Wine, etc. : Admit it, you like a good Chardonnay. U.S. too.
We all love chardonnay. Can’t we just admit it? Chardonnay is the most popular grape variety planted in the United States and it accounts for about one in five bottles of wine sold in the United States, but somehow consumers don’t want to admit they like it because, well, it’s so common.
Winemakers love it too. They start from scratch, exploiting more outlets than those of other grape varieties. The choices explain why the styles range from austere to buttery, oaky to unoaked, rich to lean.
Despite denials that wine lovers prefer the lean style of French Chablis, they are buying “butterbombs”. Some producers even label their wines “buttery” to attract these amateurs. This character is achieved through a secondary fermentation process called malolic fermentation, which converts tart malo acids, like those found in apples, into lactic acids like those found in milk. Producers who choose to convert all of their wine to lactic acids generally get a richer, smoother wine. Others prefer more balance by adding sulfites to stop the process.
Roundness and smoothness are also enhanced by aging on lees or resting the wine on depleted yeast cells. These cells give the wine a yeasty and bready flavor, but also improve the mouthfeel.
Where the grapes are grown can also influence the personality of a chardonnay. Those grown in cool climates tend to be fresh and crisp with mineral, stone fruit and apple notes. These chardonnays made in warm climates, like the Russian River Valley, are rich and buttery with tropical fruit flavors.
Finally, the type of vessel used for fermentation and aging will have a profound impact on the personality of the chardonnay. A wine aged in French oak barrels, for example, will be more complex and more expensive because a barrel costs a winemaker more than $1,000. Unoaked wines are fermented in stainless steel or concrete vats. These wines are devoid of oak characteristics, such as vanilla and spice.
Prices vary enormously for this variety. First and perhaps most importantly, Napa Valley property is expensive, and the grapes there command a high price. It costs over $6,000 to plant an acre of vines in Napa. A chardonnay from, say, Lodi will be considerably cheaper. Additionally, Chardonnays from a specific vineyard are considerably more expensive than blends from multiple regions.
Here are 10 luxury California chardonnays to tempt your palate — and your wallet. Don’t worry: next week we will have Chardonnays from here and elsewhere.
Kosta Browne Bootlegger’s Hill Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2018 ($165). This luxurious wine challenges the current model of over-oaked, extracted, creamy Chardonnays that are popular in the Russian River Valley. Instead, this single-vineyard wine has good acidity, leanness but depth, and only moderate oak flavors. Fresh fruit character with notes of grapefruit, pear and citrus.
Chappellet Grower Collection El Novillero Chardonnay 2020 ($55). The vineyard for this wine is located on a windswept section of the rocky bench of Carneros. The wine has generous tropical fruit aromas and concentrated flavors of pineapple and spice. The entire wine undergoes malolactic fermentation to give it suppleness.
MacRostie La Clé Chardonnay 2019 ($70). Winemaker Heidi Bridenhagen sources grapes from top vineyards, such as Olivet Lane and Bacigalupi, to create this textured, complex and rich cuvée. Notes of pear and honey with a hint of citrus.
Cattleya Cuvée Number Five Chardonnay 2020 ($55). Now in her fifth year with her brand, Bibiana Gonzalez Rave continues to make extraordinary Chardonnays from the Sonoma Coast. Expressive aromas include ripe pears and Meyer lemon with a thread of salinity. Flavors are complex and rich with hints of apple and honeysuckle.
Calera Mont Harlan Chardonnay 2019 ($55). From a limestone-rich mountain vineyard, Calera offers a well-balanced, barrel-fermented Chardonnay. Aged 15 months in oak barrels – 30 percent French oak – it has flavors of vanilla but isn’t smothered in oak notes. Subtle aromas with flavors of white peach and citrus and a rich mouthfeel.
Buddy DuPratt Chardonnay 2018 ($55). This Californian producer makes a number of Chardonnays but this one from Anderson Valley is luxurious. It undergoes 100% barrel fermentation and malolic conversion, giving it oaky notes and a smooth mouthfeel. Apple and almond aromas with flavors of apple, citrus and minerals.
Darioush Napa Valley Chardonnay 2020 ($58). It is a full-bodied wine with juicy apple notes, a smooth mouthfeel, and hints of stone fruit and almonds.
Ram’s Gate Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay 2019 ($70). The Hyde Vineyard in Napa Valley graces the labels of many respected growers, so you know you’re in for something special when you see it. Using a blend of musk and Robert Young clones, this Carneros Chardonnay has a melon-scented nose and rich texture. It has undergone a complete malolactic fermentation. Flavors of tropical fruits and honey with a hint of spice.
Mira Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 ($95). Also from the Hyde vineyard, this big, full-bodied Chardonnay undergoes full malolactic fermentation and is aged on its lees for 24 mouthfuls to give it a rich, hedonistic mouthfeel. Complex, long on the finish and full of apple and peach flavors.
Lucia Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay 2020 ($50). We love what Jeff Pisoni does with chardonnay. Although best known for his pinot noir, the two chardonnays he makes have the right touch of oak. Notes of pear and peach make for a delicious sip. The Lucia Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay ($65) is even more complex.
Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($36). Reasonably priced, this youthful convertible has floral and grassy aromas with flavors of black cherry, red currant and olive.
FEL Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2020 ($42). Anderson Valley has been getting a lot of attention lately – this delicious, youthful Pinot Noir explains why. Succulent yet bright raspberry flavors with a hint of clove and red currant.
The Cabernet Sauvignon of the Keeper of the Mill ($35). The project of third-generation winemaker Tom Gamble, this wine draws inspiration from multiple vintages and aims to blend a blend of small, overlooked vineyards with the idea of preserving Napa Valley family farms. The name is inspired by the millers of the 1800s. Simple and delicious flavors of dark fruits with a hint of spice. Tom’s grandfather was growing crops in Napa Valley in 1916.
Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr have been writing a weekly wine column since 1985. See their blog at moreaboutwine.com. They can be reached at [email protected].