I’ll be honest with you. I don’t drink a lot of chardonnay. The California versions have always been too oaky and creamy for my palate. And the white burgundies, which I love, are most often too expensive.
While price is always going to be an issue in burgundy, style can change quickly in California. So this year, as the holidays rapidly approach, I thought I’d take some time to revisit California chardonnay and see what chard producers there are up to these days.
I was not at all surprised at what I discovered. While there are still many producers turning out chardonnays that double as oak-dominated tropical fruit bombs in need of a knife and folk to consume, many bottlings I tried were lovely-rife with crisp tree fruit aromas and flavors and brimming with palate-cleansing acidity. They are great food wines, and many would be right at home on our Thanksgiving dinner table.
I tasted three chards that fit that bill to a tee: the Mer Soleil Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay, the Qupe Santa Barbara Chardonnay, and the Baldacci Family Vineyards Carneros Napa Valley Chardonnay.
A fourth bottling, the Harken Chardonnay, was specifically crafted to the “old school” style of California Chardonnay, 100 percent barrel and maloactic fermented wine. It is the polar opposite of the style of chardonnay I prefer, but it you like a rich, creamy mouthfeel, the Harken Chardonnay is the wine for you.
And quite honestly, with a buttery turkey and some equally thick stuffing, I’m sure the Harken Chard would nicely fit into the Thanksgiving food landscape. I also tried the Unfiltered Blonde Chardonnay, which was pleasant with less obvious oak and vanilla and a bit more acidity. At $15, the Unfiltered Blonde is a good middle-of-the-road wine pick.
Now let me take a few minutes to talk about the California chardonnays I really enjoyed. I’ll start with the Baldacci Sorelle Carneros Napa Valley, which was both a new wine and winery for me.
I learned that Baldacci was a family-run winery with the second generation of family members now involved in the day-to-day operations. In these days of corporate wineries, I appreciate that. I also appreciate the balance shown in their Carneros Chardonnay, a wine that is silky smooth on the palate and loaded with bright acidity on the finish. Sorelle is the Italian word for sisters, and founder Tom Baldacci has three. The Tuscan side of me likes that too.
Another winner, in my opinion, is the Mer Soleil Reserve Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay. Mer Soleil is part of the Wagner Family of Wine, so its DNA is never in doubt. I particularly like the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation, which is found in Monterey County.
The AVA consistently turns out very good pinot noir, and as I discovered, some pretty tasty chardonnays as well. The Mer Soleil Chard is intense, complex and balanced, and that’s pretty much a trifecta for an excellent bottle of wine. The wine goes through maloactic fermentation, so it definitely has a creamy and rich mouthfeel. But the Mer Soleil Reserve is buttressed by terrific acidity, which balances the wine and makes drinking it an absolute joy!
Lastly, I’ll turn my attention to a winery that’s been a favorite of mine for at least 25 years — Qupe. I’ve met and tasted with Qupe founder Bob Lindquist many times over the years, and his wines have never failed to impress. The fact that Lindquist strikes me as a generally nice and humble guy makes the wines even better. At $20, the Qupe Santa Barbara Chardonnay might be the best value of the bunch.
Qupe’s Chard strikes me as a cross between the richness and ripeness of California and the lower alcohol and freshness of French chardonnay. Some of the grapes are picked younger, which keeps the alcohol in check and raises the wine’s acidity. The wine is fleshed out with richness and weight from grapes harvested later in the year. It’s a winning formula and a lovely wine that I personally will be opening come Thanksgiving. Cheers!
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.