Searching for Value in Chardonnay

It's surprising what $15 to $25 buys these days.


Chardonnay, oh Chardonnay. You really don’t have to be any better, do you? Back in the day when I lead staff tastings in retail we had Chardonnay tastings some four times a year. It’s the only time people would call in sick in order to opt out of staff tastings. The wines, at all price points, vary so much in style and quality that you were sure to be faced with a few wines that were, to your palate, god awful. And yet they mostly sold, to waiting fans.
Well, not much has changed in the world of Chardonnay, and if you need proof that there is at best a tenuous relationship between price and quality, well look no further.  Now this is not a hugely representative sampling of wines, I’ll give you that, but with Chardonnay what would be? There are certainly several thousand Chardonnays on retail shelves in this country so doing anything statistically significant would probably take the better part of a month. I’m not willing to make those sorts of commitments.
No, instead I’m comfortable with this small sampling and anecdotal evidence to support my thesis. And that thesis is that Chardonnay at this price point, $15 to $25 a bottle, is simply all over the place. Yes I found some lovely wines, all under $20 a bottle, but there were also duds, too many duds. Not bad wines mind you, just underwhelming, and at this price point your wines should not be underwhelming. At least not in the way I am using the word. To be sure the Schug, with it’s purity and delicacy, will prove underwhelming to some. But, it is undoubtedly delicious. And then there are surprises like the $15 wine from Franciscan.  Why can’t all these wines approach this quality? 
Well, that’s because I’m tasting these wines and I have a specific set of criteria that I asses wine against. You might have a similar or very different set of preferences and prejudices that you use to asses the quality of a wine. Sometimes we’ll overlap and love the same wine. Othertimes we’ll look at each other and wonder what is wrong with the other’s palate.  It’s the way this wonderfully subjective world of wine works. Almost every wine finds its audience. I can say whether I like them or not, and occasionally I can say that a wine is actually bad, but let’s not lose sight of what wine reviews are. They are a statement of preference above all, and it appears my preference is not for too many Chardonnays today! Maybe I’m the one who should have called in sick back in the day.
Truth be told there is a lot to like here and the fact that this group was a bit weak makes the standouts stand out that much more. The top nine wines really are worthy of you attention, and they represent a range of styles, a bit narrow perhaps, but they would make for fun tasting for any group of Chardonnay aficionados. The Franciscan is a great value and is easily available. I highly recommend you try a bottle.

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Top Chardonnay $15 to $25 tasted 3/14

Hill Smith Estate Eden Valley Chardonnay (2011)
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Franciscan Estate Chardonnay (2012)
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Schug Sonoma Coast Chardonnay (2012)
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Davis Bynum River West Vineyard Chardonnay (2011)
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Santa Barbara Winery Chardonnay (2011)
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La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay (2012)
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Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay (2012)
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The Heggies Chardonnay Heggies Vineyard Eden Valley Australia (2011)
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