With yesterday’s official beginning of summer, it's about time I take a look at some of the white wines we will all be reaching for over the coming months. I know it’s really easy to harsh on Chardonnay, everyone does it -- yours truly included -- but the truth is there's plenty of excellent Chardonnay floating around in today’s market. Some of it even comes from California!
California’s winemakers are just now beginning to understand the terroirs where Chardonnay excels, and they have begun to adapt winemaking techniques to the terroir, and not vice versa. For years many in California were committed to producing Chardonnay via Burgundian methods; let’s face it, white Burgundy was, and continues to be, the benchmark for Chardonnay.
The problem is that Chardonnay grown in the warmth of California (and even cooler climates of California should, for the most part, be considered pretty warm) tend to produce fat, buttery, rich wines -- especially when techniques such as barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation, and lees stirring are part of one’s winemaking routine.
While there is a place for this style of Chardonnay, more and more of us are moving towards something crisper, brighter, and more food-friendly. This latest batch of samples shows that not only is this the trend with California Chards, among both the new and old guard, but we can also see that newer regions are fighting for the mantle Queen of California Chardonnay!
Chardonnay is America's most popular grape and with good reason. Made in styles that range from steely and mineral laced with crisp green apple fruit to wines that are buttery, rich, and laden with tropical fruits, there is a Chardonnay that will appeal to every palate. Chardonnay is most closely associated with France's Burgundy region and California's Northern valleys though it has proven successful around the globe.
Yeasty and bright on the nose with notes of seashells and salty minerals backed up by a hint of licorice. This is subtle and seductively complex on the nose. There’s very well-judged wood here, in balance with the fruit and allowing the bright core of mineral to shine through. Whoa, this is explosive up front with real purity to the ripe fruit that has excellent verve and near-perfect richness. Clear and vibrant with lime-laced orchard fruit that yields to cutting acids on the backend, this is wonderfully refreshing and sappy with great mineral follow through on the moderately long finish. It’s a bit hot on the finish, but a great bottle of Chardonnay. A wine to buy! 93pts
2007 Alma Rosa El Jabali Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay 14.1%
This is really intensely aromatic with huge floral tones, soft citrus fruits and subtle hazelnutty oak and a touch of fresh fig. On the palate this is medium lightweight with lovely mineral cut and bright acids that really make the fresh, orange, and peach fruit pop. With a really fresh and dynamic palate profile this refreshes the mouth and invites another sip. The fruit is very pure, and the winemaking seemingly incidental. A lovely wine that finishes with energy and great length. I am tempted to just enjoy this on its own but pairing it with a chicken and morel dish would be even better! 93pts
2008 Longoria Cuvve Diana Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay 14.5%
This starts out with a rich doughy note over layered mineral and wood spice tones with light white orchard fruit. One the palate this is really zesty and fresh with wonderfully rendered lime and pineapple fruit on a sleek frame. It's richly flavored yet not fat at all, really pure expression of fruit read more...in the mouth. There is a touch of wood spice and tannin on the backend which grows through the long, elegant finish but it is totally in balance with the rest of the wine. Really beautiful wine. 93pts
2008 Costa de Oro Reserva Dorada Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley, Estate Gold Coast Vineyard 14.5%
Oak, pineapple and figs with notes of white pepper, ginger, and vanilla greet the nose. This has a mouth-filling feeling with real richness that is kept in check by bright, cleansing acids. There’s a nice orange rind tone to the ripe peach and baked apple fruit on the mid-palate that extends through the long finish with gentle toast and mineral accents. This is pretty appealing with sneaky complexity and excellent freshness. 92pts
2008 Gainey Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay 13.9%
This has an attractive almost spearminty edge to the ripe apple and peach fruit tones. With air it shows a bit more sweetness and a light toasty edge. On entry this is firm and focused with deep flavors of pineapple, ripe peach, and lightly pastry tones. This is quite well balanced with gentle richness but not a ton of weight and it certainly is not heavy in the mouth. A really nicely expressive Chardonnay with real depth to the fruit flavors, and a long, refreshing finish that ends with a touch of spice. I would love to pair this with veal, maybe with mushrooms and cream. Good Value! 91pts
2008 Pali Wine Company Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard Chardonnay 14.5%
Lightly spicy on the nose with a layered feel that balances the sweet, earthy tone of barrel aging against crisp fruit. On entry this comes off as rather lightweight, if a touch creamy, but the core of crisp, apply and lightly mineral fruit slowly asserts itself. On the backend this really comes together showing excellent focus and layered notes of gentle wood spice, rich citrus and orchard fruits, and a crisp vein of minerality. The finish is a bit short but with nice notes of fruit and a hint of butter cream. A nicely assertive style that would pair perfectly with grilled shellfish. 91pts
2008 Domaines Leflaive Macon- Verze 12.5%
This has lovely notes of dried lavender, hot stones, almond milk, a touch of tea, and gentle citrus fruits all coming together on the nose. Tightly coiled up front this is sinewy and ready to burst with rich citrus fruit tones over an almost salty bed of rocks. Crisp and yet a bit chewy at the same time with gentle notes of really crisp fruit alternating with hints of a soft, buttery, nutty, dried pork fat tones that is washed away on the moderately long finish by pure and refreshing citrus fruits. Delicious but quite young, this deserves a bit of time in the cellar to soften just a touch and gain some breadth but for those looking for a focused, zesty bottle tonight I say – go for it! Serve it with a simply roasted pork loin. 91pts
2008 Patz & Hall Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 14.2%
Lightly spicy, chalky, with a touch of caramel and a floral note of balsam and perfume. On entry this is rich but with good, tense focus. There’s nicely integrated wood running through the core of this very ripe fruit, but it’s playing second fiddle. The finish is really succulent with deep, ripe fruit character that melds together orchard and citrus fruits on a long, slightly caramelly finish. A rich pure style perfect for a roast veal roast. 90pts.
2008 Benziger Family Carneros Chardonnay Sangiacomo Vineyard 14.1%
This starts off quite floral in the glass with light toast and spice tones backed up layers of vanilla, pollen, a touch of honeycomb, apricot and kiwi fruits. Enters the mouth with really piercing freshness and then expands on the palate with soft, creamy yellow fruits balancing modest notes of vanilla and wood spice. The backend shows more citrus and orange tones that lead to a long, fairly luxurious, butter tinged finish. This is complex, balanced and elegant and ready for lobster! 90pts
2008 Girard Russian River Valley Chardonnay 13.9%
Preserved lemons, honeycomb, and sandy soil tones greet the nose followed by notes of anise seed and burnt sugar. On entry this is moderately rich, in a fairly creamy style yet balanced with integrated acidity and a lush character. There’s lots of depth to the fruit, with ripe peach and apple tones that lead to a gently spiced backend. The finish shows a bit more nutty wood, but with a soft richness to the fruit. This is elegant and while in a creamy style shows excellent restraint. A fine match for simply prepared game birds or classic roast turkey, for that matter. 90pts
2007 Domaine Serene Cote Sud Vineyard Dundee Hills Chardonnay 13.9%
This shows off some rich clay soil tones right off the bat, and then adds notes of soft, barrel aged wood tones to the soft core of dried peach and apple fruit. On entry it shows good acid, but also a rather soft, expansive gently toasty, nutty core of fruit. The mid-palate is slightly hollow with plenty of toasty wood tones supporting modest, vanilla-tinged, green apple and pineapple fruits. The finish really shows great length with a nice layered feel and good, emerging complexity. At its core it’s a soft, subtle wine, with an edge of delicacy to it making it a good match for a simple herb and lemon-scented roast chicken. 90pts
2007 Faiveley Clos Rochette Mercurey 13%
White flowers, blanched almonds, sweet tropical fruit and white currants slowly fill the glass with a rich, balanced perfume. The wine shows terrific tension between sweet white currant and almost strawberry toned fruit and cutting, yet very well balanced acids. There’s a nice mineral, quartzy note that runs over the top of the fruit, and leads to clean, brisk finish that gives this a fine, racy quality. The finish is long and minerally with wonderful fresh fruit and floral inner mouth perfumes. Not super complex but absolutely lovely. This is so focused and precise that it really needs a simple, pure counterpoint. Oysters might work very well, but a rich, white fish like halibut in lemon cream would be a great pairing. 90pts
2008 Franciscan Estate Napa Valley Chardonnay 13.5%
A bit toasty, smoky, and spicy on the nose with underlying notes of dried orchard fruits. On entry this shows good balance for a rather big boned style of Chardonnay. The fruit is marked by wood spice and vanilla but is rich enough and deep enough to keep things balanced. There’s some interesting licorice spice notes across the palate and a buttery edge that extends through the moderately long finish. This is rich and powerful, suitable for pairing with a fairly rich, highly seasoned dish, perhaps some with an Asian bent to the seasoning. 89pts
2007 Handley Estate Vineyard Anderson Valley Chardonnay 13.5%
This has on off-putting bit of egginess right up front, a bit reminiscent of the Tomago sweet egg omelet used in sushi! It’s a bit sweet with a powdered sugar and vanilla tone over perfumed pineapple and pear fruit. The entry shows a bit of that same sweetness with soft acids offering gentle support to the silky, bright, citrus and unripe apricot toned fruit. This has an earthy, leesy tone on the mid-palate that firms up on the back end but lacks a bit of fruit to help cover everything else. A lighter styled wine well suited to simple chicken dishes, something with spinach would probably work well here. 88pts
2008 Biltmore Reserve Napa Valley Chardonnay 14.7%
This offers up sweet fruits on the nose with a tropical fruit, banana and lime edge that recalls fruit stripes gum with a bit of raw wood underlay. On the palate it shows more of the sweet fruit in much the same vein with plenty of vanilla and subtle, sweet wood spice tones. It’s round and generously styled but without much detail or complexity and turns a touch hollow on the short finish that highlights the woody spice. 87pts
2008 Le Faux Frog Chardonnay Vin de Pays DOC 13%
This has a slight green, almost vegetal note that recalls green apple skins and adds some complexity to the bright orchard fruits of the nose. On the palate this is silky and finely textured with lovely purity to the fruit. As on the nose, the flavors tend to the white peach, apple end of the spectrum with a refreshing squirt of limy acidity bringing up the rear. The finish is very apply and refreshing with good length, ending on a steely bit of apple seed spice and white floral tones. A focused style of Chardonnay that would be perfect with shellfish, raw or simply prepared. 87pts
2008 Saintsbury Carneros Chardonnay 13.5%
Lemony fruit and lightly buttery, toasty oak greet the nose. On entry this shows big acids that offer up a great spine on which to drape the lightly buttery, creamy citrus, peach, and pear fruits. The wine is spiced yet fresh with a nice middle of the road style and weight. It finishes a bit short and with a bit of sticky wood on the finale but is a fine, typical Chardonnay. Its roundness might make it work well with moderately spicy south American dishes. Find some fish tacos! 87pts
2009 Kenwood Sonoma County Chardonnay 13.5%
Quintessential California Chardonnay on the nose with apple and pineapple over softly spicy, buttery oak tones. On the palate this has a gentle sweetness adding depth to the slightly simple white orchard fruit and pineapple fruit. It’s soft and round on the mid-palate and fades gently, if a bit quickly, on the bright finish. A good value in an easy to drink style suitable for enjoying on its own or paired with simple fare, like a curried chicken pita sandwich. 86pts
2008 Toad Hollow Unoaked Chardonnay Francine’s Selection Mendocino 13.9%
Very pretty and pure aromas of slightly chalky fruit on the nose with a slight hint of leesy spice. This is moderately rich on the palate with very bright acids supporting apple, lime and pineapple toned fruit that has just a slightly spiced edge and creamy lees texture. The wine is smooth, and moderately intense on the palate in a friendly, uncomplicated style that features noticeable impact from the lees. A bit simple but well suited for pairing with something like a grilled fish sandwich, or maybe Portobello burgers. 86pts
2009 Mezzacorona Chardonnay Vigneti delle Dolomiti 13%
Lemon blossoms and honied almonds dominate the nose which shows a touch of ashy, herby soil as well as a bit of sweet, dried apricot fruit. Nicely focused on entry with sweet peach and apricot fruit up front. It’s really a fruit driven style with a round mid-palate that is hinting at sweetness. This shows a gentle herbal quality on the backend that leads onto the slightly stiff, minerally finish making this a solid match for a pesto and cream pasta dish. 85pts
2009 Esser California Chardonnay 13.5%
This smells like fruit salad, full of peach, pineapple, even some cherry in a very fruity style. On the palate this is surprisingly bright, if a bit simple, with distinct notes of vanilla and pineapple fruit in a medium weight style. The finish is short but clean and balances the ripe fruit against bright acidity. A clean style well suited to simple preparations of white fish. 84pts
2008 Dancing Bull California Chardonnay 13.5%
Intense orange notes on the nose with Viognier like honeysuckle and peach on the nose. This is pretty bright and sweet with tangerine and cream fruit tones on the mid-palate and candied tones to the tropical fruit notes on the backend. The finish is a bit sweet and toasty with a touch of coconut. 84pts
2009 Feudo Arancio Stemmari Chardonnay Sicily 13.5%
This shows some nice, slightly spicy floral tones tight off the bat followed by sweet orange blossom and peach tones with an aromatic fennel seed top note. On the palate there is a lot of the same sweet orange toned fruit that is found on the nose with bright acids and just a touch of polleny, fennely almost honied spice drifting across the palate and leading to a modest finish. A nice wine that is distinctive if a bit simple and short. 83pts
It's Time to Take Notice of Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay2007 Alma Rosa El Jabali Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay
This is really intensely aromatic with huge floral tones, soft citrus fruits and subtle hazelnutty oak and a touch of fresh fig. On the palate, this is medium lightweight with lovely mineral cut, and bright acids that really make the fresh, orange, and peach fruit pop.
2008 Gainey Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay
On entry this is firm and focused with deep flavors of pineapple, ripe peach, and lightly pastry tones. A really nicely expressive Chardonnay with real depth to the fruit flavors, and a long, refreshing finish that ends with a touch of spice.