By Monty and Sara Preiser
It has been fashionable in some circles for quite a while to opine that Chardonnays are boring, or simply don’t stack up to white French Burgundies (mostly made from Chard). In fact, an entire silly sub-culture grew up around the initials “ABC,” which, in the wine world fringes, meant, “Anything But Chardonnay.” Don’t believe it.
As proud Chardonnay lovers who taste hundreds each year, we can tell you that to lump all U.S. Chardonnays into one category is uninitiated at best, and foolish at worst. If any grape lends itself to multiple processes of production, and thus a myriad of taste profiles, it is Chardonnay.
Even a short list of some of the factors that influence a Chardonnay’s ultimate taste should well illustrate our point. Consider the soils in which the vines grow; how long the grapes were left on the vine, thus affecting ripeness and sugar levels; whether the wine was fermented in barrels or steel tanks; whether the wine was aged in barrels or tanks; if aged in barrel, for how long, and in what types (or combination of) barrels; whether the wine went through secondary fermentation (which would turn the malic acid properties into the smoother lactic acid); and whether it aged on “the lees” (dead yeast cells naturally occurring from fermentation) to facilitate creaminess.
With so many decisions facing the winemaker, Chardonnays can easily display every type of nose, body, palate, and finish one can imagine, and these sensory aspects can be interchanged into enough variations that it would take months to experience them all. Therefore, there is a Chardonnay for everyone, and anyone who searches out what is available can really never become bored with this grape, because it is almost never the same. Add to that our belief that one should have a goal for a wine (pairing crisper unoaked Chards with shellfish and light sauces, perhaps, or maybe oaked Chards with fowl and heavier sauces), and there is enough about this varietal to make it exciting and challenging.
Clearly the pendulum as to what people prefer is in constant motion. One might drink gin for years, tire of it, go to scotch, and then return to gin. We personally enjoyed Zinfandels for a long time, moved to big Bordeaux style Reds for a while, but are returning to Zins (which are, not inconsequently, achieving their best balance and profiles in many a year). So it is not surprising that for many consumers Chardonnay would be caught up in the same type cycle.
Over a long span of years, the majority of the American public clearly preferred highly oaked Chardonnay that had been put through malolactic (secondary, and often abbreviated to m/l) fermentation which brought on the illusion of butter in the mouth. About a decade ago, however, marketers and some producers started trumpeting the virtues of “clean,” “minerally,” wine, and thus that pendulum’s arc went far afield and overly austere (and less expensive) Chardonnays were in vogue – no oak, no m/l etc. Just the steel fermented grapes showing their origin.
There certainly is nothing wrong with the concept of “unaoaked” and “non m/l” Chardonnay. We like many of them. However (and here is the most important thought of the day), as with everything else a Chardonnay needs to have balance. Whether it be political orientation, religion, or winemaking, balance is most often the key. As that relates to Chardonnay, winemakers worldwide are now concentrating on how to best combine all the tools available to make a wine that will please the palate of the consumer when sipped alone or savored with food. Now we commonly see Chards aged in new barrels and old barrels, or in both barrels and stainless steel. We find Chards where malolactic fermentation has been artificially stopped after a certain percentage of completion to tone down the butter. And in greater numbers all the time, grapes are being harvested earlier to allow for a final product with less alcohol. All of this is fine – it permits the consumer scores and scores of choices, but also tons of fodder for confusion.
Today we feature 11 Chardonnays that are not only excellent in their own right, but can usually be purchased for the surprisingly low price of $32 and under. Those not aged in oak are often a bit less expensive for the obvious reason that there were no barrels used. So if that is your style of Chard, it is your day when you find some good ones. Yet, it would be difficult to drink only unoaked Chardonnays. They might pair better than oaked (of varying degrees) wines with some dishes, but a big Chardonnay with great balance of oak, acid, and ripeness, can well accompany a great many proteins, including meats so traditionally thought of as red wine dishes.
- 2010 Benziger Signaterra “West Rows” ($32): The winery’s best selling wine – it is full bodied due to oak aging, and has crispy minerality and stone fruit notes due to lower alcohol levels than most at pick time. Complex and fresh – a hard duo to get right – but here it is.
- 2011 Peju Estate ($28): Though favorite descriptives for stainless steel Chards, vibrant and bright can also refer to a well made barrel fermented wine. Witness this one, which sat on the lees for six months and aged completely in 25% new French oak. A big wine full of spices.
- 2010 Raymond Reserve ($20): Amazingly long finish and big body for a wine of this modest price. There are flavors of peaches with a hint of nuts (perhaps hazel) that follow a particularly elegant nose of jasmine. The wine is aged in 100% French oak for two months.
- 2010 Rombauer Carneros ($32): No Chardonnay is better known than this mega award winning beauty. It is unapologetically creamy, smooth, melon and citrus influenced, and possessive of a huge body. Oak aging and m/l provide color and lots of buttery components.
- 2009 Russian Hill Gail Ann’s Vineyard ($32): Melons are all over the nose of this rich, layered wine where half was aged in oak (giving it color, depth, and body), and half in stainless steel (providing liveliness and minerality). The balance allows many pairing opportunities.
- 2009 Simi Russian River Reserve ($28): Wonderful balance – 100% Chard aged for 14 months in French oak (50% new and 50% 1 year old) with outstanding fruit throughout. You will get hints of citrus, nuts, and even a little pineapple. The first whiff is honey-like, which foretells the wine’s luscious body.
- 2011 Chamisal Stainless ($18): Fermented in stainless steel and seeing no oak whatsoever, it is made from fruit grown in a number of Central Coast regions, and thus is very diverse in flavors. Enjoy apples and pears seemingly washed by fresh stream water. An amazing buy.
- 2011 Foley Estate Steel ($30): A terrific wine that was aged in stainless steel tanks for ten months, and went through no m/l. Its freshness is apparent from the lemon-lime nose, its crispness is obvious, and the minerality on the finish reminds us of fresh well water.
- 2010 Hess Collection Napa Valley ($22): Made from 100% Chardonnay, this lovely wine is smooth with a nose of honeysuckle and pear, a mid-palate of Granny Smith apples, and a finish of apricot. Only about a fifth of the wine is aged in new French oak barrels.
- 2010 Marimar Estate Acero ($29): If you know Spanish, you know this wine has not seen oak. “Acero” means “steel.” We get pears on the nose, and perhaps because the wine went through m/l, some creamy banana and vanilla in the otherwise crisp, minerally middle.
- 2011 Mer Soleil Silver ($24): Fermented in stainless steel and cement tanks (the latter being in vogue), and there was no m/l. Scents of a rocky river bed first hit the nose, followed by hints of bananas and grapefruit. The winemaker recommends consuming chilled.
This article appeared in the September issue of Coastal Carolina Life. To view the article in the magazine, which also includes pictures of the bottles mentioned, visit www.coastalcarolinalife.com.
It’s Time for Wine is a column published by wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser that is featured on the Amateur Gastronomer.
Monty and Sara Preiser reside full time in Palm Beach County, Florida, and spend their summers visiting wineries and studying wines on the west coast where they have a home in Napa. For many years they were the wine columnists for The Boca Raton News, have served as contributors to the South Florida Business Journal, and are now the principal wine writers for Sallys-Place.com. Monty and Sara also publish The Preiser Key to Napa Valley, the most comprehensive guide to wineries and restaurants in the Napa Valley, published every March, July, and November. In fall 2011 the Preisers released the first issue of The Preiser Key to Sonoma. Click here to read more columns by the Preisers.