Napa's Unsung Whites
The best Napa Chardonnays come from cool, southern sections—a broad corridor that stretches from Carneros through Oak Knoll and Coombsville. It reaches up into the southern Vaca Mountains, sweeps across the Stags Leap District and Yountville, and stretches up onto the slopes of Mount Veeder.
It’s a stretch to assert that good Chardonnay can’t be grown north of Yountville or Stags Leap. Too many exceptions exist.
Freemark Abbey has crafted fine versions from Howell Mountain, while Smith-Madrone’s bottlings from Spring Mountain have long been notable for their tight minerality.
In the warmer parts of Napa’s flatlands, Chardonnay is pretty much a commodity grape, if grown at all.
Carneros, with its wide-open exposure to the winds and fogs of San Pablo Bay, is the pivot point for Chardonnay in Napa Valley. Shafer’s Red Shoulder Ranch is a flagship, as are Chardonnays from Vine Cliff, Kazmer & Blaise, Baldacci, Donum, Patz & Hall, Pine Ridge, Failla and Artesa.
These wines are marked not only by fruit, but crisp acidity and lingering minerality. These are streamlined wines, elegant rather than dramatic, that pair brilliantly with food.
Ehren Jordan, who sources Chardonnay from the Hudson Vineyard for his Failla brand, doesn’t think that Carneros is quite as cool as people believe.
“Compared to [Sonoma County’s] Petaluma Gap, it’s an oven,” he says.
But Carneros’s deep clay soils, the result of the region’s estuarial origins along the shores of San Pablo Bay, play a key role in shaping the wines’ structures. The soils retain freshness in the grapes, even during heat waves that can exceed 100 degrees.
Northeast of Carneros, Jarvis has one of Napa’s best track records for Chardonnay. The estate vineyard, in the Vaca Mountains south of Atlas Peak, has the perfect combination of warm days and cool nights.
Chardonnay needs to ripen, yet retain mouthwatering acidity, and location plays a key role, says winemaker Ted Henry.
“We’re close to San Pablo Bay, so we get that marine influence,” Henry says.
Another fine Chardonnay from this region just north of the city of Napa is Signorello Estate’s Hope’s Cuvée bottling.
The grapes come from the estate vineyard beside the Silverado Trail. While the resulting wine is lush in oak and lees, and creamy from full malolactic fermentation, a touch of Carneros briskness often shows up as saline minerality and keen acidity.
Some of the best Napa Chardonnays are blends. Hunnicutt’s is a good example, combining fruit from a Coombsville vineyard with grapes from warmer Rutherford.
Justin Stephens, the owner/winemaker, concedes that Rutherford, outside the “arc of coolness,” generally produces “insipid, flabby Chardonnay.”
“But for some reason, our vineyard retains acidity, despite having fairly high pH,” he says. “It’s bizarre.”
Stephens believes that the old vines used have become attuned to that environment.
The Coombsville vineyard brings “a more linear component and a better acid profile,” he says, due to its more southerly location. “The two wines are pretty disparate, tasted on their own.”
The combination of the two shows how divots from individual sites can be filled in through the art of judicious blending.
94 Jarvis 2012 Finch Hollow Estate Grown Cave Fermented Unfiltered Chardonnay (Napa Valley). This starts off oaky, which is understandable given that it was aged in 100% new French barrels. Then the acidity and lees hit you, a welcome parry to the woody sweetness. Lurking just below the surface are mango, pineapple, peach, kumquat and lime fruit flavors, as ripe as any Chardonnay on the market. It’s a flashy, opulent wine, but young. One of the few Chards that deserves a Cellar Selection designation, it will show better after 2016. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.8% Price: $130
93 Failla 2011 Hudson Vineyard Chardonnay (Napa Valley). This precisely crafted wine lifts Carneros Chardonnay to a whole new level. Yes, it’s pricy, but it’s so complex and decadent that it’s worth it. The alcohol is refreshingly low, the acidity is bright, and there’s a lick of steel to balance the nectarine and mango fruit, buttered-toast and cream flavors.
abv: 13.8% Price: $50
93 Jeff Hill 2012 Chardonnay (Napa Valley). Here’s an example that Napa Valley really can produce great Chardonnay. It’s a terrific wine, utterly dry and crisp, with a flinty minerality and lime, peach and green-apple flavors. It was largely barrel-fermented, but the oak never feels heavy or tastes sweet. Instead, it provides a subtle perfume throughout. Don’t drink this wine too cold, or you’ll miss the nuances.
abv: 14.6% Price: $50
93 Shafer 2011 Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay (Carneros). A huge Chardonnay, so full-bodied and rich, it’s almost like a red wine, but that’s the Red Shoulder personality. With flavors of buttercream, jammy tropical fruit, orange custard, vanilla, buttered toast and brown sugar, it would be over the top, except for vibrant acidity and a deep minerality. Drink now–2017.
abv: 14.8% Price: $50
92 Pine Ridge 2010 Le Petit Clos Chardonnay (Stags Leap District). Very rich and dramatic—the grapes used for this wine were grown in a tiny, cool block of the estate in this corner of Cabernet country. It’s full yet balanced, with crisp acidity, tangy minerality and lots of ripe tropical-fruit flavors. This did not undergo malolactic fermentation.
abv: 14.2% Price: $65
91 Hunnicutt 2012 Chardonnay (Napa Valley). Known as a Cabernet specialist, Hunnicutt also knows Chardonnay, as evidenced by a string of successes since 2008. The 2012 is a rich, rewarding wine. It’s extraordinarily ripe in peach, green-apple and tropical-fruit flavors. The grapes were sourced from cool Coombsville and warm Rutherford, giving the wine exceptional balance.
abv: 14.1% Price: $45