table with dinner for two on Napa Valley Wine Train with white wine, white fish dinner overlooking vineyards

All About Chardonnay

December 20, 2021
Tasting & Learning

Chardonnay is the world’s most popular white wine. And like many long-loved icons, it’s surrounded by myth and mystery — in part due to its chameleon-like characteristics, but mostly due to high-profile pop culture callouts in Bridget Jones’s Diary and Alanis Morissette “Ironic.” The truth is, chardonnay is responsible for some of the finest wines in the world, many of which are found right here in Napa Valley.

Aboard any of our Wine Train experiences, you’ll taste why chardonnay deserves to sparkle in the spotlight. After all, it is one of the three grapes essential to Champagne.

Tasting Notes

This green-skinned grape was born in Burgundy, France, but has since made its way into almost every corner of the world thanks to its resilience and adaptability. The “typical” chardonnay is a dry, medium-to-full-bodied wine with moderate acidity and tropical flavors of pineapple, papaya, and mango. These flavors can change depending on whether the wine is aged in oak barrels (which infuse buttery, vanilla, and spice flavors) or steel barrels (which bring forward green apple and lemon notes).

If the winemaker is an artist, this ever-versatile grape is a blank canvas, waiting to be influenced by where it grows, how it’s made, and the creative license of the winemaker. This neutral profile also makes it uniquely adept at taking on the essence of the land on which it’s grown, climate, and local flora. This is a concept known as terroir. It can thrive in cool and warm climates, anywhere from right here in California to regions of France, Australia, Germany, Canada, and Chile. Nearly every wine region in the world can grow chardonnay, but its accessibility doesn’t make it boring—far from it! If you think you know chardonnay, think again. It can be crisp and fresh, rich and buttery, or opulent and ripe depending on hundreds of factors.

In the Napa Valley alone, you’ll have the chance to taste a world of chardonnays. In the summer, the southern end of the Valley can be up to 15 degrees cooler than the northern end, creating different microclimates for grape ripening.

Perfect Pairings

Chardonnay’s versatility means it can make a perfect pairing for just about anything, from the chips stashed in your pantry to a five-star shellfish feast. It all depends on the style.

Crisp and light unoaked chardonnays (like Chablis) pair perfectly with fresh cheeses, shellfish, sushi, or even a lemony cheesecake. Medium-bodied chardonnays are often enjoyed alongside chicken dishes, pork tenderloin, or a heartier fish like swordfish. Rich, oaky styles of chardonnay make a great partner for fattier seafood and meat, like grilled salmon or game birds, rich pasta dishes like risotto, or a tangy flavor of chips like sour cream and onion.

Whatever you’re sipping it with, make sure the bottle is chilled to perfection — about two hours in the fridge or 30-40 minutes in an ice bath.

Explore Chardonnay by Railway

Are you California dreaming (about California chardonnay)? Several winery stops aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train’s  experiences are home to pioneering winemakers, legendary wines, and a whole lot of history.

Grgich Hills Estate

Before Grgich Hills Estate, winemaker Miljenko “Mike” Grgich first gained international recognition through an event that changed the world of wine forever, known as the Judgement of Paris. In 1976, a selection of France’s finest wine experts got together for a blind tasting in honor of the American Bicentennial. The experts were to taste reds from Bordeaux and whites from Burgundy against cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays from California. At the time, these varietals were considered exclusive to France, and Napa Valley wasn’t even on the map as a wine-growing destination. The outcome seemed obvious.

You can imagine the surprise of the tasters—and the world—to find out it was actually two Napa Valley wines that came out on top. The star of the white wine tasting? The 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, crafted by Mike Grgich. Grgich’s norm-shattering chardonnay elevated the status of California wine and went on to be served to The Queen, several American presidents, and continued to rise to the top of blind tastings over hundreds of others.

What began as an underdog story has grown into an iconic Napa Valley winery, featuring five certified organic estate vineyards — one dedicated almost exclusively to chardonnay — a vine-enveloped patio, and private tastings with cheese plates to pair. With four chardonnays available for tasting, you’ll want to take your time savoring every sip. The Napa Valley Wine Train offers an experience dedicated to Grgich Hills Estate, beginning with a two-hour train journey and multi-course gourmet lunch before arriving at the winery for a seated tasting.

Book the Grgich Hills Winery Tour

Charles Krug

Speaking of legendary, this stunning winery is in its third century — yes, century — of winemaking. In 1861, Charles Krug established Napa Valley’s oldest estate winery and opened California’s first public tasting room — now called the Redwood Cellar — in 1882. Renovated by famed architect Howard Backen, this space evokes a blend of rustic and modern. The high, open-beam ceiling and giant windows give off a larger-than-life feeling that’s intimate all the same. And somehow, it makes a glass of their 2019 Carneros Chardonnay taste even better.

This wine is deeply influenced by the cool and foggy Carneros region of the Napa Valley, known for producing grapes with a natural balance of acidity and ripeness. The fruit was hand-picked on a cool night to ensure it reached the winery in pristine condition. The result? An impeccably balanced, medium-bodied wine with notes of tropical fruit and citrus blossom on the nose and peach and pear flavors on the palate.

Want to see where it all started? Charles Krug is the first winery stop on the Napa Valley Wine Train Legacy Tour, a six-hour journey brimming with fascinating stories and history as rich as the wines you’ll sample.

 V. Sattui Winery

Founded in 1885 by Vittorio Sattui after emigrating from Genoa, Italy, this sprawling family-owned property produces one of the largest selections of award-winning, small-batch, small-lot wines using a blend of time-honored techniques and technology. With a lively, laid-back atmosphere and food-focused experiences, your glass will always be—and feel—half full here.

At V. Sattui, you’ll have the opportunity to taste chardonnays on opposite ends of the flavor spectrum, side-by-side. The 2018 Reserve Stock Napa Valley Chardonnay tastes of ​​spicy vanilla and caramel with complex minerality and aromas of stone fruit, ripe peach, nectarine, and apricot aromas. On the other hand, the 2019 Carsi Vineyard Chardonnay is brimming with aromas of crisp green apple and pear followed by warm nuances of toasted oak, blending tropical flavors with a delicate barrel-aged richness.

In 2020, V. Sattui was named “Domestic Winery of The Year” by the San Diego International — one of the oldest and most revered competitions in the United States — after winning a jaw-dropping 26 medals across their portfolio. Now that’s worth “cheers-ing” too.

Go behind the scenes at V. Sattui Winery as part of the Napa Valley Wine Train Legacy Tour, along with the historic Charles Krug winery.

All Aboard, Chardonnay Lovers

Taste your way around the world of Napa Valley chardonnays aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train. Spend all afternoon exploring the history-making Grgich Hills Estate on our Grgich Hills Winery Tour, or dive into the story behind the grape on our Legacy Tour, with stops at both V. Sattui Winery and Charles Krug. You might just find your way to a newfound love for chardonnay.

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