Chardonnay, perhaps more than any other wine from California, has seen a continued subtle shift in style over the past decade or so. Interestingly the shift parallels to a certain extent developments with Australian Shiraz that put the breaks on the growth of those wines. Simply put the most popular, and critically acclaimed style was one that favored power, richness, fruit and oak over other attributes. Producers fairly quickly realised that it doesn’t take that much to make a sweetly fruited, vanilla and butter laced Chardonnay and poof, in just a few years it became increasingly difficult to distinguish the $50 butter bombs for the $20 butter bombs.

Fortunately for consumers, the $20 butter bombs seem to have, for the most part won that battle but at the same time producers of fine Chardonnay in California, of which there are many, continued to improve their wines, trading in some of the in your face unctuosity for complexity, detail and balance. Now of course there had been wines of this caliber produced in California for decades, but what we are seeing today is growth in this market segment. Growth as producers respond to market forces that seem to indicate that this style of wine is continuing to become increasing popular with consumers, and growth based on an improvd and increasingly specific understanding of the various terroirs that Chardonnay is best suited to.The fact that the past several vintages have provided fruit that has in many cases shown a cooler climate profile has undoubtedly added to the success of these wines, but it certainly seems that the industry on the whole is riding a pendulum swing away from the peak of intensity. For me this is a surprising and revealing turn of events. Truth be told,  back in 2006 or 2007 the California Chardonnay tasting days when I was in retail were the least popular tasting days of the year among my co-workers. In many ways the wines really weren’t all that consistantly good, and some were downright painful to taste for folks with more old world palates. There remain both these wines and these palates out there but for the most part California Chardonnay, and particularly those in the $25 to $50 range have become decidedly more a story of terroir than winemaking, which for me, and those palates, is a positive development.

These are expensive wines, there’s no doubt about that and as such they need to deliver on the promise of their price tags. There are of course hits and misses but as a whole the misses are becoming fewer and the hits, well they just keep on coming. Over the past few months I’ve tasted a handful of top Chardonnay at this price point, and I was really struck by the wonderful Gary Farrell Russian River Selection which was superb with sauteed asparagus topped with a little feta, and priced very well indeed. The 2011 Stuhlmuller proved once again to be a remarkable wine at it’s $20 price point and one to seek out, and Topel also flies much under the radar but their two Mendocino Chardonnays should be better known.

So there it is, plenty of Chardonnay to really enjoy, which for me is saying something. At this time of year lobster is on the menu in the north east and some of these wines would be just the ticket for a lobster dinner. Consider ones that are a bit buttery and fruity for your simple steamed lobster served with drawn butter but my preference runs towards grilled lobsters seasoned with ginger/basil/chili oil and for that preparation a bright, zesty example imbued with the gingery spice of oak works remarkably well. If lobster is not in your future, Chardonnay works as a great foil for crayfish, shrimp, scallops or prawns as well!

2010 Gary Farrell Chardonnay Russian River Selection RRV 14.2% $30

Smokey and dry on the nose with a rather transparent quality that allow the wood to come through quite distinctly but it’s very fine wood, not sweet and toasty barrel, paired with gentle floral, butter and spice accents. Relatively rich on entry, this packs superb acids and opens with very ripe yet very fresh apple and almost honeydew melony fruit backed up well integrated wood spice that carries the wine onto the long, zesty notably vibrant and peach toned and spicy finish. This is really gorgeous today with a fine combination of power, vibrancy and depth, my only knock is that it does show a touch of heat on the long finish. 93pts

2011 Paul Hobbs Chardonnay Russian River Valley 14.2% $45

Toasty with  plenty of vanilla and spice notes helping to support clean  tea, almond, and beautiful floral aromas. Medium full on entry with a leesy richness, and a bit of sweetness from the oak, the midpalate here  shows good verve,full of  lemon rind and exotic citrussy fruit flavors framed with a bit of peppery spice. Retaining great focus in the mouth with its lean, firm structure, this is really vivid right through the , long tart finish that features nice minerality with a hint of ginger spice. 93pts

2011 Frank Family Chardonnay Reserve Lewis Vineyard Carneros 14.5% $60


Definite jump up in intensity on the nose over the base bottling here with rich aromas of and complexity, almond, peach, buttery croissant,  peach pie and pecan pie. Rich in the mouth, and downright powerful in fact, there’s lots of depth here to the rich suave fruit. Flavors lean towards the apricot end of the spectrum with framing notes of almonds and peach pie that helps to tighten up the long, gently spicy finish. This is large scaled but retains really fine balance that keeps the wine lively and refreshing.  Not my style but really well done. 93pts

2011 Stuhlmuller Chardonnay Alexander Valley 14.1% $25

With a nose slightly marked by barrel fermentation aromas this remains impressively dry and savory, filled with notes of  hay and lightly toasted oatmeal framing very pretty pear and crab apple fruit. With lovely purity and freshness on the palate, this combines super bright acids with lovely old wood textural notes yielding a wine that features  super ripe fruit that reveals the cool climate nature of the vintage with it’s tart pineapple, lime and and pear flavors. Just so clear and pure on the palate, this is California ripe but with etched structure, and a long, tense finish that gain a fine almond note on the finale. Very much in my wheelhouse!  93pts

2009 Topel Chardonnay Reserve Classique Mendocino 14.3% $35

Bright and high toned on the nose with a very fine overlay of oak, a hint of green tea and layers of marzipan, dried orange peel and sweet apple fruit. Bright acids appear on entry followed by a little buttered toast with green apple fruit that gains hints of apple butter, toasted hazelnut and lemon curd on the midpalate. This offers up a lovely mouthfeel, blending brightness with a light leesy richness yet remain fresh and precise through the moderately long finish. 92pts

2010 Topel Chardonnay Classique Mendocino 14.2% $40

Aromatically tight and narrow with a decidedly lemon oil nose that has a slightly floral almost lemon verbena top note. Tense in the mouth with almost a little Chablis character with a touch of stones on the midpalate contrasted against the core of fresh pineapple and lime fruit. There’s a touch of autolytic character on the back end followed by a long finish with excellent tension though perhaps a touch evolved with a hint of wood tannin and toast on the finale. 92pts

2010 La Crema Nine Barrel Chardonnay Russian River Valley 14.5% $70

Tight nose with early notes of well judged wood followed by tight apple and pear fruit, and a little sweet apple pie spice character. Opening with a nice edge of green apple snappiness that leads to a nicely focused mid-palate, this shows lots of white stone fruit and apple character laced with marshmallow and vanilla flavors. The finish shows good length with a suggestion of tannin and fine mineral and apple blossom accents. Deftly blending fruit and tension, this looks as though it should improve over the medium term. 92pts

2011 Patz & Hall Chardonnay Dutton Ranch RRV 14.2% $40

Bright and juicy on the nose with note of lime, peach, caramel and a hint of flint under the nutmeg  top notes. This is elegant and rich with lots of power but at the same time there is a lovely sense of transparency and lift to the palate. Rich with lightly toasty and honied orchard fruits, the deft use of oak here leaves only attractive framing notes supporting the fruit. The acidity is nicely integrated but firm, adding the needed backbone to help drive the mineral tinged flavors through the long, layered finish. 91pts

2011 La Crema Chardonnay Russian River Valley 14.5% $30

Tight on the nose with a decidedly leesy, floral aroma but then this is rather relaxed in the mouth, broad yet focused and transparent with  lots of lovely precise crisp apple, pear and apricot fruits. Turning rather crisp and mineral on the backend, this ends with a super clean finish that highlights layers of apple and citrus flavors followed by a hint of wood spice on the finale. 90pts

2011 Frank Family Chardonnay Napa Valley 14.2% $35

Bright on the nose and  a bit waxy with some banana aromas floating under the perfumey oak. Entering the mouth with strong lemon curd, melon and peach flavors in a soft, moderately creamy style that is broad in the mouth, this is silky and fairly rich, with lots of flavor but not overpowering weight. The midpalate shows a blip of tannin along with notes of ripe apples and almond butter leading to a nice, long, soft finish. 89pts

2011 Chappellet Chardonnay Napa Valley 14.5% $35

Smoky oak greets the nose along with bright base notes of slightly exotic white fruits but today this is dominated by notes of caramel and vanilla. Creamy on entry,and  medium full,bodied, yet a bit simple in the mouth; this offers up  nutty and vanilla flavors along with clear notes of tense citrus and pear flavors. Elegant and rather powerful if not particularly large scaled in the mouth, this needs time for the oak to better integrate. 89pts

2010 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay Napa Valley 14.1% $50


Very fragrant with an early note of lychee followed by very clear and pure fruit that shows notes of lemon verbena, crushed stone and orange tinged citrus fruits over a light base of oak spice and butter. Smooth and polished on entry, this quickly gains focus and shows off a bit of a steely edge to the mineral infused crisp apple and peach flavors on the palate. the oak is very well integrated and helps frame the fruit well adding a lightly spice on the backend. Besides a little bitter spice and a touch of warmth there is surprisingly little to be found on the finish. Perhaps that will come with a bit more age. 89pts

2011 Patz & Hall Chardonnay Hudson Vineyard Carneros, Napa Valley 13.7% $60

Tight and focused on the nose, this smells leesy with almond, floral and dried apple aromas over a base note of butcher’s wax, dried lemon peel and a hint of vanilla. Soft and rich on entry, this has honeycomb edges to the lush core of ripe apple and pineapple fruit. There’s a nice accent of wood spice adding additional complexity but the oak is very well managed. The acidity seems a bit low here, and while that certainly makes this smooth and easy to drink, it also makes it a bit loose and short with nothing to drive the creamy, almost butterscotch and toast driven flavors through the finish, though this does manage to stick to the palate a bit through sheer natural weight.  89ps

2010 La Crema Chardonnay Los Carneros 14.5%  $30


Sweet apple  fruit on the nose is paired with nicely judged oak that adds nuanced spice and toast aromas. This is full of  green apple flavor early on the palate in a  round and lush style  with good supporting acids, gaining flavors of nectarine and wood spice on the slightly creamy backend before returning to nice sweet apple butter flavors on the moderately long finish. 88pts

2011 Patz & Hall Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 14.2% $35


A bit buttery and floral on the nose with a top note of caramel, this seems a bit subdued with a powdered vanilla sugar quality on the nose along with subtle baked apple, cantaloupe melon and flint aromas.  This very much weighted towards the back of the palate in though mouth, almost as if it’s crawling along my tongue. It’s round, and smooth but it lacks a center and while it delivers a nice blend of spice and apple fruit that lingers on the moderately long finish this is bit of a one trick pony. Still it offers plenty of weight and richness in the mouth. 88pts