As a certified wine nerd, I get all kinds of questions about wine (which I love answering!). So, I wanted to break down one of the most commonly asked questions: “Is Chardonnay sweet?”
This uber-popular white wine is a favorite of wine lovers throughout the world. Depending on where it’s grown, how it’s made, and how it’s aged, it can range from bone-dry to dessert-level sweet.
But sweetness can be deceiving. Many often mistake fruity flavors or the vanilla notes from oak aging with actual sugar in the wine.
Whether you’re a fan of dry wines or you’ve got a sweet tooth that just won’t quit, understanding what makes a wine sweet is key to finding your perfect match.
Find out what makes Chardonnay sweet (or not), how to detect sweetness in wine, and all the different levels of wine sweetness.
BTW, if you haven’t yet, make sure to grab my free Wine Tasting Planner. It has 20+ wine night theme ideas, including the exact ones I’ve used for my wine tastings. Plus, a timeline, food pairings, games, free printables, worksheets, and more. Get your copy here.
Is Chardonnay Sweet or Dry?
Chardonnay is most often a dry white wine. While it has fruity flavors that may create the perception of sweetness, it usually doesn’t contain residual sugar. But Chardonnay can be made in sweeter styles. This is most common in sparkling wines like Champagne (e.g., Demi-Sec and Doux).
Chardonnay is also used to make dessert wines. The most famous of these is Vin de Paille from the Jura region in France. Dried grapes with concentrated sugars are used to produce medium-sweet to lusciously sweet Chardonnay.
Some mass-produced inexpensive Chardonnays may also contain some residual sugar. This can hide sour flavors from bad grapes. Or help make the wines more palatable to some wine drinkers.
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What is Chardonnay?
Chardonnay is one of the world’s most popular white wines, beloved by many wine enthusiasts. It’s of course made from Chardonnay grapes.
And it grows well in wine regions all over the globe, from California to Chile. But it’s at home in its birthplace: the Burgundy region of France.
Now, the cool thing about Chardonnay is that it can be made in lots of different styles, depending on where it’s grown and how it’s made.
Some Chardonnays are all crisp and refreshing, like a dip in the pool on a hot summer day. Others are rich and creamy, like a milkshake (but with less brain freeze).
Chardonnay can also be still or sparkling, dry or sweet. You name it! It can do it.
It’s all about the climate and winemaking techniques.
What Does Chardonnay Taste Like?
While Chardonnay can be made in both dry and sweet styles, it’s typically a dry wine that’s lower in acidity than other popular varietals like Sauvignon Blanc.
Chardonnay wines that come from cooler climates will usually have higher acidity. This mouth-puckering sensation will make the wine seem drier.
These wines will tend to be lighter in body and have lower alcohol levels. And you’ll get less ripe fruit flavors like apple, pear, and lemon.
Cool climate Chardonnays come from places closer to the 50-degree latitude like Chablis and New Zealand. Or coastal regions like Sonoma County in the United States that are cooled by ocean currents.
Warm climate Chardonnay may seem sweeter because of its lower acidity and ripe tropical fruit flavors. But just because you’re getting juicy pineapple, papaya, and peach, doesn’t mean the wine is actually sweet.
As acidity drops, sugar levels increase. If the wine has been fermented to dry, this means higher alcohol content. And that also means a fuller-bodied wine.
You’ll find these styles of wines in warmer regions like Stellenbosch, South Africa, South Australia, and Spain.
Winemakers love Chardonnay because it’s easy to manipulate. Fermented in stainless steel tanks, it’s fresh, crisp, and can have a mineral edge.
But give it some oak, malolactic fermentation, and a little lees contact and you’ve got a totally different wine. The oak barrels add secondary flavors like toast, vanilla, and butterscotch.
And converting the malic acid to lactic acid gives this style of Chardonnay buttery flavors and a creamy texture.
This grape is also a popular choice for traditional method sparkling wine. During the second fermentation, the wine is in contact with the dead yeast particles (called lees) for an extended period. And Chardonnay easily takes on aromas of biscuit, brioche, and bread dough from this contact.
What Makes a Wine Sweet?
While there was a time when sweet wine was all the rage, today’s wine drinkers mostly prefer drier wine.
So, you’ll find that many whites and almost all red wines are dry. Although, there are still plenty of great sweet and semi-sweet wines out there.
If you’ve ever tasted a very fruity wine and described it as sweet, you wouldn’t be the first one. Many confuse intense fruit flavors with sweetness.
But what makes a wine sweet is the amount of sugar in the wine. A dry wine, no matter how fruity it tastes, has no or very little residual sugar.
Now, you might be thinking, where does the sugar come from? Do they just dump in some of those white and yellow bags you see at the grocery store? Thankfully, no.
There are a few techniques in the vineyard and the winemaking process that result in a wine with sugar.
Method 1: Stopping the Fermentation
As grapes ripen, they lose acidity and naturally gain sugar. During fermentation, yeast convert this sugar to alcohol. If the yeast are allowed and able to convert all the sugar, this leaves a dry wine.
But this conversion process can be stopped by adding high-proof alcohol during fermentation. This is called fortification.
The yeast can’t handle their booze after a certain percentage. So, they die off. And this leaves sugar in the wine. Fortification is most commonly used for things like Port from Douro Valley, Portugal and Sherry from Jerez, Spain.
Fermentation can also be stopped by adding sulfur dioxide, an antioxidant and preservative used to stabilize the wine. Or chilling the wine and filtering it off the lees (called racking).
Method 2: Adding a Sweetening Component
Wine can also have residual sugar due to the addition of a sweetener.
For Chardonnay, this is most common in traditional method sparkling wine. After the second fermentation, the yeast particles are frozen in the cap of the bottle and popped out (called disgorgement).
A liqueur d’expedition, also known as dosage, is added to the bottle. This is what determines the wine’s level of sweetness. Depending on the amount of sugar in the liquid, the wine can range from Brut Nature (the driest) to Doux (the sweetest).
In some regions, winemakers are allowed to reserve a portion of unfermented grape juice. This can be added to wines that have too much of an acid bite to soften them. In Germany, this is called the süssreserve.
RCGM is another sweetener that you’ll find in many high-volume inexpensive wines. This stands for Rectified Concentrated Grape Must. Sounds tasty, right?
This concoction is usually used when the grapes aren’t in good shape and the winemaker wants to hide any imperfections. Or it may be added to inexpensive wines where the target consumer prefers a little sweetness.
Method 3: Concentrating the Grape Sugars
We talked about how sugar increases as grapes ripen. Well, there are a few different techniques that can be used to concentrate those sugars to make a sweeter wine:
- Noble Rot – Believe it or not, a fungus called Botrytis cinerea is responsible for some of the world’s greatest sweet wines (e.g., Sauternes and Tokaji). It punches tiny holes in the grapes, allowing water to evaporate and raisining the grapes. The key conditions to make this happen are morning mists and warm, sunny afternoons.
- Drying the Grapes on the Vine: In places where autumn is warm and dry, the grapes can be left to hang on the vine well into the harvest season. This dries them out, reducing the water and leaving the sugar and acid. The process is known as passerillage and these wines are often called late-harvest wines.
- Drying the Grapes After Picking – Similar to drying on the vine, grapes are laid on straw mats or stacked in crates with good ventilation so that water can evaporate from the grapes. Dry conditions are needed to ensure the grapes don’t get moldy. You’ll hear this called the passito process. And it’s used for Vin de Paille, the Jura region’s Chardonnay dessert wine.
- Freezing Grapes on the Vine – In colder climates, conditions can be ripe for making Icewine (or Eiswein). Grapes are left on the vine into the winter months. Once the water freezes within the grapes, they’re picked and immediately pressed to extract just the sugars and acid.
All these methods will leave you with a concentrated grape juice that has much higher sugar levels. When yeast attempt to ferment it, the sugar is so high that they die off before they can convert it all to alcohol.
This leaves a sweeter wine with lower alcohol. In some cases, sugars can be so high that yeast can only ferment the wine to a single-digit ABV.
Wine Sweetness Levels
Now that you know what makes a wine dry or sweet, let’s talk about the sweetness level of wine. Because not all sweet wines are created equal!
Going by the Wine Spirit & Education Trust’s tasting grid, there are six sweetness levels:
- Dry – These wines have zero sugar or so little that you can’t taste it. This is the majority of wines produced today.
- Off-Dry – There’s a tiny amount of sugar. If you’re used to dry wines, these can taste quite sweet, but compared to the sweetest wines the sugar is still very low. Examples include some Rieslings, Brut Champagne, and many inexpensive wines.
- Medium-Dry – You’ll get some detectable sugar here. You may even be able to start pairing these with desserts. But the finish will be on the dry side compared to the next category.
- Medium-Sweet – These have higher sugar levels than medium-dry. These two categories are hard to differentiate. Although in this case, the winemaker’s intent was to make a sweeter style wine.
- Sweet – Sugar will be the dominant feature of sweet wines. These are your noble rot and fortified wines. You can reach for the dessert pairings here.
- Luscious – These wines are the sweetest in the world. They’re almost like a nectar, coating your mouth with sticky sweetness. Examples include Rutherglen Muscat and Pedro Ximénez Sherry.
While you may not need to know a medium-dry wine from a medium-sweet one, it’s helpful to keep these sweetness levels in mind.
As you taste more wines, something that you may have originally thought was very sweet can pale in comparison to the sugar levels in the upper categories.
Learn more about Champagne sweetness levels.
Is Chardonnay Sweeter Than Pinot Grigio?
While both wines are usually made in a dry style, Chardonnay may seem sweeter than Pinot Grigio because of its lower acidity. Italian Pinot Grigio can have high acidity levels in regions like Alto Adige and Trentino. And it’s almost always fermented in stainless steel. So, you won’t find those sweeter vanilla notes from oak.
Pinot Grigio’s citrus and green fruit flavors most closely resemble a cooler-climate unoaked Chardonnay. But usually with a lighter body and lower alcohol.
The French style of Pinot Grigio known as Pinot Gris is sometimes made in a sweet style. In the Alsace region, you’ll find late-harvest wines with riper stone fruit flavors at a range of sweetness levels. Or Germany is another source of this style.
Is Chardonnay Sweeter Than Sauvignon Blanc?
Both Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are almost always dry wines. But Sauvignon Blanc is known for its naturally high acidity. So, this mouth-puckering sensation can make it seem drier than Chardonnay. Adding to that, Sauvignon Blanc also has more savory herbal notes like bell pepper and grass.
When compared to the ripe tropical and stone fruit notes in a warm climate Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc can taste tart and a little sour.
And unlike Chardonnay, this aromatic grape usually doesn’t see oak. This preserves its zesty aromas and flavors. Although you’ll find some oaked styles in France’s Bordeaux region and labeled Fumé Blanc in California.
Learn more about the difference between Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio.
Chardonnay Food Pairings
Looking for the right food pairings for your Chardonnay? Choosing the best one depends on the type of Chardonnay you’re having.
Is it unoaked or oaked, dry or sweet, still or sparkling?
Food Pairings with Unoaked Chardonnay
For dry, unoaked styles, go for lighter white meats with citrus flavors, like lemon chicken. Or try white fish in white wine sauce, shellfish pasta, and sushi.
Food Pairings with Oaked Chardonnay
This creamier version of Chardonnay goes best with creamy foods. Think pasta with cream sauce, risotto, or creamed soups. Or it can hold up to the bolder flavors of grilled chicken and salmon.
Buttery dishes like lobster with butter are a beautiful pairing too. And one of the best snacks with wine is a buttery Chardonnay with buttered popcorn.
Or for you fromage-fanatics, try semi-soft aged cheeses like Gruyère and Comté.
Food Pairings with Sparkling Chardonnay
For Champagne and other sparkling wines made with Chardonnay, your pairing will depend on the sweetness level of the bubbly.
Dry sparkling wines are excellent with all kinds of food. Their high acidity balances well with light and citrusy dishes. And fizziness can refresh your palate when enjoying rich and creamy foods.
Bubbly with medium sweetness is a good match for spicy food. Whether it’s Chinese, Thai, or Indian, it will cool the heat and make the spice feel less harsh.
Sweet sparkling wines like Demi-Sec and Doux should be paired with desserts.
Food Pairings with Sweet Chardonnay
As with sweet sparkling Chardonnay, other sweet Chardonnays should accompany dessert. You want your wine to be sweeter than the dessert so that it doesn’t taste bitter up against the sugary flavors.
Try these Chardonnays with citrus-flavored desserts like lemon bars or key lime pie. Cheesecake and apple pie are great options too.
Now that you understand what makes a wine sweet and the different sweetness levels, you can more confidently choose the right bottle of Chardonnay for your palate. So go grab a glass and enjoy!
Looking for more great white wines to try? Check out the best Spanish white wines.
What’s your favorite type of Chardonnay? Do you prefer dry or sweet wines?