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
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 2013 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: 2013 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 2016 is delicious. The wine undergoes full malolactic fermentation
and it's creamy and mildly toasty...lots of ripe apple notes with a touch of a spice note. Dry, of course.
Post-Script: We stopped by the Pedroncelli winery
in February of 2017...having visited a number of other wineries on our
little tour, we had tasted a bunch of Chardonnays, all of them priced
between $40 and $75. Ridge Estate Chardonnay, at $50, was the best of
the tour, but Pedroncelli's Frank Johnson bottling was a winner, doubly so
given its modest price tag.
Currently in stock: 2016 PEDRONCELLI Dry Creek Valley "Frank
Johnson Vineyard" CHARDONNAY SALE $13.99
Fritz was in the shipping business, once upon a time, 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: 2013 FRITZ Russian River Valley
CHARDONNAY Sale $15.99
DREYER SONOMA 2015 Sonoma CHARDONNAY $10.99
Dreyer family have been in the wine business for several decades.
They have a good sense of what makes a quality wine and they're sensitive to
the price and value of a bottle of wine.
With so many new brands hitting the market at remarkably high and frequently
unjustified price levels, it's nice to find something locally-made from good
quality fruit and carrying an attractive price tag.
You can certainly find inexpensive white wines labeled "California
Chardonnay" and you can find some Central Coast wines with modest price
We routinely scout these wines and many are made for "mass market"
tastes (meaning fake oak and residual sugar).
The Dreyer family doesn't seek out that market. They cater to adult
palates and have a remarkably nice Chardonnay at a most attractive price.
The wine won't remind you of a profound $50-$100 bottle of Chardonnay from
Napa, Sonoma, Margaret River or France's C˘te d'Or.
It's made from Sonoma fruit, not Central Valley or Central Coast
grapes. The juice is fermented in French oak, with 25% of the
cooperage being new. As a result you'll get a hint of toastiness here,
but it's not lavishly-oaked.
There's a hint of ripe pear and a touch of wood in the background.
Currently in stock: DREYER SONOMA 2015 Sonoma County CHARDONNAY
Cellars is a smallish project featuring "value-priced" wines.
We find some $30 bottles to be "good value," while at the same
time finding some ten-buck bottles to be over-priced.
Simply because a wine carries a small price tag does not make it a good
We had a nice ten-buck bottling from a producer who suddenly escalated
("jacked up" being the technical term) its price to nearly
$15! So we went on a hunt for a replacement and tasted a bunch of
plonk before uncovering this one.
And, truth be told, this is a really attractive dry white wine, but it won't
remind you of an expensive Chassagne-Montrachet, nor will you find this to
be a suitable replacement for Sonoma's Kistler Chardonnay.
It's got a mildly citrusy note which, frankly, reminds us a bit of some
Sauvignon Blanc wines. The winery tech sheet claims it's 100%
Chardonnay. We did not see a signed, notarized affidavit, though.
Appley notes along with that mildly lemony/grapefruity character make for a
perfectly pleasant wine with a fair bit of charm, even if it's not
classically-styled White Burgundy.
Currently in stock: 2015 GRAYSON CELLARS California
CHARDONNAY $9.99 (case discounts, too)
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
Talmard's Macon is just $10.99...no oak...just good, simple dry white.
And from the Chablis producer Lamblin, we have a Bourgogne Blanc for $12.50
which is made in the style of crisp, dry, lightly flinty, stony Chablis.
WE TYPICALLY OFFER 5 or 6 CHARDONNAYS FOR SAMPLING IN OUR
- Wine Tasting Daily.