Color isn't the tell-all when it comes to wine. Both pinot grigio and chardonnay are white. And while both are refreshing and easy to drink, the similarity ends there. They each come from different colored grapes that project diverse flavors and are grown in differing climates and soils. That difference is reflected in the glass.
While pinot grigio is considered a simple wine perfect for a summer outing, chardonnay is complex. All it takes is a taste to illustrate the difference between creamy chardonnay and crisp pinot grigio. Knowing exactly why they taste so different helps you perfect your pairing choices.
Pinot Grigio's Grapes
Pinot grigio originally came from Italy, where it still thrives, but it is also a headlining California wine. This variety derives from a plump, red-skinned grape. The skin's acidity gives the wine a sharp, crisp bite. A dry wine, Pinot grigio has a tangy, citrus-like aroma. Pinot gris, a wine from the same grape but grown in a sunnier climate, has a fuller-bodied flavor with a richer aroma and more complex flavor profile, with hints of pear and apple.
The Making of Chardonnay
Vineyards in California, France, South Africa, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia commonly produce chardonnay, named for its thin, 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 growing 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.
Oak Makes the Difference
Most American chardonnays are aged in American oak barrels. The chemistry behind the making of the barrel is complicated, but just know that American oak infuses the ageing wine with a flavor that is buttery, creamy and the wine flowing over the tongue feels thicker in the mouth.
A French oak barrel, now being used by some American chardonnay producers, especially in the American Northwest, imparts a cleaner, silkier taste to the wine. If you're put off by the buttery taste of most American chardonnays, try one from Washington that's been aged in French oak. There IS a difference.
Pairing Pinot Grigio
The key to pairing brisk and light-bodied pinot grigio 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. Keep your pinot grigio in the refrigerator, then take it out about a half-hour before serving to allow the flavors and aroma to peak.
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 American-oak-barreled bottle.
If you have a mineral-toned chardonnay, one that has been aged in stainless steel, it pairs swimmingly with shellfish. The crispness of a French oak-barreled chardonnay heightens a vegetarian meal and even compliments the bearnaise sauce covering your steak.
Chill your chardonnay to about 50-55 Fahrenheit in a wine cabinet or for 1-2 hours in the refrigerator. Serve cool, not cold. You don't want to mask the flavor.
Dan combines his decade-long experience as a freelance writer and small business owner with hands-on experience in fashion, mixology, media production and more. Previously, he's published with Chron.com, Charlotte's Book, LIVESTRONG, Civilized Life, Hunker, Fortune, Salon.com, Out East Rose, Samsung, USA Today and others.