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Pinot Grigio vs Chardonnay: 2 of the most popular white wines, explained

These two wines can be nearly identical, or worlds apart.

Hands toasting with white wine
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Arguably, two of the most popular white wine varietals, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, are both exquisite wines with their own unique characteristics. Interestingly enough, depending on a few factors we’ll discuss here, these two wines can be nearly identical in their flavor profiles or worlds apart, with nothing but contrast between them. But how is that possible?

Pinot Grigio vs Chardonnay

Two glasses of white wine
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When Chardonnay is left unoaked, these two wines could quite often be mistaken for twin sisters. Both beautifully bright and charming, with pleasant notes of unripened fruit, wonderfully crisp and citrusy. Of course, there are differences, but they are subtle and really only distinguishable to a more experienced palate or when tasted side by side. Chardonnay can be slightly more robust next to Pinot Grigio’s leaner stature, but overall these wines are two peas in a pod.

The introduction of oak, however, (something that is only done to Chardonnay, and never Pinot Grigio) completely transforms these wines from sisters to foreigners in no time at all.

Flavor differences

Glass of white wine
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While similar in taste, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio do have their differences. To start, the wines come from two different grape varieties. Chardonnay is born from Chardonnay grapes, while Pinot Grigio comes from Pinot Gris grapes, a lighter-skinned mutation of the Pinot Noir grape.

Like all wines, both varietals are greatly impacted by their individual terroir, which includes their climate, the soil in which the grapes are grown, nuances in weather, and many more factors unique to their respective locations.

When grown in cooler climates, Chardonnay takes on flavors similar to Pinot Grigio and will become light, crisp, and lean with bright, young notes of green apple and pear. These Chardonnays usually come from places like Australia, Chile, and New Zealand.

When grown in warmer climates like South Africa and California, however, Chardonnay’s fruity notes become more tropical and jammy, with hints of stone fruit and pineapple. These Chardonnays tend to be much more complex in flavor and are often aged in oak for further dimension and interest.

While fruitier than Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio is the drier of the two wines. With a much higher acidity and fewer residual sugars, Pinot Grigio can drink much lighter and brighter than Chardonnay. Often boasting crisper notes of citrus like lemon, lime, and grapefruit, Pinot Grigio is the perfect summer wine.

Of course, terroir alone is not the only thing that affects a wine’s taste. The wine-making process itself has a great deal to do with developing a wine’s signature flavors. One of these processes is aging in oak barrels. While this process isn’t done in the making of Pinot Grigio, it is a very common practice for Chardonnay.

How does oak affect the flavor of Chardonnay?

When aged in oak barrels, wine, particularly Chardonnay, takes on a rich, buttery flavor and texture that’s infused with caramel-like, spicy notes. This is because of a process called “malolactic fermentation,” an organic breakdown that deepens and intensifies natural fruit flavors.

When aged in oak, Chardonnay takes on an entirely different flavor profile from that of Pinot Grigio, becoming soft and buttery instead of crisp and tart.

Alcohol content

Glass of white wine
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Chardonnay’s higher sugar levels make this varietal the more alcohol-heavy of these two wines. Fuller-bodied versions of Chardonnay can contain alcohol levels of up to 15%, so it’s important to serve and drink this wine responsibly.

Pinot Grigio, on the other hand, is far more safely sippable. Depending on the bottle, its ABV falls between 11 and 13.5%.

Food pairings

Person eating in restaurant with plate and white wine
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Both Pinot Grigio and unoaked Chardonnay are beautiful wines to pair with light, bright summertime dishes. Seafood and lighter pasta dishes, mild cheeses, and fruits are all excellent pairings for these crisp white wines.

Pinot Grigio

Because of its high acidity, Pinot Grigio pairs excellently with fatty fish like salmon or even deep-fried dishes like fish and chips. Its crispness can also cut through creamy and dense cheeses like feta and mozzarella. Pinot Grigio also stands up nicely to many tomato-based Italian dishes like pizza and pasta with marinara sauce.

Unoaked Chardonnay

Light and bright unoaked chardonnay pairs exceptionally well with shellfish like langoustines, clams, and mussels. This is also a great wine to enjoy with sushi or light, oil-based pasta dishes.

Oaked Chardonnay

Creamier and richer than Pinot Grigio, oaked Chardonnay is better suited for richer, savory, slightly spiced meals with herby sauces and accents. Its buttery notes are beautifully accented with warm spices like cinnamon and nutmeg—think warm apple pie. Buttery seafood like crab and lobster are also wonderful with a soft Chardonnay’s creamy flavors.

Lindsay Parrill
Lindsay is a graduate of California Culinary Academy, Le Cordon Bleu, San Francisco, from where she holds a degree in…
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