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Review: Eight California Chardonnays for Less than $10 per Bottle

Yesterday, Eva filled you in on a super-bargain in California Chardonnay. That was the 2008 Quail Creek Cellars Chardonnay selling at Whole Foods for $3.99 a bottle. But, that wasn’t the only sub-$10 Chardonnay we tried. Nor was it the best.

Today, I’ll give you a breakdown of the full tasting with all the results. And I’ll let you know what our favorite wine was.

 

For our evaluation we purchased all of the wine ourselves. We shopped at two stores, Whole Foods and Costco. (Perhaps we’ll do a similar tasting in the future based on Safeway and Lucky.) We set a target price of $10 or less per 750ml bottle and bought every Chardonnay we saw in that price point that was likely to have been made from Northern California or Central Valley fruit. We didn’t do any cherry picking. Variation in vintage was based solely on in-store availability. In the end, we had eight wines to evaluate.

We chilled all the wines to the same temperature and opened them at the same time. We did not taste the wines blind. However, we did taste the lineup randomly back and forth and then again in mixed order so tasting order is not a factor. In the end, we both tasted each wine at least three times. We tasted the wines by themselves, not paired with any food.

Here’s a full list of the wines we tried, in alphabetical order, along with their purchase location and price:

365 (Whole Foods Market store brand) 2006 Paul Valmer California Chardonnay purchased at Whole Foods for $5.99

Cameron Hughes 2006 Rockridge Cellars California Chardonnay 1.5 liter bottle from Costco for $7.99.

Clos du Bois 2007 North Coast Chardonnay from Costco for $7.99.

Full Circle 2007 California Chardonnay from Whole Foods for $8.99

Kirkland Signature (Costco store brand) 2007 Cask IV Napa Valley Chardonnay from Costco for $8.99.

Quail Creek Cellars 2008 California Chardonnay from Whole Foods for $3.99.

Robert Mondavi 2007 Woodbridge California Chardonnay from Costco for $8.99 for 1.5 liters.

Wente Vineyards 2007 Estate Grown Morning Fog Livermore Valley Chardonnay from Costco for $8.99.

Now, on to the details for each:

The 365 Paul Valmer is vinted and bottled by Paso Robles Wine Co. in San Miguel, California. There was no other indication about the origin of the fruit. The alcohol is listed as 12.5%. This wine had aromas of pear and a subdued flavor of pear and apple. It had good body and crispness but was actually a bit too acidic, especially on the finish, for my taste. Overall, it was uninspiring but would be a relief to people desperate for something other than oak and butter. It would probably go better with some food to temper the acidity. Creamy cheeses would be a good choice.

The Cameron Hughes Rockridge came in a 1.5 liter bottle, as did the Woodbridge with which it cleverly rhymes. Not an accident I suspect. And, at $7.99 for the magnum, it’s $1.00 less than the Mondavi as well. Again, there’s no indication of from where in California the fruit was sourced. It was cellared and bottled by Cameron Hughes in Ukiah and the alcohol is listed as 13.8%. This is a wine for fans of “traditional” California Chardonnay. There’s plenty of oak influence (wood, vanilla and toast) as well as a soft, buttery aspect from what I assume to have been thorough malolactic fermentation. It’s reasonably full-bodied, though not as much as the Woodbridge. It has enough fruit to be acceptable and goes down easily, though it’s somewhat bitter on the finish.

The Clos du Bois was cellared and bottled in Geyserville. It’s alcohol is 13.5%. This is a full bodied wine that is very mild in both aroma and flavor. There’s some pale stone fruit with acidity and alcoholic heat.

The Full Circle was not specific as to the geographical origin of the fruit. However, the label stipulates that the wine is made from organically grown grapes and that both the winery and grapes are certified by the California Certified Organic Farmers. The wine was produced and bottled by Stonybrook Vineyards in Hopland. The alcohol is 13.5%. This wine sparked the greatest disagreement. I found it generally well-balanced, though emphasizing acidity, and thought it’s aromas  and flavors of apple, pear, pineapple, and citrus interesting. Eva perceived less pleasant aromas and was not fond of the wine.

The Kirkland Signature wine was vinted and bottled by Wine World Estates in Napa and is a DC Flynt MW Selections project. The DC Flynt MW site indicates that the 2006 vintage was 100% Napa fruit and I assume the 2007 was as well though there are no details on 2007 on the site. Fermentation for the 2006 was 33% in stainless steel with the remainder in small 1 - 2 year old French and American oak barrels with light to medium plus toast. The alcohol for the 2007 is labeled as 13.8%. Another “traditional” California Chardonnay, this wine mixes equal measures of fruit (pear and stone fruit) with oak and then tosses in a dollop of butter. It’s acceptable in that respect but not terribly interesting and will be too oaky for some.

The Mondavi Woodbridge is 13.5% alcohol. There are actually very complete winemaker’s notes on this wine available at the Woodbridge Wines site. That’s very nice and the suggested food pairings are spot on. The fruit is 64% Lodi AVA, 15% near-Lodi AVA and the remainder from elsewhere in California. Just 77% of the fruit was actually Chardonnay. The remainder is a blend of Semillon, Muscat and Sauvignon Blanc in undisclosed percentages. This wine offered a fruity aroma, full body and a flavor that is fairly simple if served a bit too cold but develops some nuances just a bit warmer. I definitely get a bit of perfumed fruit that probably comes from the Muscat. And, the wine is not at all heavily oaked so the fruit that does exist is not overwhelmed.

The Wente Morning Fog also weighs in at 13.5% alcohol. The fruit is from Wente estate vineyards in Livermore and the wine was made and bottled in that locale as well. This is also a fairly full-bodied wine and does show oak though it is milder in both respects than its more expensive sibling, the Riva Ranch from Arroyo Seco in Monterey. The initial aroma is of a lemony fruit creme. Despite the oak, it’s delicate and nuanced, offering a complex range of fruit flavors. We know from past experience that this wine pairs well with a wide range of dishes, especially salads, risottos and seafood. A salad that mixes in dungeness crab and some fresh fruit with a slightly lemony dressing would be perfect.

Summary:

The winner on both of our scorecards, and by a substantial margin, is the Wente Vineyards 2007 Estate Grown Morning Fog. This is a wine that we could happily drink every day and not feel deprived. It’s comfort Chardonnay with enough acidity to be food friendly and enough complexity to make you want to actually think about the wine. That can’t be said for any of the other wines we tried in this category. Frankly, if this wine sold for three times it’s Costco price we wouldn’t blink. (Wente lists the retail price of the wine at $12.95, so the Costco price is a great deal.)

I think the 2nd best wine was the Full Circle 2007 California Chardonnay. And that is without giving it the extra points it deserves for being both organic and the only wine in the bunch with a screwcap. (The likelihood of a corked wine is even higher at low price points with their budget corks. Why risk it?) I found it fresh and interesting. However, you’ll want to sample it before you buy multiples. A few of it’s notes may be off key to some palates.

The Quail Creek Cellars 2008 California Chardonnay ranked 3rd on my list and 2nd on Eva’s. We thought this wine was also worth 3x the price. But, whereas that multiple would put the Wente Morning Fog close to $30, the Quail Creek would barely rise above $10. It’s a great value relative to the other six wines in the survey, but is simply not in the same class as the Wente Morning Fog. That said, if $5 is an important incremental cost for you, the Quail is your bird.

As for the rest of the wines, none are badly made or significantly flawed. Nor are they very engaging. And none of them have labels with any particular prestige value. If you are looking for the oaky, buttery experience, the Cameron Hughes 2006 Rockridge California Chardonnay is probably your best choice for both value and flavor. It’s the kind of wine many people have grown comfortable with and it’s hard to beat the price.

If you’re among those who rebel against oak and butter, and price is really a factor, your best choice is the Robert Mondavi Woodbridge 2007 California Chardonnay.

Top Wine:

Wente Vineyards 2007 Estate Grown Morning Fog Livermore Valley Chardonnay

Best of the Rest:

Quail Creek Cellars 2008 California Chardonnay

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2009 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.