The word "Chardonnay" has become synonymous with
"white wine" here in California. People seem to buy virtually anything
labeled "Chardonnay", whether the wines actually taste like Chardonnay or not.
In fact, I often wonder whether the average bear can identify the
character of Chardonnay. This is because many wines produced in California are
subjected to so much oak, either in the form of real barrel aging or some sort of oak
"flavoring" (new staves being introduced into a barrel or tank or oak chips or
sawdust being added -- the laws don't require a winery to disclose this on the
label) that an unwooded Chardonnay doesn't "taste" like Chardonnay to Yogi or
Boo-Boo. Similarly, I have noticed that many tasters describe other white wines as
being "Chardonnay-like" when these are dominated by wood.
The Chardonnay grape was not treated like royalty until a few years ago. Old-timers
such as Inglenook, Christian Brothers, Beaulieu Vineyards and Charles Krug made simple dry
white wines of Chardonnay grapes. The Wente Brothers winery was thought to be at the
vanguard of Chardonnay production, making a fresh, non-oaked dry white wine. In those
days, Chardonnay was thought to be a relative of Pinot Noir and was routinely called
"Pinot Chardonnay." It is, as it turns out, not related, so it's now
called "just" Chardonnay.
first really important work in marrying oak with Chardonnay in the traditional style of
France's Burgundian winemakers started with the Hanzell winery in Sonoma. This was
back in 1957, when James Zellerbach imported French oak barrels for the aging and
maturation of his Hanzell wines. Wonder of wonders! Oak!!!
It's taken many years for winemakers to learn how to use oak in making wine. Some of
them use oak as a crutch, propping up weak, thin wines and overloading them with wood.
Others employ a combination of wood and residual sugar to give character to wines
which are malnourished, wimpy wines. Many of these are quite popular, even
"scoring" highly with those who claim expertise in judging wine.
McDonald's hamburgers are quite popular, too, but few would say those are the best
examples of beef on the planet.
We enjoy a nicely oaked Chardonnay---don't get me wrong. I have been
accused of liking the most woody tasting wines. I cite Napa Valley eno-scribe Bob
Thompson who once wrote something like "My parents marveled that, as a boy, I
ate the fruit and not the tree." He was poking fun at
those who prefer Chardonnays with so much wood that determining if the beverage was
actually made from grapes is impossible.
The Chardonnay grape finds its home in France's Burgundy region, though it also is
cultivated in Champagne. In Burgundy's Cote d'Or, the major appellations of
Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault account for the top wines, but
other villages turn out good wines, too. The best Cote d'Or producers barrel ferment
the juice, using, at least, a percentage of new oak cooperage. The wines are often
aged on the spent yeast and this sediment is stirred in barrel, contributing a toasty,
smoky element to the wines. As the juice tends to be rather high in acidity, most
winemakers induce a secondary fermentation (called a malolactic fermentation). This
reduces the acidity and makes the wine rounder, creamier and somewhat buttery in
California vintners make a full range of Chardonnays. At the low end you'll find
wines from the "hotter-than-hell" Central Valley where tonnage is high and the
intensity of character is low. On the higher end, you'll find wines from cooler,
coastal climes, from low-yielding vineyards which can be sublime. Some wineries make
light, crisp, "simple" Chardonnay, while others attempt to emulate the top wines
Some winemakers liken Chardonnay to a blank canvas. The character of the
Chardonnay grape is dependant upon its origins, clonal selection, soil type, exposure,
etc. The "seasonings" bestowed upon it during its maturation (oak,
secondary fermentation, etc.) further determine the character of the wine. Some old
clones of Chardonnay display a mildly appley note. Newer ones seem to have a more
Diversity and individuality are what make winetasting fun and challenging. Don't
fall into a rut! Be adventuresome and experiment with Chardonnays from
different regions and unknown producers.
Current BEST BUYS
- OLIVET LANE
"Reserve" Russian River CHARDONNAY
- List $25 SALE
- From an outstanding (and famous)
vineyard in the cool Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, this is a smooth, creamy,
vanillin Chardonnay which has been fermented in French oak.
The 2010 vintage is very fine. It's the seventh vintage, I think, produced in
the Pellegrini's own facility. Previously they've rented space at
other wineries and made their wine "on the road." Now they
have their own place and Bob Pellegrini credits this with the improvement in
"It's not any one particular thing," he explains. "It's
a lot of little details."
The juice is fermented in French oak. About one-third of the wood is
brand new, the rest being once used barrels and twice used cooperage.
A variety of yeasts are employed in an effort to build in more
complexity. There's a nice creamy note, some vanillin
and butter along with some toasty oak. It's bigger and richer
than its predecessors and is one impressive bottle of California Chardonnay.
Sebastiani family seems to have "gotten serious" about making some
good wines. And then they got out of town...sold the winery to an
insurance mogul who's been buying up wineries right and left. Foley is
the feller's name.
Here's a magnificent Sonoma County Chardonnay featuring wines from five
different appellations. The cooler climate regions of Carneros, Sonoma
Russian River have been barrel fermented and the have undergone a secondary,
malolactic fermentation which creates a mildly buttery, creamy
quality. The warmer climate Chardonnays from the Alexander Valley and
Sonoma Valley were fermented in stainless steel at cool temperatures to
retain as much of the aromatics as possible. That portion did not
undergo the secondary fermentation, retaining as much structure and
crispness as you can from these areas.
They blend in a drop of "other" varieties...Roussanne, Pinot Gris
and the UC Davis hybrid called Symphony.
The resulting blend is a delight, especially in its price category.
You'll find some vanillin notes and some nice oak. Remarkably good for
its ten buck sale price!
- Currently in stock: 2010 SEBASTIANI "Sonoma" CHARDONNAY
(List $13) SALE $9.99
family-operated winery flies well below the radar of most wine
drinkers. They don't make the flashiest wines and they're not a source
of push-the-envelope, over-the-top kind of grape growing. Over the
life span of this winery, we've had a half a dozen wines...
Their 2010 Sonoma Valley Chardonnay is a delight. They have
incorporated a number of clones of Chardonnay into this wine with the idea
of making a more complex wine. It's entirely barrel-fermented and has
undergone a full malolactic fermentation. There's nice oak here, but
it's not woody. We like the aromas and flavors of this mildly toasty,
lightly buttery and dry white. Stellar.
It's $20 at the winery.
Currently in stock: 2010 WELLINGTON Sonoma Valley CHARDONNAY
long been fans of Pedroncelli's single vineyard bottling from the Frank
Johnson vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley. This vineyard is
actually along the border of Dry Creek and Russian River appellations.
The Pedroncelli's have usually made a terrific wine from this fruit and each
vintage is seems to improve. We've noticed they're using less American
oak for the wine and they've increased the proportion of French barrels.
The 2012 is delicious...lots of ripe apple notes with a touch of a spice note. Dry, of course.
Currently in stock: 2012 PEDRONCELLI Dry Creek Valley "Frank
Johnson Vineyard" CHARDONNAY $12.99
Fritz was in the shipping business and he started a little winemaking
enterprise in the late 1970s.
They began with much fanfare and made some really good wines back in the
early days. Over the years they had some challenges and changes in
winemakers which didn't "help."
The past few years we've seen them get their sea legs back and a number of
their wines are quite impressive and they have attractive price tags.
The current Chardonnay is fairly big, with ripe fruit heading towards a hint
of pineapple, melon, ripe pear and then having plenty of oak so there's a
nicely oaky aspect.
We're able to offer the wine at a really nice price, too...
- Currently in stock: 2010 FRITZ Russian River Valley
CHARDONNAY Sale $15.99
VIU MANENT Gran Reserva CHARDONNAY $9.99
Chilean producer makes some remarkably good wines and as they don't have a
national marketing agent in the middle, their wines arrive here at sensible
California simply does not make this quality of Chardonnay for ten
bucks. The wines produced by large California "factories"
are typically made to the specifications of marketing gurus who ask for
sweet, fruity, low acid, etc.
This is dry, moderately acidic and it has a feature few inexpensive
California wines can match: It smells and tastes like Chardonnay!
Currently in stock: 2011 VIU MANENT Gran Reserva CHARDONNAY $9.99
Also: The Macon-Charnay of Manciat-Poncet is just $14.99. This is
a delicious bottle of wine. No oak to speak of, but there's really nice
And there's a new vintage of Gandines Macon that's stellar...less than $15, too.
WE TYPICALLY OFFER 5 or 6 CHARDONNAYS FOR SAMPLING IN OUR
- Wine Tasting Daily.