All-American Chardonnay

America's best-selling wine is better and more diverse than ever before.


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Is there any wine that riles people up more than Chardonnay?

True, it’s America’s top-selling wine. But it arouses more opinions than a political debate in a purple state, with supporters on all sides insisting their favored style is best.

But first, what do people mean when they refer to a particular style of Chardonnay?

At its most basic level, California Chardonnay comes in two styles: oaked and unoaked. The difference is self-explanatory, at first blush.

In reality, unoaked Chardonnays occupy one extreme of a wide range of Chardonnay styles. Unoaked Chardonnays are exactly that—wines that never see wood. Generally made and matured in stainless steel, these wines tend to be clean and crisp, preserving fruit freshness.

As we move up the scale, oak influence becomes more and more pronounced.

Near the unoaked end of the spectrum, the oak influence is hardly noticeable. It’s a slight broadening on the palate, a suggestion of textural richness, a mere hint of vanilla.

As we move further away from unoaked, the oak-derived characters increase in intensity. The toast and vanilla flavors become overt. Malolactic fermentation imparts buttery flavors, and lees contact builds richness on the palate while adding nutty notes.

Note that quality is independent of style: Any Chardonnay, oaked or not, can be either awesome or poor. Yet the oaked style tends to spark controversy because California winemakers haven’t always applied oak with a moderate hand.

Some call California Chardonnays “Tammy Faye Bakker wines,” referring to the late televangelist famous for her excessive makeup. Too much oak, they say, pushes the wine out of balance and into freakishness.

Others will protest that balance is in the eye of the beholder. But the fact is that oak can destabilize Chardonnay (as can other things, like high alcohol, superripe fruit and residual sugar).

In wine, balance is everything. Over the past few decades, American winemakers have continually refined their approach to Chardonnay, resulting in the vast array of balanced wines available today.

The Chardonnay Boom

For all its popularity—nearly 100,000 acres in California, an area about one-eighth the size of Rhode Island—Chardonnay was barely a blip on the radar until relatively recently. Although 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of C.H. Wente importing the so-called Wente clone of Chardonnay from Montpellier, France, it didn’t take California by storm initially. In 1940, a mere 100 acres of Chardonnay existed in the state.

A few ambitious stalwarts—Wente Brothers, Mayacamas Vineyards, Stony Hill Vineyard—explored the possibilities. These wines were for the most part fermented in large, neutral tanks, whether oak, redwood or even concrete, and bottled straightaway.

In the early 1950s, James Zellerbach, a paper magnate and American ambassador to Italy, produced a Chardonnay at his Hanzell Vineyards, in Sonoma Valley, that had been aged in small French oak barrels. Connoisseurs immediately understood the importance—the wine was made in the traditional Burgundian method. But Hanzell’s Chardonnay was appreciated by only a select few.

Chardonnay plantings in California grew throughout the 1960s, with 18 times more acreage in 1972 than in 1959. However, most wine drinkers still preferred their misleadingly labeled “Chablis” and “Sauternes.”

All that changed after the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976, when Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay took first place in a blind tasting that included both American and French wines and was widely hailed in the media.

Chardonnay became a superstar. Virtually every winemaker in California (or their sales directors) wanted to make (or sell) one. In went Chardonnay vines, often replacing less popular varieties that had actually made good wine.

Into American ports arrived French oak barrels by the boatload, ordered by winemakers who felt, with some justification, that if new French oak was good enough for white Burgundy, it was good enough for them.

And that’s when the trouble started.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

When oak is out of balance in Chardonnay, it sticks out in the form of toasty, caramelized aromas and flavors, often with a strong hint of vanilla bean. There’s nothing wrong with those characteristics, of course, in moderation, and the chacun a son goût—to each his own taste—philosophy means that some people will like that approach.

Yet, says Bob Cabral, director of winemaking for Williams Selyem Winery, “I don’t want that big, heavy whack of oak.” And today, more and more winemakers are saying the same thing.

“Balance means not being out of balance, so what’s the typical thing wrong with California Chardonnay?” asks Adam Tolmach, winemaker/proprietor of The Ojai Vineyard. His answer: “Too oaky, and too alcoholic, too.”

However, the devil’s in the details. Even some Chardonnays with a relatively low percentage of new oak can come across as too oaky.

If you browse through Wine Enthusiast’s database, you’ll find many California Chardonnays rated 86–89, anchored there by the predominance of oak.

But there are Chardonnays that can handle large proportions of new French oak. Marimar Estate’s 2008 Bonita’s Hill Don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay (93 points), from the Russian River Valley, was made with 100% new oak.

“Nobody who tastes it feels it’s too oaky,” says proprietor Marimar Torres.

Then there’s Roar’s 2010 Sierra Mar Vineyard Chardonnay, from the Santa Lucia Highlands (95 points), which clocks in at 78% new French oak. “I won’t say ‘I’m sorry’ for that wine,” says owner Gary Franscioni. “It’s my style. But I don’t think the oak shows through.”

Indeed, it doesn’t. Such restaurants as Gary Danko, The Sardine Factory and Marinus, at Bernardus Lodge, carry Roar’s wine.

Cal Stamenov, Marinus’s chef and culinary director, says, “I don’t generally like wines with a lot of oak, especially with food.” But he loves the Roar wine. (For Chef Stamenov's Monterey Bay Spot Prawns with Garden Zucchini Tartare and Piment d'Espelette recipe and wine pairing, click here.)

How can a wine that sees so much new French oak maintain such balance? Experts believe it’s all about the vineyard and the intensity of the fruit it yields.

“I would never use 50% new oak in California Chardonnay for very many vineyards,” says Emmanuel Kemiji, a master sommelier formerly employed at San Francisco’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, and now proprietor of the small wine brand, Miura Vineyards.

Most vineyards, in Kemiji’s view, simply don’t produce sturdy enough fruit to support much new oak. He looks for vineyards whose fruit “has enough structure, natural acidity and hang time to support that level of oak.”

In other words, the more intense the fruit and the higher the acid levels, the more oak the wine can shoulder.

Further down the new oak percentage chain is Hanzell, whose Chardonnay style has barely changed in 50 years.

Hanzell’s director of winemaking, Michael McNeill, says 30% of the fruit is barrel fermented, then aged in 100% new French oak and undergoes malolactic fermentation. The remaining 70% is tank fermented, then aged in older barrels, and does not undergo malolactic fermentation.

It’s a hands-on, specific approach that preserves Hanzell’s house style, which McNeill defines as one of “restraint and balance.” And, as repeated tastings prove, Hanzell’s Chardonnays not only hold their own for decades, they improve.

Still, McNeill understands that many Americans believe the aroma and flavor of new oak is actually that of Chardonnay.

“When customers call and say they want a buttery, rich, oaky Chardonnay, I tell them, ‘I’m not sure you would like ours,’ ” McNeill says. A wine like Hanzell’s 2009 Chardonnay (95 points) defines the midway point on the oak spectrum.

When Less Is More

Today, unoaked Chardonnay is more than a trend in California. It’s a movement. No one knows how many wineries produce unoaked Chardonnay (sometimes called “stainless,” “naked” or by other similar terms). Every day seems to bring a new one.

Now that the market has proven its viability, top Chardonnay houses, including Lynmar Estate, Marimar Estate, Mer Soleil and Williams Selyem, are jumping on the unoaked band-wagon.

Consumers love it for two reasons: the freshness of the fruit and the price.

With new 60-gallon French oak barrels costing up to $1,000 each, California winemakers can charge less for their unoaked Chardonnays. And you might be surprised by how rich these naked Chards can be. In some cases, it’s simply amazing that they’ve never seen a splinter of oak.

Modern chefs have also lined up against the excessive use of new oak.

“To be honest, I’m a fan of little or no oak,” says Rick Hackett, chef/proprietor of Bocanova, a stylish, Pan-American restaurant on Oakland’s waterfront. (For Chef Hackett’s Pan-Seared Day-Boat Sea Scallops recipe and wine pairing, click here.)

A few miles north, at Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse, Wine Director Jonathan Waters doesn’t have any unoaked Chardonnays on his list, not yet anyway. “But I do look for wines that have no noticeable oak on them,” he says.

Other restaurateurs are embracing them, too.

Food-Friendly Styles 

“A lot of people are reticent about a big, oaky, buttery Chardonnay bomb,” says Michael Blash, the wine buyer at Three Seventy Common Kitchen + Drink restaurant, in Laguna Beach, who buys Chamisal Vineyards’s Stainless Unoaked Chardonnay. (For the Seared Scallops recipe and wine pairing featured at Three Seventy Common Kitchen + Drink, click here.)

Oak, Blash says, limits the kinds of foods that pair with a Chardonnay. “But with the Chamisal, it’s a simpler decision,” he says. “The wine pairs well with a myriad number of foods.”

Fintan du Fresne, winemaker at Chamisal, looks for “a lot of very forward fruit” for his Stainless Unoaked Chardonnay. He finds it in the tart, pure flavors and acids of Monterey County and San Louis Obispo County grapes.

Du Fresne does not allow his Stainless Unoaked Chardonnay to go through malolactic fermentation.

“This wine is all about purity,” he says. “I want people to almost taste the grape and experience what it’s like in a winery during harvest, when you can smell that freshly fermented Chardonnay juice.”

In the end, it’s all a matter of taste. Consumers will decide for themselves the style of Chardonnay they like: unoaked, heavily oaked or something in between.

That’s the beauty of California: no rules, few regulations, a wide range of terroirs and vintners willing to explore the possibilities while keeping a close eye on the market.

Recommended California Chardonnay 

Unoaked

93 Marimar Estate 2010 Acero Don Miguel Vineyard Unoaked Chardonnay (Russian River Valley). It’s unbelievable that this Chardonnay is unoaked, it’s so incredibly rich and creamy. Just packed with layers of tropical fruits, peaches, Asian pears and oatmeal cookies. All that butter and cream must be from the malolactic fermentation and aging on the lees. One of the best unoaked Chardonnays ever. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 13.5%    Price: $29

92 Lynmar 2010 La Sereinité Chardonnay (Russian River Valley). Shows the chilly vintage in the bright acidity that makes this wine finish so zesty clean. The flavors are somewhat austere and tantalizing, suggesting golden apricots, limes, minerals and honey, but are complex and creamy in lees, making it an intellectual wine. Amazingly, it’s unoaked.
abv: 14.1%    Price: $70

89 Chamisal 2011 Stainless Unoaked Chardonnay (Central Coast). The lime, kiwi, orange and lemon fruit flavors are so delicious, you won’t miss oak at all. Then there’s the bright, vital acidity that makes it all shine like polished silver. What a pretty food wine, at a good price, and easy to find, with 20,000 cases produced. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 13.5%    Price: $18

Evident Oak [regardless of actual % of oak]

92 Freestone 2009 Pastorale Vineyard Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast). The challenge with a Chardonnay this big is to wrestle the power into submissive balance. As it is, the wine is overwhelming in buttery new oak and awesomely ripe pineapple and apricot fruit. It’s almost undrinkable now. However, there’s a brisk streak of acidity and it’s totally dry, with a strong minerality, like a lick of steel. Try cellaring for 3–4 years.
abv: 14.1%    Price: $80

88 Bernardus 2010 Chardonnay (Monterey County). The popular, modern style has dictated the crafting of this wine. It’s sweet and delicious in buttered toast, caramel corn and ripe orange and golden mango fruit, brightened with crisp acidity.
abv: 14.1%    Price: $22

88 Keller Estate 2009 La Cruz Vineyard Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast). New oak dominates this Chardonnay, lending buttered toast, vanilla and caramel aromas and flavors, while the underlying fruit veers toward very ripe, sweet pineapples. Made in the modern style, it will appeal to lovers of flashy Chardonnay.
abv: 14.1%    Price: $38

Balanced [regardless of actual % of oak]

95 Hanzell 2009 Chardonnay (Sonoma Valley). A tremendous Chardonnay. As always, the winery’s latest release is bone dry, crisply acidic and minerally. You might call it austere at this point, with its tart finish of grapefruit. But a great Hanzell Chardonnay will improve for at least a decade, possibly two, and this is a great Hanzell Chardonnay. The score reflects what the wine likely will be approximately eight years down the road. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.5%    Price: $75

95 Roar 2010 Sierra Mar Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands). A brilliant Chardonnay, displaying both the terroir of this fine upland part of Monterey County, and the cool vintage that let the grapes hang on the vines until they were perfectly ripe. Dazzles with pineapple and mango fruit, with a perfect jacket of sweet, vanilla-scented oak. Best of all is the acidity, which is brisk, bright and clean. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14.4%    Price: $45

91 Joseph Swan Vineyards 2010 Cuvée de Trois Chardonnay (Russian River Valley). Shows the rich tropical fruit and oak flavors that are so easy to achieve in California. But there’s a balancing minerality, like a lick of cold steel, and the acidity is brisk and cleansing. This is a lovely Chardonnay, dry and elegant, and a relative value.
abv: 14.2%    Price: $28

Washington

Washington produces stunningly good Chardonnays, with riveting fruit flavors ranging from apples, pears, peaches and apricots to full-blown tropical. You can find plenty of buttery, oak-soaked Chardonnays here—buttressed with rich acidity—but there is little or no need for heavy exposure to new oak simply to add flavor missing from the actual fruit.

All Washington Chardonnays are built around vivid natural acidity, and further complexity is gained from either select sites (Cold Creek Vineyard, Canoe Ridge Vineyard, Celilo Vineyard) or a crafty blend of AVAs. Even the very best of them rarely top $30 a bottle, and many very fine examples can be found in the $15–$20 range.

Outstanding Chardonnays are made by Abeja, Buty, Dunham Cellars, Forgeron Cellars, JM Cellars, Januik, Mark Ryan Winery, Rulo, Sparkman Cellars, Tranche and Woodward Canyon Winery. On the value side, look for Apex Cellars, Boomtown, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Gordon Estate, Mercer, Snoqualmie, StoneCap and Waterbrook. —Paul Gregutt

Oregon

Chardonnay got off to a less-than-impressive start in Oregon. California-sourced Wente clones were widely planted, producing a thick, dull, early-ripening style of wine. But the state’s Chardonnays took a great leap forward in the 1990s, as David Adelsheim, Harry Peterson-Nedry and a few other pioneers began replacing Wente clones with Dijon clones.

The Burgundian climate of the Willamette Valley has proven to be particularly suited to these new clones, and the resulting Chardonnays have a pleasing nervosity. Their complex, at times delicate, structures are built upon a base of mineral, compact green and yellow fruits, and a judicious, restrained use of new oak ­barrels.

Today, many Oregon wineries are crafting commendable Chardonnays. Seek out single vineyard and reserve bottlings from Adelsheim, Bergström Winery, BlackCap, Chehalem, Domaine Serene, The Eyrie Vineyards, Lemelson Vineyards, Longplay, Ponzi Vineyards and Seven of Hearts. On the budget side, look for Foris, King Estate and Thistle. —P.G.

New York

From Long Island and the Hudson River Valley to the Finger Lakes region, New York Chardonnay is an elegant expression of the region’s cool climates and varied soils. Some of the best examples hail from Long Island.

“Coming from a cool, maritime climate, our Chardonnay offers a smart balance of moderate alcohol, good acidity and pure Chardonnay fruit character,” says Kareem Massoud, winemaker at Paumanok Vineyards, his family-owned winery.

“We’re not going to make those big, syrupy extracted whites,” says Richard Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars, also on Long Island’s North Fork. “What we get is crisp—apple, chamomile, green tea, pear—and a mineral quality with a saline edge.”

Recommended producers include Bedell Cellars (North Fork of Long Island), Heron Hill Winery (Finger Lakes), Knapp (Finger Lakes), Millbrook Vineyards & Winery (Hudson River Region), Paumanok Vineyards (North Fork of Long Island) and Sparkling Pointe (North Fork of Long Island). —Anna Lee C. Iijima

Virginia

Although Virginia wineries have started to make waves for their efforts with such diverse grape varieties as Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo and Viognier, producing Chardonnay with a sense of place is a motivating force behind Virginia’s still-nascent wine industry. Quality still wines are on the rise, but some of the best expressions thus far are sparkling wines.

At Trump Winery (formerly Kluge Estate), Grégory Brun, the director of winemaking and vineyard operations, synthesizes his Burgundian winemaking roots with a keen study of terroir to produce a sparkling blanc de blancs brut with complexity, finesse and personality.

“Our volcanic subsoil, coupled with a high proportion of clay in a nonirrigated vineyard, make us distinct from elsewhere in the U.S.,” he says. “Combined…with Virginia’s very contrasted seasons, and a very technical night harvest, the result is a mind-blowing Chardonnay…”
Recommended producers include Barrel Oak Winery (Virginia), Chatham Vineyards (Virginia), Trump Winery (Monticello). —A.I.

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