CALIFORNIA CHARDONNAY:Searching for Gold
Our tasting panel sampled 300 wines in the $15-$30 price range to see what's hot and where it comes from.
Finding great Chardonnay in the $15-$30 range can be as hard as finding nuggets in "them thar hills," our panel concludes—after tasting 300.
In 1849, gold fever hit hard. Frenzied prospectors headed west to pan the streams of the territory now known as California. Over the past few decades, and especially the past ten years, California has hosted another kind of gold rush, this one over a particular gold-skinned grape—Chardonnay.
America's love for California Chardonnay has led to incredible growth in its cultivation. A look at the figures is eye-opening. Chardonnay is by far the most prolific grape in California, with over 458,000 tons crushed in 1999, pushing it past the most-produced red—Zinfandel—by more than 40 percent. While the total crush of California winegrapes increased by about 22 percent over the last decade, Chardonnay tonnage increased by a whopping 180 percent. For whatever reasons, Americans really have a thing for Chardonnay, and the wine industry continues to respond to what it perceives as insatiable consumer demand. The number of California Chardonnays on the market is huge, and growing daily.
The segment of the market we've focused on is those wines in the $15-$30 price range. For many consumers, this is the price point above everyday, but not yet at the special-occasion level—the price range in which most wine drinkers shop when they entertain guests or prepare a nice white-wine-friendly meal, and which after markup is at the midrange of many restaurant wine lists. Even restricting our tasting to this price range, we still received a staggering 300 wines.
Chardonnays came to us from all regions of California—from Mendocino to San Diego County, from the Sierra Foothills to a huge length of the Pacific shoreline that stretches from Santa Barbara to the North Coast.
Almost all of the wines were from the 1997 and 1998 vintages. While not poor vintages, both years presented somewhat challenging situations for growers and winemakers. For starters, 1997 was a harvest of record quantity, and in some cases excessive yields may have lessened fruit intensity and quality. Many grape varieties ripened all at once, creating tough decisions for many winemakers and vineyard managers as they struggled to cope with full fermenters and, sometimes, more grapes than they could handle.
By contrast, 1998 was a cool, small-crop year—the El Niño harvest—and the challenge was to achieve full ripening. Several of the wines we tasted showed evidence of this in their green fruit flavors and sharp acids. Notwithstanding these limitations, many very good wines—and a few outstanding ones—were made in both vintages.
Foxen, the only producer in the tasting to land two wines in the top 23, is situated in Santa Maria Valley. A laid-back and limited-scale producer with a winery in a barn on a sleepy road, Foxen has quietly established itself as a noteworthy quality-oriented winery (see also our October '99 Pinot Noir tasting).
Dick Dore (pronounced "DOR-ay"), co-owner and co-winemaker at Foxen along with Bill Wathen, reflects on the winery's philosophy and practice: "We've learned to pursue balance—the balance of fruit richness and the fine natural acidity we get, and the balance of fruit and oak. To us, great fruit and achieving these balances define fine wine." Dore would be the first to admit that both Foxen Chardonnays benefit from excellent fruit sources. The Tinaquaic comes from an eponymous Santa Maria Valley vineyard, while the regular Chardonnay (for the first time in 1998) also contains a sizable amount (about 40 percent) of Tinaquaic fruit, with most of the remaining 60 percent coming from the well-known Bien Nacido Vineyard, and a small amount from the Gold Coast Vineyard. "Positive fruit is the foundation of great wine," Dore says.
Other excellent wines from the South Central Coast came from Gainey (1997 Limited Selection, 91 points), Beckmen (1998 Santa Barbara County, 91 points) and Kendall-Jackson (1998 Camelot Vineyard, 90 points). Chards from relative newcomers Lafond (1997 Lafond Vineyard, 90 points) and Rusack (1997 Reserve, 90 points) also stood out.
As expected, Russian River Valley turned in a fairly strong performance, accounting for three of the top wines: Baystone's 1998 Saralee's Vineyard, Davis Bynum's 1998 Limited Edition, and La Crema's 1997 Reserve. All the top Napa wines were from 1998, indicating that the cooler weather of that year helped control Napa's propensity for overripe Chardonnays. Burgess led the way (91 points), followed by Franciscan Oakville Estate, St. Supéry, and M. Trinchero Founder's Estate, each of which garnered 90 points.
From Carneros, Joseph Phelps (1998), Roche (1997) and Truchard (1998) all turned in 90-point efforts. And in Alexander Valley, a warmer section of Sonoma with a good reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon, Chateau St. Jean's Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay was one of the tasting's top scorers (the 1997 at 90 points; the '96 Reserve at 88 points). Among Sonoma Chardonnays, this vineyard-designated bottling has been a respected performer for years. Winemaker Steve Reeder attributes this to the fruit source and a long, positive relationship between the winery and grower. (Chateau St. Jean does not own the vineyard.) "The quality starts in the soil and setting, and the Robert Young vineyard has some unique attributes that seem to consistently deliver good Chardonnay fruit," says Reeder. "We've come to understand what the French call the 'typicité' of the site, having worked with the Youngs for a quarter-century now. We will also gamble now and then, and I guess I have made some smart and/or lucky calls about harvesting times that have worked out well."
|At what price goodness?|
Overall we found an abundance of good to very good wines, and more than a few excellent ones. But at $15-30, true greatness is hard to find. This is not intended to slight the growing number of Chardonnay producers. The fact is that during the latter half of the '90s, wine prices skyrocketed, and today's $30 wine was 1995's $20 wine, while today's $18 wine probably topped out at $12 five or six years ago. Although there is a swarm of Chardonnay priced below $15, including some solid wines worthy of case purchases, the hard truth is that there is an expanding class of Chardonnays priced well above $30 a bottle, and it's in this tier that the overwhelming majority of potentially stunning wines dwell.
Still, 46 percent of the rated field (117 of the 257 wines that scored at least 80 points) received ratings of 87, 88 or 89 points. These are solid performers, wines we confidently recommend. In the quest for excellence, though, the odds drop off sharply. Less than 10 percent of the wines we tasted scored 90 points or above, proving that a willingness to pay $20 or more for a bottle of Chardonnay does not guarantee great wine. Midpriced California Chardonnay has grown into a very large market, one in which caveat emptor applies.
Probably the greatest disappointment we encountered in the course of such a large-scale tasting was a déjà-vu sameness in too many wines. A lack of significant individual character in many offerings left us a bit downcast. It makes us wonder whether too many wines are being tailored in response to focus group results or according to some misconceived sense of what the public wants, as opposed to wineries pursuing the best wine made from the finest fruit the land has to offer. Producers should be able to find a way to facilitate expression of fruit and emphasize the character of individual regions and vineyards without suffering negative consumer fallout.
We did note a positive trend toward a more judicious use of oak. This does not always mean less wood, but rather achieving balance between fruit and oak components. In this tasting we were most impressed by the wines that possessed an innate honesty, a natural sense of self, poise and balance.
The last word on value
Our Top Values Box, featuring strong performers in the $15-$18 range, highlights the most affordable, highest-rated wines in our survey. But if you look closely at the full listing, you will see that 72 wines costing $20 or less scored 87 or above.
There is liquid gold in California—Chardonnay that provides enjoyable drinking. However, such liquid is precious, and consumers should adjust their sensibilities to the current price realities. The upper end of the Chardonnay spectrum has definitely moved above the $30 mark. In the $15-30 range, there are a healthy number of very good wines, but only a small fraction are excellent. The smart consumer will check out our recommendations, shop, taste, and identify those with the most personal appeal.