Pinot grigio and Chardonnay have a few things in common, as they both serve as easily accessible, eminently sippable white wines. All it takes is a taste to illustrate the difference between buttery chardonnay and crisp pinot grigio, but knowing exactly why they taste so different helps you perfect your pairing choices. While each bottle complements a very different selection of food, there’s always room at the table for both.
Pinot Grigio’s Grapes
Pinot grigio originally comes from Italy, where it still thrives, but it is also a headlining California wine. This variety derives from a plump, red-skinned grape with a characteristic acidity that gives the wine a sharp, crisp bite. A dry wine, Pinot grigio has a tangy, fruity aroma chiefly defined by citrus tones. Pinot gris, a wine from the same grape, has a fuller-bodied flavor with a richer aroma and more complex flavor profile, with hints of pear, apple and lemon.
The Making of Chardonnay
Vineyards in California, France, South Africa, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia commonly produce chardonnay, named for its green-skinned grape. These grapes lend chardonnay a taste that’s creamy and woody when it’s aged in oak or mineral-toned when aged in steel. The former often has smoky tones of vanilla and honey, while the latter is brighter in flavor. Depending on the region, you may encounter fruit hints ranging from peach to citrus. Generally, chardonnay from cooler regions has a sharper fruit top, defined by flavors like apple or lime. Chardonnay from warmer climes errs on the side of tropical fruit such as pineapple or melon.
The key to pairing brisk and light-bodied pinot lies in creating contrast. Don’t pair this acidic wine with acidic foods; go with foods that have buttery, creamy flavors instead. Try pinot grigio with a creamy quiche or pate to create a pleasing contrast between rich and refreshing. When it comes to pinot grigio, there’s no need to seek an aged bottle; this variety is meant to be enjoyed young. Pinot grigio has a moderately low alcohol content, typically ranging from about 12.5 to 13.5 percent, making it a great sipping wine paired with sweet fruits.
Chardonnay is an innately versatile wine, though it has a higher alcohol content than pinot grigio. This wine really shines when paired with dishes that complement its creaminess, such as rich white cheeses. In terms of meat, it’s an ideal pairing for juicy fish and white-meat chicken, especially if you’re serving an oak-barreled bottle, which particularly complements smoked white meat. If you have a mineral-toned chardonnay, one that has been barreled in stainless steel, it pairs swimmingly with shellfish.
References and ResourcesClutch Magazine: More Than Moscato: A Brief Introduction to Wine (Part 1)
Banks Wine and Spirits: Introduction to Wine
Winestate: The Whites
Total Wine: Guide to Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris
Total Wine: Guide to Chardonnay Wines
Real Simple: A Guide to Alcohol Content in Wine
ResourcesFood and Wine: Drinking Pinot Grigio and Proud of It
Presque Isle Wine Cellars: The Aroma Wheel -- An Aid to Wine Tasters