dry to sweet, the foods they pair well with also vary widely.
A dry or semi-dry Riesling will go well with seafood like sushi and shellfish, as well as softer cheeses. Complement semi-sweet Rieslings with spicy foods like curries, Thai food, and Mexican food. And sweeter dessert wines should pair well with sweet and creamy dishes like fruit pies, custards, and crème brûlée.
Price of Riesling and Chardonnay
If you’re ready to pick up your own bottle of Chardonnay or Riesling (or both!) and do some tasting, here’s what you can expect to spend.
You can find a good bottle of Riesling for around $20-$25 at local wine shops and grocery stores. And many can be found for less than that if you do some shopping around.
Chardonnay prices can vary widely depending on the wine maker and production method. Though some can easily exceed $100 a bottle, you can find very good Chardonnays for under $25 dollars at most wine stores and supermarkets.
Chardonnay vs Riesling summary
- Primary growing regions: France, United States, New Zealand, Australia, South America
- Worldwide growing acres: 519,000
- Body: Medium-light to full
- Color: Pale yellow to rich gold
- Acidity: Low to medium-high depending on climate
- Flavor notes: Citrus, apple, pineapple, peach, fig, honey, and minerals
- Cost: $25+ for ready-to-drink Chardonnay; $50 and up for higher quality
- Primary growing regions: Germany, Austria, France, United States, New Zealand, Australia
- Worldwide growing acres: 89,000
- Dry to Very Sweet
- Body: Light to medium-light
- Color: Pale yellow to medium gold
- Acidity: Generally high
- Flavor notes: Lemon, grapefruit, pear, peach, green apple, honey, grass, rose blossoms
- Cost: $15-$20+
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