Chardonnay from California is a great example of a varietal bottling, a wine made primarily from a single grape variety that usually displays the name of that variety on the label. This column focuses on the best Cali chards I’ve recently tried from the Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Later editions will include chardonnays from other parts of California and non-Californian versions, as well.
Chardonnay is a green-skinned, neutrally flavored grape originating in Burgundy, France but now grown wherever wine is produced. It is vinified in many different styles and is also an important component of sparkling wines including champagne. It is one of the most widely-planted varieties with over 160,000 hectares (400,000 acres) worldwide and now grows in more wine regions than any other grape.
Let’s kick off this California odyssey in the Napa Valley with the Hess Collection Chardonnay, a gorgeous, ripe mouthful of peach, apricot and yellow pear with a honeyed edge that’s plush and fine. The Grgich Hills Chardonnay, in contrast, focuses on pineapple, dill, celery salt and lemon zest. Both of these Napa-based wines feature a high-intensity, very long finish.
Carneros is a subregion that straddles both the Napa Valley and Sonoma County and embodies features of each area. Etude’s Chardonnay Carneros is a taut, live-wire wine laced with flint, green pear and Mandarin orange. Robert Mondavi’s Chardonnay Reserve, also out of Carneros, shows an appealingly fleshy texture in an understated style. Green melon, yellow peach and white flower rounds out the fresh, vibrant finish.
Moving on to Sonoma County, on the other side of the Mayacamas Mountains from Napa, the Jordan Chardonnay, produced by John Jordan at his winery on Alexander Valley Road, is sourced from various areas and is ripe and elegant, with spicy Asian pear, lime pulp and cantaloupe elements. This one is well-balanced with a clean, fresh end-palate. Coming from the subarea of the Sonoma Coast, the Don & Sons Chardonnay Sonoma Coast is greenish-yellow in hue and smells of pineapple, orange and apricot. The palate exudes fruit punch and ripe banana while the finish is bright and clean.
My final two recommendations come from another Sonoma subregion, the Russian River Valley. Laguna’s Chardonnay Laguna Ranch Vineyard is tinted hay-yellow and noses sunflowers and orange zest. On the tongue this is all vanilla, banana and peaches and cream. La Rochelle’s Chardonnay Dutton Ranch Morelli Lane is tinged pea yellow. The nose is mostly green grass and apricot while on the tongue this features dried mango and lemon zest.
Chardonnay is very malleable and thus an excellent vehicle for consumers to educate themselves on particular terroirs and winemaker styles. Such diversity equals a profile for every palate, which in turn means that you should try some of these excellent white wines.
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Hess Collection Chardonnay 2010 (Napa Valley, California) $20
Grgich Hills Chardonnay 2010 (Napa Valley, California) $38
Etude Chardonnay Carneros 2010 (Napa Valley, California) $35
Robert Mondavi Chardonnay Reserve Carneros 2011 (Napa Valley, California) $32
Jordan Chardonnay 2010 (Sonoma County, California) $25
Don & Sons Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2010 (Sonoma County, California) $22
Laguna Chardonnay Laguna Ranch Vineyard RRV 2009 (Sonoma County, California) $23
La Rochelle Chardonnay Dutton Ranch Morelli Lane RRV 2010 (Sonoma County, California) $65