Chardonnay vs Sauvignon Blanc: What’s the Difference?

Bunches of green grapes on a vine at a vineyard.
Chardonnay grapes at a vineyard. Image by jane2494 from Pixabay

Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are arguably the two most popular white wines in the world. They’re both very widely grown and sold- you will probably be able to find both of them in every store that sells wine, and in every restaurant that sells wine.

However, the two wines being produced from green-skinned grapes and popular is almost where the similarities end. Chardonnay is a full-bodied wine, made from a grape that is relatively neutral, taking on various flavors from both the terroir and the way that it is aged- or if it is aged at all.

Sauvignon Blanc on the other hand is one of the oldest kinds of wine, as the grapes originate from South-West France. It is a light-bodied wine that has crisp and fresh flavors, with a noticeable acidic component to it.

Chardonnay

The Chardonnay grape originates from Eastern France but is now grown in every winery region of the world. The Chardonnay grape is the main component in many different Champagnes, and much of the flavor of Chardonnay comes from the terroir- that is, the environmental factors that it was grown in.

Chardonnay that is grown in a cooler climate typically has a more medium body, with a crisp and mineral flavor, often with notes of green fruits, such as green apples, pears, and green plums.

In contrast to this, Chardonnay that is grown in warmer climates is much fruitier, with notes of peach, melon, and citrus fruits. This chardonnay also typically has a heavier body, owing to the higher levels of sugar in the grape at the time it was picked. Chardonnay that is grown in very warm climates, however, has positively tropical flavors like mango, fig, and even banana.

Chardonnay can be made in almost any wine making style, making it one of the most diverse wines on the market. The most common two variants of Chardonnay production is whether the winemaker uses malofermatic fermentation which is the process of converting the tart malic acid into the more mellow lactic acid.

This is done during the second fermentation in order to reduce the acidity of the wine and give the wine the tell-tale Chardonnay ‘butter’ flavors and texture. The other factor is how much the wine is given oak-influence, which affects the colour and tannic flavor profile of the wine.

Chardonnay is one of the few white wines that has tannins- the naturally occurring bitterness found in stems, seeds, and skins of grapes. White wines, unlike reds, are fermented without these, making them much less tannic. Chardonnay gets its tannins from the oak barrels that are used in the wine making process.

It is also one of the few white wines that are appropriate for aging- although certainly not all Chardonnay is. If you want an aged Chardonnay, or even to do it yourself, ensure that you find one that is a high quality, oak barreled wine that has a high level of natural acidity. The acidity is what will help the wine to survive the aging process, and the oak barrel provides valuable tannins that will mellow out over the course of time.

As mentioned, Chardonnay is extremely versatile as a grape and a wine, owing to the various influences and methods of production. This means that pairing Chardonnay with food can be as easy as it can be complicated. It is most commonly served with white meat such as chicken and turkey, but is especially good if the meat is roasted, as it brings out extra flavor to stand up to the wine.

If your Chardonnay is oaked then it will pair well with Asian style food and smoked fish. The bold flavors of these foods will overpower a non-oaked Chardonnay, and most other white wines- but will be very difficult to match with red wine, making Chardonnay the perfect choice.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc originates from Southwest France, gaining popularity in the Bordeaux Region. It is grown in many different wine regions across the world, including South America with Chile and Brazil, the United States and Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and more.

Like many wines, the flavors of Sauvignon Blanc are greatly affected by the terroir (the environment that it was grown in), most recognizably, the climate in which it was grown. Sauvignon Blanc grown in a cooler climate can be positively grassy, with notes of nettles, green bell peppers, and floral notes such as elderflower. Cooler climate Sauvignon Blanc can be very acidic and crisp, sometimes expressed through tropical fruits such as passion fruit.

In contrast to this, warmer climate Sauvignon Blanc becomes much more tropical, with suggestions of tree fruits, and much more heavily influenced by tropical fruits than its cooler counterpart. However, overripe Sauvignon Blanc loses a lot of its flavors and notes so many wine producers try to avoid this.

Sauvignon Blanc, unlike Chardonnay, is usually produced in a relatively similar style across all wineries. Generally, it is fermented in large stainless steel tanks at low temperatures, done deliberately in order to maximize the potential of the grape. Something that does differ from region to region is the amount of time the grape is allowed to be in contact with its skin.

Some regions in France leave a small percentage of the skins prolonged exposure to the grape throughout the production process, which gives the wine more natural acidity. In contrast to this, in the United States the skins are removed as quickly as possible in order to allow the wine to age better.

Despite this, Sauvignon Blanc is not a wine that is made for vintage. It’s properties are not fit for long term aging, only so as appropriate for a maximum of 3-5 years (depending on where it was made), and the wine was made to be drunk young, so don’t try to age it.

Sauvignon Blanc pairs very well with delicate and light dishes, such as white fish, salads, sandwiches. It also works very well with dishes that have a lot of herbs and spices in them, such as a pesto. It can also contrast very well with creamy dishes like chicken alfredo.

What’s the Difference Between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc?

The differences between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are the flavor profile, the method of fermentation, and the body of the wine. They pair with different foods, and while they can hold similar properties dependent on the climate that the grapes were grown in they rarely cross paths.

Chardonnay is a heavy and hearty white wine, whereas Sauvignon Blanc is much lighter and crisper. Sauvignon is made to be drunk young, and Chardonnay can be aged for a few years- especially if it is fermented in oak barrels.

The two can both be paired with similar food though. Their distinct flavor profiles mean that Chardonnay can pair congruently with creamy dishes, while a Sauvignon Blanc can complement it by cutting through the creaminess and making a contrasting but delightful pairing. Pairing wine with food can be an intimidating start but there are a few tricks to help you on your way.

The fundamental difference between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc is that they are different types of wine- meaning that they have very different properties and styles of fermentation. Find out what you need to know about types of wine with our helpful guide.

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