Some years ago there emerged a faction of wine drinkers who would describe their preferences in white wine as ABC, or Anything But Chardonnay. I was never really sure if people adopted this stance because they actually disliked the grape or were merely hoping to expand the horizons of fellow drinkers by championing the myriad alternatives. The latter would make the most sense since there are so many exciting options available. But I can also see how one could become disenchanted with California Chardonnay. I taste hundreds of examples every year that are, to put it politely, uninspiring.
In many ways, Chardonnay is a victim of its own success. It is by far the most widely planted wine grape in California (and Washington, for that matter) because it can be grown just about anywhere a vine will grow and still produce a marketable product. It is also a grape that is acquiescent to a wide range of wine-making styles. It can be refreshingly clean and light when done in stainless steel and kept from malolactic fermentation. While at the other end of the spectrum you can find opulently textured examples aged in toasty oak and dripping with buttery richness. And let’s not forget Chardonnay’s prowess in the arena of sparkling wine. The grape’s versatility has allowed it to satisfy a wide range of consumers, but it has also led many producers to make wines that fall flat while attempting to be everything to everyone.
Thankfully for Chardonnay lovers, there are more top quality options on the market these days than I have seen in many years. The folks who really want to excel with this grape are making every effort to exalt terrior, pursue balance and preserve subtleties that are often masked by too much intervention in the cellar. At Beltramo’s we currently have close to 200 Domestic Chardonnay selections. The following are a few of the growing group that adeptly embrace the fine qualities this grape has to offer.
2009 Shafer ‘Red Shoulder Ranch’ Carneros ($42.99) – Shafer’s single-vineyard Carneros-grown Chardonnay is produced from small-clustered clones of grapes selected for their low yields and distinctive flavors. Fermentation takes place within individual oak and stainless steel barrels using native yeasts. The wine matures on the lees for 14 months and since it undergoes no malolactic fermentation this Chardonnay retains a lively natural acidity. “The 2009 offers lush, luxurious aromas and flavors of melon, honeysuckle, apricot, pineapple and flint all held together with bright acidity, good structure and elegant balance.” Winemaker Elias Fernandez
2009 Peay ‘Estate’ Sonoma Coast ($54.99) – “In most vintages, the Estate Chardonnay has a mineral and citrus character that makes this Chardonnay unique among the vast sea of Chardonnays available. The 2009 Estate Chardonnay combines that character with the intensity we seek. The nose shows youthful pear and lemon/vanilla custard notes. With time the robustness of flavors will become part of the vibrant and powerful wet slate, citrus and lead pencil flavored mid-palate. The finish is brisk and persistent with superb acidity and cut.” Peay winery
2009 Walter Hansel ‘Cahill Lane’ Russian River Valley ($38.99) – “The 2009 Chardonnay Cahill Lane (from the old Wente clone off a vineyard in front of Hansel’s house) is a deeper wine offering notes of white peaches, pears, white currants, unbuttered popcorn, hazelnuts and subtle smoke. It is a perfumed, medium to full-bodied white that admirably showcases the purity and elegance of this vintage for Burgundian varietals.” Robert Parker
2009 Paul Hobbs ‘Richard Dinner Vineyard’ Sonoma Mountain ($69.99) - “The Richard Dinner Vineyard is our source for the exquisite chardonnay upon which we founded our portfolio in 1991. With a lustrous golden hue it displays lively aromas of tropical fruits, lemon custard and fresh figs. Richly textured and fully elegant, the structured palate comes alive with succulent flavors of orange blossom, citrus oil, fresh pear and dulce de leche. A creamy, seemingly unstoppable finish is enhanced by the wine’s hallmark crushed mineral characteristics.” Paul Hobbs Winery
Mike Janeway, Domestic Wine Buyer