is an ideal wine to pair with many grilled foods. For one thing, it’s immensely popular—I have friends who prefer it to anything else. It is also extremely versatile, with the best examples having not only the acidity to cut through the grease and char that one expects from a lot of grilled foods, but also a richness that helps it stand up even to heavier meats such as pork and lamb. Rounding out its grill-versatility, it’s also the perfect accompaniment to grilled fish, chicken, octopus and vegetables.
The following are my 15 top suggestions, based on over 1,000 recent vintage Chardonnays tasted. These beautiful Chards can all be found for less than $50 and hail from cooler regions of California and Australia, as well as France’s Chablis
All of the wines on this list are minerally and possess good acidity, a key to pairing with grilled foods. Many of them, especially from cool climate vineyards in Santa Barbara County and the Sonoma Coast, are regularly swept by ocean breezes, exhibiting a salinity that makes them wonderfully food-friendly.
The rankings below are based first on my score. For those wines all ranked, for example, 92+ points, I’ve listed the lower-priced wines first. As you’ll see, there a lot of relative bargains on this list, as low as $20 for an excellent Chablis from a great vintage, and $23 for one of Australia’s tastiest Chards!
1. Sandhi Wines
Sandhi is Sanskrit for “collaboration.” Its partners are famed sommelier Rajat Paar, winemaker Sashi Moorman, and investor Charles Banks. They make some terrific, minerally Chardonnays from cool climate locations, using limited amounts of new oak—20 to 25 percent for 11 months. The wines are left on their lees, but the lees are not stirred. (The 2011 Santa Barbara Chardonnay is listed #9 below.)
Light to medium lemon yellow color; saline, tart lemon, tart pear, Chablis-like nose; a little tight, tart lemon, mineral, Chablis-like, lightly saline palate with medium acidity and firm structure; should age very well; medium-plus finish. 13.5% alcohol; 25% new oak. 93+ points
Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts make a slew of great wines, many of which, like this one, are also good values. This one is sourced from 30 year-old vines in a cool climate location in the Trout Gulch district of the Santa Cruz Mountains. This pairs great with anything grilled.
Very light, cloudy lemon yellow color; ripe lemon, lightly saline, vanilla, Puligny-Montrachet-like nose; tasty, rich but poised, tart lemon, mineral, saline palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish. 93 points
3. Domaine William Fèvre
Domaine William Fèvre owns substantial parcels in some of Chablis’ greatest vineyards, like top Premier Cru site Montée de Tonnerre. They regularly make some of the finest Chablis. The wines are now made by Didier Séquier. 2010 is a great, cooler, high acid vintage for Chablis.
4. Tyler Winery
Justin Willett, owner/winemaker of Tyler Winery, worked as assistant winemaker to Joe Davis at Arcadian until 2007. He started this label in 2005. The focus is solely on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from select sites throughout Santa Barbara County. Justin seeks out older vines, picks early and uses new oak sparingly (no more than 20 percent).
Lightly cloudy lemon yellow color; poached pear, hazelnut nose; tasty, rich, ripe pear, ripe lemon, pear cream, and mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (from block planted in 1973). 93 points
Twin brothers Jim and Bob Varner make wines from vineyards they planted in a cool Santa Cruz Mountains location starting back in 1980. The early Chard vines they planted are own rooted, i.e., not grafted onto phylloxera-resistant hybrid rootstock. The winemaking is very gentle, and the results are elegant and tasty with very good acidity. This is one of three single vineyard Chards they make.
Light lemon yellow color; appealing, mineral, tart lemon nose; tasty, poised, ripe lemon, mineral palate; medium-plus finish. 93 points
Light yellow color; focused, salt air, tart pear, tart apple, brioche nose; tight, lightly oily textured, tart pear, tart apple, reduction palate; needs 2-plus years; medium-plus finish. 92+ points
6. Domaine Séguinot-Bordet
Jean-François Bordet is the current president of the Chablis Wine Board. He took over making wine from his family’s 14 hectares of vineyards from his grandfather, Daniel Séguinot, in 1998. This old vine bottling from the terrific 2010 vintage is a great value.
Light yellow color; lively, tart apple, pear, tart lemon nose; tasty, crisp, precise, tart lemon, tart pear, mineral palate showing salinity and medium acidity; medium-plus finish (from vines averaging 65 years old). 92+ points
7. Vasse Felix
This winery was founded with the planting of an eight-acre vineyard in 1967 in a cool region at the extreme southwestern tip of Australia—a cape surrounded by ocean on three sides. Virginia Willcock, the chief winemaker since 2006, was named Gourmet Traveller WINE Australian Winemaker of the Year in 2012. This is a terrific value with a lot of richness, making it an excellent foil for a range of grilled meats.
Light yellow color; hazelnut, toasted coconut nose; tasty, rich, oily textured, hazelnut, tart lemon, toasted coconut palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points
The Melvilles, Ron and sons Brent and Chad, farm 139 acres of vines they planted in Santa Rita Hills’ cool climate. The winemaker is Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton. Their Chardonnays are complex and minerally, exhibiting some of the salinity one gets from this appellation, which is exposed to constant ocean breezes. That salinity coupled with their acidity makes them delightful with grilled vegetables, seafood and chicken. The wines also age beautifully.
Light medium lemon yellow color; intriguing, tart lemon, ripe lime, tart pineapple nose; tasty, rich but balanced, tart lemon, quince, mineral, saline, briny palate; medium-plus finish. 14% alcohol. 92+ points
9. Sandhi Wines
See summary of this project under #1 above.
Light yellow color; appealing, ripe pear, ripe lemon, light hazelnut nose; tart lemon, mineral, lightly saline palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish. 92+ points
10. Au Bon Climat
Jim Clendenen, winemaker/proprietor of Au Bon Climat, has been one of the leading figures in the Santa Barbara County wine world for decades. This Chardonnay from older vines at the Bien Nacido Vineyard in cool climate Santa Maria Valley is extremely food-friendly.
Light yellow color; appealing, butter-poached pear, saline nose; tasty, tight, tart pear, mineral, saline, iodine, light hazelnut palate with good acidity; needs 2 to 3 years; medium-plus finish. 92+ points
Gavin Chanin launched this label in 2007 at the age of 21. He started as a cellar rat at Au Bon Climat and Qupé, the wineries where he’s now assistant winemaker. He has sought out older vineyards with particular soils in the Santa Barbara area, and picks his Chardonnay earlier than others in the area. He then ages them in largely neutral barrels for about 14 months.
Light canary yellow color; tart lemon, vanilla, lemon drop nose; tasty, rich, lemon drop, tart lemon palate; medium-plus finish. 92+ points
Light lemon yellow color with 1 millimeter clear meniscus; ripe pear, ripe lemon, pineapple, French oak nose; French oak on entry that should integrate in 2 years or so, tart pear, tart lemon, mineral, ripe grapefruit palate with medium acidity; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish. 13.9% alcohol. 92+ points
12. La Follette
This is the eponymous label of Gary La Follette, who came to fame as winemaker at Flowers in the late 1990s. Greg, who holds a masters in food science and technology from UC Davis, is also very much a scientist, and has consulted for many wineries in California and abroad. For this project he seeks out vineyards from cool climate sites in Sonoma County.
Light lemon yellow color; floral, apple, vanilla, ripe pear, applesauce nose; tasty, tart pear, tart lemon, applesauce, lemon gelee palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish. Ten months in French oak sur lie; mainly old Wente clones, planted in '98. 14.2% alcohol. 92+ points
Diatom was a Japanese philosophy-and-food-inspired project of Greg Brewer, of Brewer-Clifton, who is also winemaker at Melville. The 2011 is the final vintage of this intriguing project, where the wine names represented styles and personalities rather than vineyard sites.
Light lemon yellow color; focused, ripe lemon, tart Golden Delicious apple nose; tasty, mineral, light green herb, very saline palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish. 13.8% alcohol. 92+ points
Flowers’ vineyards, devoted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, were some of the first planted on the “extreme” Sonoma Coast, on Pacific Ocean cliffs ranging from 1,100 to 1,850 foot elevations. The current winemaker is Jason Jardine, who was previously general manager and winemaker at Rhys in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Light straw yellow color; ripe pear, baked pear, white flower nose; rich, tart pear, mineral palate with good acidity and a light sense of salt; medium-plus finish. 92+ points
15. Giant Steps
Giant Steps is owned by Phil Sexton, a jazz lover, who named the project he founded in 1998 after a favorite album by John Coltrane. The focus is cool climate Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot/Cab blends from five vineyard sites in Australia’s Yarra Valley region. This wine has the richness to complement all kinds of grilled meats.
Light medium yellow color; leesy, hazelnut, almond nose; leesy, hazelnut, almond, tart lemon palate; medium-plus finish. 92+ points