California chardonnay gets a bad rap. Sure, there are some bottles I wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole, but that's true of most broad categories of wine. Bulk producers do everything they can to make …
California chardonnay gets a bad rap.
Sure, there are some bottles I wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole, but that's true of most broad categories of wine. Bulk producers do everything they can to make their product palatable to the average consumer, including adding sugar and imitation flavorings. But just because some chardonnays from California taste like the fake buttery stuff you get on your popcorn at the movies, some excellent offerings from the state's many quality wine regions will satisfy even the staunchest anti-chardonnay drinker.
I should start off by saying, although this will likely result in my humiliation at the hands of other sommeliers, that I like oaky chardonnay. For years, I hid this from my colleagues like the Vicar of Dibley hides her candy bars.
But the older I get, the less I care what people think. And in my book, the judicious use of oak to lend flavor and texture to chardonnay--a grape that can be somewhat neutral, aromatically, on its own--is not a crime.
The key word is "judicious." Some California chardonnays are oaked within an inch of their lives, bludgeoning your tongue with flavors of melted butter, vanilla, pineapple, coconut and caramel. And while I like these things in my baked goods, I don't necessarily want them in my wine.
Oak flavor is imparted by aging wine in oak barrels, and the amount of flavor the barrel imparts on the wine depends upon factors, such as how long the wine spends in the barrel, the newness of the barrel (older, used barrels impart less flavor than new barrels), the amount of toast or char on the inside of the barrel, and so on. So a wine that is aged in new barrels for 12 to 15 months will have more of those oak-driven flavors than, say, one that is aged in used barrels for eight months.
The key is to ensure that the oak influence is in balance with the other flavors and textures of the wine. On its own, the flavors of the chardonnay grape can be delicate and subtle, offering peach, apple and mineral.
Too much oak, and these elegant flavors are obliterated, rather than enhanced. But moderate use of oak (and aging in contact with yeast cells, called lees) can lend the wine creaminess and body and bring out flavors like citrus curd and biscuit.
2015 Beringer Chardonnay Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley "Luminus" ($39) spends 10 months in oak barrels, 45 percent of which are new. The wine has a golden hue (also a result of oak contact) and rich aromas of roasted peach and lemon curd, but with a flinty, chalky minerality that preserves the true chardonnay character of the wine.
A wine with a more restrained oak regimen, 2015 Foxen Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley Bien Nacido Vineyard "Block UU" ($36), spends eight months in barrels, 20 percent of which are new. The wine is a shade lighter in color than the Luminus, but still with an opulent golden hue that lets you know you're in for something special.
Taking a sip of the wine, if I were blind tasting, I might have thought it was a white burgundy, with a zesty touch of grapefruit against a background of limestone dust and a hint of smoke.
It's true that neither of these wines is in everyone's "everyday" budget. And it's true that some less expensive producers fall into the "buttered popcorn" category.
But there are bargains to be had! 2015 True Myth Chardonnay Edna Valley Paragon Vineyard ($17) spends nine months in all used barrels, resulting in a beautifully balanced wine. A touch of vanilla richness to its frame of green apple and pear combines with lively lemon and wet stone on the palate.
Some people swear by their California chardonnay, and others shun it like a relative from the shallow end of the gene pool. But if you exercise a little care on your next trip to the wine shop, you can find some extremely gratifying experiences in California's diverse offerings of chardonnay.
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