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California Chardonnay You’ll Want to Buy

There is a lot of angst in the media about California Chardonnay again. The controversy doesn’t seem to have affected sales much though. People still buy it by the gallon, sometimes literally. So, why all the hullabaloo?

There is plenty of good, expressive Chardonnay coming from California. However, you may have to search a bit for it. The best wines, which are not always expensive, may not be the ones on your local grocery store shelf. That is especially true if you don’t live in California. To help you find the good stuff, I’m providing a list of some of the ones I’ve enjoyed most over the last year. If you want to cut to the chase, or run to the store, just skip down to my recommendations at the end because the next few paragraphs will discuss some of the current controversy.

 

Many folks seem to want to find white Burgundy in California. That is just not going to happen very often. Why not? Well, it’s not because of a lack of distinctive soils or winemaking skill as the French might want you to believe. It’s the climate.

While many of the Chardonnay-based wines of Burgundy are distinguished from one another by uniqueness of terroir, especially soil, it is climate that creates the large divide between those wines and the ones produced in California. Burgundy sits at roughly 47 degrees of latitude, that’s even farther north than much of the wine growing areas of Washington State, let alone California (St. Helena’s latitude is about 38 degrees). And Chablis is farther north still. This means the winters are colder and longer and the growing season shorter. Beyond that, Burgundy sees a lot more rainfall and less sun than California (or Walla Walla for that matter.) The best parallel to Burgundy’s climate among U.S. wine regions is probably Oregon’s Willamette Valley. (An excellent resource on the georgraphy of wine is The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson.)

While there are some wine-growing regions of California that are cool enough to produce something that might be called Burgundian in style, such vineyards are small and mostly tucked away in remote coastal areas, leading prices to be fairly high. The parts of California set up to produce wines in the sub-$20 price bands are much warmer and produce riper fruit with less acidity. So, if you’re looking for Chardonnay that is all about green apple, four varieties of citrus and a box of rocks but only want to spend $15, you should indeed be looking to Burgundy.

It is also true that for too long many California winemakers thought the best way to show  their Chardonnay, which is a fairly neutral grape anyway, was to put the low-acid grapes through 100% malolactic fermentation and then cloak it with layers of new oak. Chardonnay seems to be an ideal carrier for oak flavors, but the reverse is not necessarily true. The grape’s own fruit flavors are often lost among the vanilla, cinnamon, butter, toast, banana, custard and smoke developed by this type of active winemaking. That is perfectly fine if you like the taste and texture, but Chardonnay itself is not the main attraction in such wines.

That being the case, there’s been a bit of a rebellion in the last few years. Some consumers have rejected oaky Chardonnay so strongly that “ABC” or “Anything but Chardonnay” has become their mantra. More moderate people reacted by seeking Chardonnay that is fermented in stainless and bottled without any oak aging. While that certainly eliminates the oak flavors and saves money as well, it is a simplistic approach and doesn’t always produce good wine either. In some cases, it just exposes unexceptional grapes for what they are. “Naked” doesn’t suit every Chardonnay grape any more than it does every person.

The ideal situation is one in which the grapes themselves have both ripeness and acidity. Then, they are treated in a way that highlights their best and most interesting characteristics while using tools such as ML, cold fermentation and oak to touch up, or completely hide, the less attractive aspects. This requires a good vineyard and vineyard management, focus on quality over volume, and a deft winemaker. But it is entirely achievable and there are a lot more wines that show this than one might suspect based on the current gnashing of teeth.

If there are many excellent California Chardonnays, why the outcry? I believe a lot of the problem actually lies with distribution. For one reason or another, a lot of the better examples of California Chardonnay are hard to find outside of California. Despite the fact that this state provides the vast majority of this country’s domestic wine, huge portions of that are made up by price and volume focused brands. Many out-of-state distributors still look primarily to Europe for their high-quality wines. The super-premium and luxury California wines that are carried tend to be famous, well-established brands. Those companies have a huge clientele that is used to oak and butter in Chardonnay and you will not see them changing styles any time soon.

To make matters worse, many states still don’t allow direct shipment of wine from out-of-state wineries or resellers. Part of the joy of wine is exploring new things. So, if you find a wine you really like during a wine country vacation, or get a good recommendation online, you still may not be able to get it. I think it’s a real shame that consumers’ choices are still being so limited by stodgy distribution and archaic laws.

Below are some of the wines that I think are among the best California has to offer at their price points, (listed from low-priced to -high). I hope that you are able to find them. Enjoy!

Wente, 2008 Morning Fog Chardonnay, $12.95 (less than $10 at Costco)

Wente is a high-volume producer, but they still manage to produce some very high-quality wine and are pretty consistent from year-to-year. This is predominantly based on grapes from the Livermore Valley, but 14% of the mix comes from Arroyo Seco in Monterey County.

Half of the grapes were fermented in French oak and aged sur lie for 7 months with monthly batonnage. The other half of the fruit was fermented in stainless but also aged sur lie for 7 months. This treatment allows the oak and lees to provide welcome complexity but prevents them from overwhelming the lovely fruit. Expect to taste lemon, apple, pear, peach and some tropical fruit as well. It’s a well-balanced wine that, at just 13.5% alcohol, makes a fine summer sipper but with a pH of 3.63 it’s definitely soft not tart.

2008 Luli Chardonnay, $20 (you can get the 2007 Luli for $14.99 at K&L Wines)

Recently named the best domestic Chardonnay under $20 by Food and Wine Magazine, it has a slightly lighter touch than the Morning Fog. The fruit is mostly from Santa Lucia Highlands, but there is a bit of Mendocino County in there too. On the winemaking side, handled by Jeff Pisoni, there is no malolactic fermentation at all and just 40% oak (French). The wine is aged sur lie.

With this wine, you get not just ripe tree fruit but plenty of lemon zest, floral notes and a bit of minerality. The mouthfeel is creamy.

2006 Fogdog Chardonnay, $39

Fogdog is the “value-oriented” label of Freestone Vineyards. I use quotation marks because, while the wines do offer excellent value, they are not inexpensive. All of the Chardonnay in this wine comes from Sonoma Coast. All of the juice is aged in French oak, but only 40% of the oak is new.

The cool climate bears fruit here, pardon the pun. The flavors and aromas are of crisp pear, almost ripe peach, and lemon. Great minerality shows through and the wood offers baking spice without oakiness. It’s soft, smooth and silky in the mouth. Despite its body and 14% alcohol, there is also distinct acidity.

Lynmar Estate 2006 La Serenite Chardonnay, $70

The majority of grapes for this wine came from the Sweeney Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. The wine was fermented in French oak, none of it new, and underwent 100% ML. It remained sur lie in the oak for 14 months but was racked to stainless some weeks prior to bottling for greater clarity.

The wine, made by Hugh Chappelle, is soft, smooth and long with a lot of complexity and just enough acid. There are citrus and stone fruits, toast and yeast, along with minerality.

2006 Freestone Chardonnay, $72

Another great effort from Freestone, this one steps up the oak just a bit. Made from 100% estate grown fruit (southern Sonoma Coast), it sat for 15 months in French oak, 70% of which was new.

This wine too has plenty of acidity despite the medium plus body. There are very nice stone fruit aromas and flavors along with some pear. However, this wine leads with minerality: chalk, gravel and steel.

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

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