Chardonnay — no grape on the planet is so revered and so reviled at the same time.
I have friends who drink so much chardonnay you’d think it was the only white grape used in winemaking. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s the ABC folks — wine lovers who will drink Anything But Chardonnay. Then there are those (and I know many) who refuse to drink chardonnay unless it comes from its home region of Burgundy, France.
I love white burgundies. In fact, those emanating from Chablis are among my favorite wines, white or red, in the world! But not to acknowledge the delicious chardonnays being produced by New World winemakers seems to me to be folly.
In honor of National Chardonnay Day, celebrated on May 25, I thought I’d take a few minutes to explore the range of flavors and aromas surrounding chardonnay. In particular, California chardonnay.
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I tasted quite a few chardonnays before writing this article. I know. I know. It’s hard work, but someone has to do it! What follows are my totally subjective thoughts on the wines I enjoyed the most.
Let me start with Eric’s Chardonnay from Wente in California’s Livermore Valley. This bottling was a new discovery for me, though I’m certainly familiar with the wines and history of Wente. Much of that history centers on chardonnay.
Ernest and Herman Wente, using grapes from imported chardonnay cuttings from France, produced the first varietally — labeled chardonnay in 1936! Today, California grows almost 100,000 acres of chardonnay, and 80 percent of that comes from the Wente clone.
So this family, now in its fifth generation of winemaking, knows a thing or two about chardonnay. Wente’s Eric’s Chardonnay is unoaked. It’s loaded with fruit ranging from lemon zest on the tart end of the spectrum to pineapple on the sweeter side.
But what brings all of those flavors together is the wine’s balance — the relationship between the fruit and acidity. It’s what makes Eric’s Chardonnay so tasty and so good with food.
If you prefer your chards in a richer style, you can always turn to Beringer’s Private Reserve Chardonnay. Made famous in an oak-driven, opulent style by longtime Beringer winemaker Ed Sbragia, current versions of the wine are still rich and ripe, but less overtly oaky.
Now made by Mark Beringer, great-great-grandson of Beringer Vineyards’ founding brother Jacob Beringer, Beringer’s Private Reserve Chardonnay is a layered and elegant wine delivering pleasure well beyond its price tag. It has been compared to a premier or grand cru white burgundy, and though that thinking generally does no favors to either burgundies or New World chards, I can’t say that I disagree.
For years, decades really, the Carneros region in the southern end of Napa and Sonoma counties, has been heralded as one of the premier places to grow chardonnay.
My tastings of Carneros chardonnays have not always borne that out. But this I can say, the Etude Carneros Estate Chardonnay is a winner. With bright and concentrated fruit flavors and aromas and a solid core of minerality, Etude’s Carneros Chard is a focused and balanced wine that I would be pleased to have on my dinner table or out on the back deck with friends.
Across the valley at Stags' Leap, a winery whose reputation was built on cabernet sauvignon, you’ll find a chardonnay that is just my cup of tea!
The non-malolactic Stags' Leap Chardonnay bristles with citrus and tart apple aromas that follow through on the palate. Called “Chablis-like” by one publication (their words, not mine), this is a crisp and refreshing chardonnay that packs a ton of complexity into a tightly wound package.
This was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of all the Chardonnays I sampled. Also from Napa comes The Hess Collection Chardonnay. Hess’ Chard comes from a single vineyard, Su’skol, which is located in one of the coolest areas of the valley.
The climate comes through in the wine, which is tightly wound and dominated by citrus and pear flavors and aromas. The Hess Napa Valley Chardonnay is a delicious, balanced, age-worthy wine.
Not far from Hess, as the crow flies, you will find the excellent Sonoma producer Landmark Vineyards. Landmark started off as a chardonnay specialist before delving into Pinot Noir. Not surprising, its Overlook Chardonnay remains a consistent winner.
Harvesting more than 40 individual lots of chardonnay for month than a month, this is definitely a winemaker’s chardonnay. Deftly walking the line between oak and fruit, Landmark’s Overlook Chardonnay starts off with citrus notes before ending with a creamy richness. This wine is a crowd pleaser.
Scott Family Estate is a new producer for me. I tasted two chards from Scott, one from Arroyo Seco, a sub-appellation of the Monterey AVA, and the winery’s Carneros bottling. I enjoyed them both, but they are quite different in style, weight, flavors, and aromas. I guess if I had to chose between the two, I’d lean toward the Carneros Chardonnay, which emphasizes the fresh fruit of the grapes a bit more while dialing back some on the oak and maloactic fermentation. Still, given the right dish, like a creamy pasta, Scott’s Aroyo Seco Chard might be just the ticket!
For my last two chardonnay picks, I head north to Mendocino County. Cooler climes, especially when you get closer to the Pacific, make Mendocino a great place to grow Chardonnay. I like many Mendocino County chards, but for this tasting, the Moniker and Sketchbook Chardonnays stood out for both their quality and value.
At $20 retail, the Moniker chard is more focused and complex with pear and apple flavors and crisp minerality. But the Sketchbook Chardonnay, costing $16, is a crowd pleaser, generous in its ripe, tropical fruit flavors and aromas. I’d pop this baby open on the back deck then serve the Moniker with my herb-rubbed chicken off the grill!
California chardonnay — it’s a whole new ballgame. Happy Chardonnay Day everyone!
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.