By Rick Riozza
Chardonnay is arguably the most important, loved, divisive, and hated grape in the world. Figure that one out!
The wine gods over at Google comment: “Few grape varieties elicit a knee-jerk reaction like Chardonnay. It’s characterized as a heavy, opulent white wine, the antithesis to crisp, easy sippers like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Fans of Chardonnay’s buttery, vanilla-laden flavors can’t get enough, while naysayers adamantly refuse to try the wine at all.” (By the way—I just submitted my resume for a wine god position over at Google.)
There was a time when the elite wine enthusiasts sat at the wine bar and demanded an ABC wine—that’s to say, “I’ll have Anything But Chardonnay!” Lately though, we’re finding that same group meekly ordering any chilled wine at any wine bar that’s still in business! Nothing like a world-wide pandemic to get our priorities in order.
Okay—we can somewhat cut to the Chardonnay chase by differentiating New World Chard (mostly, California Chard) and French Chard, aka, White Burgundy. Further, with the California stuff, there seems to be a three-tier level of Chardonnay: table quality, artisan quality, and then super-premium fantastic quality.
In 2021, Chardonnay was the top selling varietal in the U.S. No news here, it’s been that way for decades. The Chardonnay flavor profile has ebbed and flowed from fruity to oaky, crisp to buttery, back & forth, and up & down.
And currently, it’s no longer the pendulum swinging from this decade of oaky buttery to a decade of fresh fruit and acidity. But rather now, it’s—hey! Get out of my way! We’re making our wine this way and that! There’s enough room in California and the rest of the world to keep everyone a happy Chardonnay camper. We’re at the point where the flavor profile is all over the charming Chard map!
Personally, one who tastes and enjoys a lot of different wine, Chardonnay is not my first, second, or even third choice. But a great Chard from Burgundy or California is always absolutely delicious. And as I’ve mentioned before—and as most vintners will agree, there is nothing so ethereal and lovely as when catching the waft of aromas coming from a winery that is fermenting Chardonnay. Plan a visit sometime to enjoy the experience.
“Chardonnay is the ultimate winemaker’s wine” states a recent Wine Spectator article. “The grapes present a blank canvas on which vintners can apply different techniques and explore varying styles, while also expressing their terroir”. Katie Vogt, winemaker at Pahlmeyer, says, “It seems so simple, but Chardonnay responds so well to any imput and decisions . . .[in the wine making process].
As your friendly neighborhood wine steward at the Palm Springs’ Ralphs, I find it interesting hearing all of the different customers emote on the qualities of their charming Chardonnays. It’s my job to keep everyone happy in the wine aisles; so, I’ll now be divulging three California Chardonnays that I know are very tasty, and, the deal of the day for the quality. By the way—I think you’ll notice that this 2020 vintage especially carries peach, mango, citrus flavors.
(All wine reviews in quotes are from the latest comments from Wine Spectator, and, all numbers are current Ralphs prices, both single bottle & Mix n’ Match 6-bottle price.)
2020 MacCrostie Chardonnay Sonoma Coast $26/$18. A year before the pandemic, I met Steve Macrostie at one of David Fraschetti’s wonderful Grand Awards Wine Tasting events at the Ritz-Carlton. Steve told me he lets each vineyard’s grapes dictate what they want to become. With deep Sonoma roots stretching back three decades, MacRostie has trusted partnerships with the region’s finest growers, including more than 30 Chardonnay vineyards.
Every Chard customer has appreciated this recommendation. “Peach, apricot and mango notes are pure, intense and extremely juicy on a fleshy, succulent frame, with hints of spice, orange blossom, and dried ginger. 92 points.”
2020 Raymond Chardonnay Napa Valley Reserve Selection $24/$13. For those folks who are still love Butter Town U.S.A., I recommend this one: Buttery toast and butterscotch notes complement the core of peach, citrus, and apple flavors, with accents of spice and dried flowers on a supple frame. 91 points.
It’s hard to believe that’s it already been 6 years since we attended The International Chardonnay Symposium which brought top global Chardonnay producers to the classic California beach towns of Pismo Beach, Avila Beach and the near-by Edna Valley wine country for an in-depth exploration of the world’s favorite grape and its impact on viticulture, wine makers and the market.
At the Symposium, we came to realize that few families have more to do with California Chardonnay than Wente—the First Family of Chardonnay. Founded by Carl Wente in Livermore Valley in 1883, Wente Vineyards was one of the first to label “California Chardonnay” in 1936!
Over a period of 40 years, second generation winemaker Ernest Wente selected Burgundy vines that showed favorable traits, great soil potential and re-planted them setting the stage for the creation of the world-renowned “Wente Clone” which has been used in most vineyards in the U.S. and is the foundation of some the most famous white wines in the New World. At the event, it was cool to meet and chat with the 5th generation daughters who are currently involve in many of the winery’s operations.
The Wente Riva Ranch Chard always sells off the shelves. 2020 Wente Chardonnay Arroyo Seco Riva Ranch Vineyard $22/$15. “Ripe and generous, with mango, peach and lemon curd flavors that come across as polished and supple, showing accents of salted caramel and spice on the finish. 91 points. Cheers!