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Chardonnay is America's most popular white wine, having edged out white Zinfandel within the last few years. It's so popular that the term "Chardonnay" has almost become synonymous with white wine when ordering wine by the glass at a tavern. More than 80,000 acres are planted to the varietal in California alone, far more than any other winegrape, and wineries are churning out vast quantities to satisfy demand. The good news for Chardonnay-loving consumers is that there is a wide range of styles and prices from which to choose, with well-made imports from Chile and Australia, as well as the south of France, broadening out the basic market for Chardonnay in the under-$10 price bracket.
Over the last several months, the Vintners Club panel has evaluated dozens of Chardonnays, mostly from California. Overall, quality was perceived as good, with the high-end stuff justifying its price point, for the most part. Three of these tastings are particularly interesting -- the Chardonnay Taste-Off, a tasting of vineyard-designated wines and an all-Mendocino Chardonnay tasting. For this column, we'll look at the top wines from each of these tastings. In each category of wine descriptions (first-place wines, second-place wines, etc.), the wine from the Chardonnay Taste-Off will be the first one discussed, followed by the vineyard-designated wine and then the Mendocino Chardonnay.
The taste-off brought back the top three wines from four preceding elimination tastings for a best-of-the-best competition. Sonoma County had the most wines in the finals with six, followed by Napa with three, Santa Barbara County with two and a single entry from Australia. This was the first time in memory that the South Central Coast had so few wines in a taste-off, but this was offset by the fact that a Chardonnay from that growing area walked off with the honors.
When a winery puts a specific vineyard name on the label of its Chardonnay, the implication is that the wine in the bottle is something special -- that it is an expression of a certain terroir. The French term "terroir" is not easy to explain in a few words. Suffice it to say that it is the interplay of a vineyard site's soil, subsoil, microclimate, exposure, elevation, drainage and the like on the varietal planted there and its resulting wine. The consumer will usually pay more for such wines compared to non-vineyard-designated Chardonnays, and usually they will exhibit an extra dimension of distinction and style in terms of flavors and aromas.
A previous Vintner's Choice column discussed the many facets of Chardonnay from California's most northerly growing region, which is composed basically of the cool, marine-influenced Anderson Valley and the warmer, inland growing area to the east around Hopland and Ukiah. Except when the winemaking is really cranked up, such as the use of new French oak barrels, full malolactic fermentation and the like, Mendocino Chardonnays are comparatively "smaller" than Chardonnays from most other California appellations, show a slightly higher acidity, offer appealing, spicy, apple- and pear-like flavors and aromas and pair very well with the country-style, down-to-earth cuisine of the region.
FIRST PLACE WINES
1995 Byron Chardonnay Reserve, Santa Barbara County ($24)
Fragrant, complex nose of ripe, juicy, tropical fruit plus creamy citrus and pear, enhanced by toasty oak, freshly baked bread scents from batonage treatment, a hint of honey, vanilla and warm spice. Rich, creamy, luscious and smooth in the mouth with deep, concentrated flavors that replicate the nose. A superb wine in every way and a terrific bargain at $24. 3800 cases produced. A wine worth a search.
1996 Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, Camelot Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley ($20)
Displaying all the characteristics of superior South Central Coast Chardonnay, the wine's fragrant nose offers tropical fruit, ripe peach and tangerine-like citrus mingled with a note of honey. Round, creamy and luscious on the palate with lots of ripe citrus and tropical fruit, the wine is on the soft side, with adequate acidity.
1995 Steele Chardonnay, Dennison Vineyard, Anderson Valley ($22)
Fresh and fruity scents of bright, lemony citrus and green apple, typical of Anderson Valley, lead to similar flavors on the palate, accented by warm spice. A delicious, well-balanced Chardonnay with good acidity.
SECOND PLACE WINES
1994 Villa Mt. Eden Chardonnay, Grand Reserve, Napa Valley ($16)
Forward, appealing, buttery nose of lemony citrus, burnished honeycomb, toasty oak and vanilla. Rich and creamy in the mouth offering complex, oak-tinged flavors of citrus and tropical fruit, honey and toast. A nicely integrated Chardonnay that has both weight and balance.
1995 Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, Paradise Vineyard, Arroyo Seco ($20)
Arroyo Seco is an odd-shaped sub-appellation of Monterey County, located just south of Soledad, where the soils contain plenty of gravel and pebbles from an ancient riverbed that once existed in this area. This wine from the Paradise Vineyard is made in the full-blown style, which emphasizes lots of new French oak and malolactic fermentation, plus long lees contact, resulting in a Chardonnay that smells expensive. Oak char, smoke and creamy citrus in the nose, accented by a vineyard fingerprint of minerals and melon. Smooth and round with spicy, well-defined, citrus flavors that incorporate orange zest, this succulent wine exhibits excellent balance.
1996 Navarro Chardonnay, Premiere Reserve, Anderson Valley ($17)
Wonderfully different and appealing scents of quince, lemon-lime citrus and minerals are replicated on the palate, where excellent acidity drives the flavors with attention-grabbing intensity, and the effects of malolactic fermentation keep the wine from being angular. A superb example of Anderson Valley Chardonnay. Navarro Vineyard's wines are available primarily winery direct. Call (800) 537-9463 for the newsletter with the current releases.
1994 La Crema Chardonnay Reserve, Sonoma County ($23)
A tiny note of sulfur blows off with a few minutes of airing to reveal a pleasant, lemony nose enhanced by notes of honeysuckle and mild grassiness. Clean and bright on the palate with deep, lemon citrus fruit tinged by anise and shy grassiness, the wine is both brawny and balanced, with fine acidity. It would pair very well with chicken in a tarragon-infused sauce.
1995 Jekel Chardonnay, Gravelstone Vineyard, Arroyo Seco ($15)
Very pleasant, appealing, complex nose of grapefruit and lime citrus, apricot, green apple, toasty oak and creamy vanilla custard. Moderately rich and quite distinctive, this well-made Chardonnay offers delicious, fruity flavors of citrus and green apples, plus clove spice, buoyed by good acidity.
1996 Fetzer Chardonnay, Barrel Select, Mendocino ($11)
Forward, spicy, creamy lemon scents lead to fresh, clean, fruit-driven flavors that resemble ripe pears and citrus and have good depth and concentration. Smooth and delicious, and a terrific bargain at $11.
1995 Venezia Chardonnay, Beaterra Vineyard, Alexander Valley ($20)
Made by the folks at Geyser Peak Winery, this impressive Chardonnay offers a ripe, fruity nose of lemons and apples tinged by vanilla and a hint of oak. Deep, fruity, slightly honeyed flavors of ripe pear and peach are enhanced by bright acidity. Very nicely done in a style that really emphasizes the excellent fruit.
1995 Belvedere Chardonnay, Jimtown Ranch Vineyard, Alexander Valley ($12)
Pleasant aromas of peach and citrus mingle with restrained oak. Full bodied and rich with good acidity, the flavors focus on creamy citrus, passion fruit, mango, green papaya and spice. Slightly hot in the finish.
1995 Saint Gregory Chardonnay, Mendocino ($15)
A complex and delicious wine, the Saint Gregory Chardonnay is immediately appealing for its aromas of green apple, pear and peach enhanced by minerals. Smooth, rich and moderately unctuous, the wine's complex flavors replicate the nose, with a hint of warm spice in the long finish.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.