8:06 PM on a Thursday night:
Just shy of 6 months preggo with our second, I dream and dream and dream of a full, proper “local’s pour” of crisp, bright Chardonnay. I can even hear it unfurl into clean stemware right now! Selfishly, we have this cellar across the creek calling my name. And no matter how you cut it, my damned Cucumber tea is NOT the same thing as Chardonnay.
To brag, we have one of the finest, most fabulous Chardonnays in both Valleys. Crisp, bright, surging with white fruit, and barrel fermented with just a hint of oak. We make the kind of wine we as red-wine-lovers want to drink. You can do that when you hand-make your wine in small batches. And when you wear cowgirl boots to work and sling wine out of an old redwood barn! But when you’re a wine label known specifically for your reds and you go on to tackle the Queen of all white grapes, respect and care must be taken at every turn in the winemaking process not to over oak your beautiful juice.
Chardonnay is a robust, magnificent grape. Superb, majestic, statuesque and all female. Born from the tight Burgundy hillsides eons ago, Chardonnay flourishes especially well in the warm sunny microclimates in California. I, for one, am a fan of ‘less expensive’ Chardonnays — the crisper, brighter Chards that don’t often fare well in the heavy handed palate of America’s wine critiques. Which suits me and my pocketbook just fine. Had I followed “90 pointers” and not explored my own palate over the last 5 years, I wouldn’t know that I favor more elegant, medium- to light-bodied wines that go well with what I am cooking.
By “cheaper” Chardonnays, I mean usually less than $30 a bottle with a cellared $55 bottle for a special occasion. Unless you won’t bat an eye, forget the $70-$125 bottles. People buy those usually when they haven’t done their homework. Be proactive! Conscientious, safe, proactive drinking is a good thing! It is how you learn.
To get down to brass tacks, I like Chardonnays grown in a cooler, more coastal zone that is pressed from the skins and stems immediately (see picture below) and fermented in a mixture of steel and neutral French oak with subsequent barrel aging and only partial ML. In English, grapes coming in from cooler vineyards tend to produce more fruit-driven wines with a healthy dose of minerality and sandy shale. Fermenting their juices without the skins in steel and neutral oak lifts up the fruit and mineral elements over any resulting butter or vanilla notes. Grapes from the Napa Valley or equally warm regions show (after production) too much vanilla and butter for me. But every single person, tongue, nose, and mouth is different. Yet this butter quality is a key entrance point for wine drinkers across America — like whole milk and vanilla extract, its a mouthfeel and familiar flavor newcomers to wine feel comfortable with. As winemakers today, I am grateful to all visitors who started with a buttery Chardonnay and now are taking the next steps to learn about their palates and explore different types of Chardonnay.
Unfortunately, Chardonnay have been bastardized for decades into some butter-ball in a glass. Luckily, we as an industry are seriously trending away from that but for years huge Wine houses produced Chardonnays for supermarket shelves across the country, cut corners in production, and mixed in sugars, syrups, and additives to simulate fine wines. And the result is SOOOO fattening. Think of anything less than $20 anywhere as pouring fast food into your glass every night. You may as well self-smear cellulite on while you’re at it. These same houses also paid some cellar rat to don a Hazmat suit and add oak dust to ginormous tanks of fermenting grape juice. The gunk is filtered out later after fermentation and chemically creates that “oaky mouthfeel” in the finished wine. It fakes that buttery quality that expensive ‘buttery Chardonnays’ get from extensive barrel fermentation and aging. Oak dust additives also gives those of us with sulfite sensitivies a nasty headache. And in my case, makes me a bitch.
Here in California, we are lucky. There are more than 850 different, federally recognized Wineries selling Chardonnay. Most of them sell more than one option too. In fact, more than 1/3 of all grapes grown in this Golden State are Chardonnay. She’s a lovely muse to be sure and grape growers must work harder to coax vineyards to yield large crops every year. Naturally, Chardonnay as a vine is more restrained than say Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling. As a result, grape tonnage will be more expensive than other white varietals — hence a bigger price tag starting off. And she loves French oak. When Chardonnay spends time in French Oak barrels, the wood amplifies the grape’s natural vanilla, citrus, and white fruit characteristics, creating a more spectacular wine. (Which is why big houses cut corner to fake this. It tastes good.) But for fine wine artisans, like Dean and myself, cutting those corners demonizes a lengthy, creative waltz we’ve been honored to learn from leaders today and lessons learned from generations past.
Since some of you know I’m a wine writer here in Wine Country, I try A LOT of Chardonnays. But when it comes to my home and my glass, I drink and buy what I love. My exceedingly short and steady list of favorites is:
- 2010 Annadel Estate Chardonnay ($34) http://annadelestatewinery.com
- Schug Carneros Estate Chardonnays — all three are perfection ($22-55) http://shop.schugwinery.com
- Hafner Chardonnays — both are superb and I am an actual member of their Wine Club! (mid $20-30s) http://www.hafnervineyard.com/
- Deerfield Ranch Winery Chardonnay — the right amount of butter! ($35) http://deerfieldranch.com
- Idle Cellars Chardonnay — Two strong boys created one of the more lovely and lyrical Chardonnays anywhere in the Valley! http://idlecellars.com ($20)
- MacRostie Chardonnay from Wildcat Mountain Vineyards — bright and bountiful http://www.macrostiewinery.com ($35)
- Haywood Estate Chardonnay — the Los Chamizal Vineyards source for our Chardonnay and Deerfield’s. He knows his soil and vines surely! http://haywoodwinery.com
I’d also recommend Lynmar Chardonnay for a killer Russian River Valley selection if their Tasting Room staff wasn’t so unpleasant!
Out of FIVE YEARS of conscientious, proactive drinking and learning, I give you my short list. Happy and safe drinking!