Consumers often say one thing and do another. For instance, they say they like their dry wines but they are drinking them sweet. They just don’t know it. The same goes for chardonnay. They say they prefer something else, but they are drinking chardonnay. Either that or a few people are drinking a lot of chardonnay.
Chardonnay is the top selling varietal wine in the United States and sales are rising every year. In fact, one out of 5 bottles of wine purchased in 2016 was chardonnay. Admit it, you like chardonnay.
We do. There is no better wine to complement fish and it goes with chicken, white-sauced pasta, soups, and more. It’s one of three grape varietals that go into champagne. It is the varietal that brings us those minerally wines of Chablis. And, it’s the varietal that is used exclusively in expensive French burgundies. There is no other white grape that can claim this global recognition.
Unfortunately, chardonnay has been twisted by fads and adventurous winemakers looking for distinction. Instead of using burgundies as a model, they have corrupted the variety by making it sweet, extracted or over-oaked. Its distortion in California has sent consumers to safer varietals.
In California, chardonnay varies from appellation to appellation. In Carneros, for instance, chardonnay is lighter in body with strong acidity and apple and pear notes. The chardonnays of the vast Central Coast take on tropical fruit flavors, such as pineapple, mango and banana. The Russian River Valley produces chardonnays with a flinty characteristic. These variations in climate and soil and not experiments in wine-making is what should distinguish good chardonnay.
In this country, the pioneer of chardonnay was Ernest Wente who in 1912 persuaded his father to import chardonnay cuttings from Burgundy to plant in Livermore Valley. Today, 80 percent of California’s chardonnays stem from the Wente clone. Its wines, now being made by a 5th generation Wente, are still some of the best values in chardonnay.
Chardonnay’s texture is most influenced by something called “malolactic fermentation” where a winemaker converts tart malo acid to softer lactic acid. The degree to which MLF is used dictates the creaminess of the wine. Similarly, an oak barrel can add a ton of flavors – vanilla, clove, cinnamon, spice, and coconut – to chardonnay. Like MLF, winemakers used a varying degree of oak fermentation to create the styles they want.
This is where the craziness happens.
We’ve noticed more restraint in oak exposure in today’s chardonnays. Instead of those lush, flabby chardonnays of the 1990s, current chardonnays are more balanced and some have no oak exposure. These wines are much more food friendly.
Cupcake Vineyards makes two chardonnays to help consumers decide which style they like. The 2017 Cupcake Monterey County Chardonnay ($13) is more restrained with brighter acidity than the rich and lush Butterkissed Chardonnay ($13).
One particular producer who is making premium-level chardonnay is Stonestreet Estate. It’s two vineyard-designated chardonnays from Bear Point Vineyard and Upper Barn Vineyard are world-class wines. Stonestreet sources its estate grapes from Black Mountain where vineyards range from 400 to 2,400 feet in elevation and contain 20 distinct soil types.
Here are several chardonnays that demonstrate the range of styles California has to offer:
Long Meadow Ranch Winery Anderson Valley Chardonnay 2016 ($40). Neutral French oak is used to mature most of this balanced chardonnay. Floral and citrus aromas with pear flavors and long finish.
- Ponzi Vineyard Chardonnay Reserve 2014 ($42). The Dijon clones and the Laurelwood soil must have an influence on one of the most unique chardonnays we’ve tasted in a long time. We loved the complexity and apple/citrus flavors of this delicious and well-balanced chardonnay.
- Mi Sueno Winery Los Carneros Chardonnay 2016 ($42). This is one of the most unique chardonnays we’ve tasted in a long time. Reflective of its soil and climate, it shows off exotic citrus aromas and follows up with lush pineapple, tangerine and lemon custard flavors with a good dose of oak and coconut. Full bodied and long in the finish. Delicious.
Stonestreet Estate Bear Point Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 ($60). With grapes grown 1,000 feet high, this single-vineyard chardonnay has a broad, rich palate with tropical fruit and lemon flavors, spice, oak-infused butterscotch and a long, supple finish.
- Raeburn Winery Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2017 ($20). The daily fog off the Pacific Ocean cools grapes in this valley every evening. About 75 percent of this wine undergoes malolactic fermentation and about half goes into new French and Hungarian oak barrels. Vanilla, toasted and crème brulee are the results in this otherwise pear and apple dominated palate.
- Four Vines “The Form” Edna Valley Chardonnay 2017 ($18). About half of the wine is fermented in French oak barrels and that portion is stirred twice a month to create more complexity and lush mouthfeel.
- Sea Smoke Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay 2016 ($48). “Sea smoke” is the fog that cools the grapes in this chardonnay from Santa Barbara County. The 2016 is very elegant, much like a burgundy, with purity and tropical fruit, citrus flavors. Excellent.
Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2016 ($45). We love the rich texture and complexity of this delicious and well-balanced chardonnay made from estate-grown grapes. Citrus and almond aromas with apple flavors and soft mouthfeel.
- Patz and Hall Chardonnay Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley 2016 ($49). Patz and Hall produce a number of single vineyard chardonnay’s and pinot noir that almost never disappoint. This is another winner that reflects the pedigree of the Dutton Ranch vineyard with peach and melon elements wrapped in a creamy oak vanillin robe.
- Steele Durell Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay 2017 ($36). Using grapes from the northern end of Carneros, Steele has a terrific, well balanced chardonnay with orange zest aromas. Pear and tropical fruit flavors. Aged 12 months in oak barrels, it has hints of vanilla and caramel.
- Amici Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2015 ($21). The quality of this wine exceeds its price point. Very textured with layers of apple and pear notes, a dash of citrus and oak. Good balance.
- Ryder Estate Chardonnay Central Coast 2016 ($15). This pleasant chardonnay is produced in a very easy to drink consumer friendly style. Tropical fruit and citrus notes dominate this quaffable wine.
- Carmel Road Unoaked Chardonnay 2017 ($22). Unoaked chardonnays are being found in greater numbers because enough consumers have been turned off by the vanilla and butterscotch flavors that come from oak barrels. Like similar unoaked wines, this Carmel Road is a better match with delicate foods, such as fish. From Monterey, the wine offers bright acidity and stone fruit flavors.