California Chardonnay Gets a Bad Rap

This is another set of tasting notes that addresses one of my New Year’s Resolutions: Catching up on my samples. As the New Year dawned, I took a look at the growing pile of samples on the floor and realized I needed to get to work. I figured I was roughly six months and 300 or so bottles behind and I needed to change that.

So today I tackle the world’s most popular wine grape, Chardonnay. Even though it is at the top of the list of white wines, it certainly has its detractors. Many of those people who detest Chardonnay, have a strong dislike for what I call “traditional California” Chardonnay–wines made with a heavy oak hand and full malolactic fermentation (which results in a buttery, creamy effect).

While that style of wine still exists (in varying degrees), many producers have dialed back the oak by either using neutral barrels or no oak whatsoever. All of the wines here, I would say, I would challenge the Chardonnay opponents to try, for California Chardonnay has indeed changed.

2018 Chalk Hill Chardonnay Sonoma Coast, CA: Retail $29. Retail $20. Chalk Hill was one of the first areas in Sonoma County planted to Chardonnay (I believe Rodney Strong planted there first in 1964) and it remains one of the premiere sites for the world’s most popular white variety. Initially, this yellow-straw day bright wine was laden down with an overly oaky, but that calmed down quite a bit over the course of the evening. Plenty of tropical and citrus fruit (pineapple, lemon rind), a good bit of vanilla, and toasty oak. The palate is pretty close to fantastic with all that wonderful fruit, a zingy tartness, and a, yes, chalky finish. Under twenty bucks? It would be definitely hard to beat. Excellent. 90 Points.

2018 Flora Springs Chardonnay Family Select, Napa Valley, CA: Retail $36. A really fantastic California Chardonnay. Even though this spent seven months in oak (94% French, 6% American), it is far from heavy-handed. In fact, it seems to work quite well. Straw-color in the glass with tropical notes (pineapple), vanilla, lemon curd, golden delicious apple all on the nose. On the palate, there is a bit of tension (a good thing) as the wine grapples between the fruit and oak-driven style of traditional California Chardonnay and the more mineral, acid-driven “modern” style. I think it works wonderfully. Excellent. 91 Points.

2017 Lucas & Lewellen Chardonnay, Santa Barbara County, CA: Retail $22. Under screwcap. 24% neutral oak, 76% stainless. Golden straw in the glass with bright citrus, vanilla, white flower, and some lemon curd–a lovely nose, in fact. More of the same on the palate with good fruit balanced by a zingy tartness, it’s round but in the sense of luscious, not flabby. All this leads to a rather lengthy finish. Quite nice. Excellent. 90 Points.

2018 Pellegrini Family Vineyards Unoaked Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, CA: Retail $30. Under screwcap. Unoaked, Russian River Valley. The unoaked Chardonnay phenomenon is rooted in the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s when white wine lovers revolted against the overly-oaked “traditional California Chards.” While I have tried many iterations of the “new” style, this Pellegrini checks more boxes than most. More exotic than citrus fruit on the nose (mango, papaya, pineapple), with oodles of that fruit on the palate. Add in some tart lemon zest, coconut, and white pepper, and no malolactic fermentation, we arrive at a “purer” representation of Chardonnay. Excellent. 91 Points.

2019 Raeburn Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, CA: Retail $20. I am not sure how they do it here. Russian River Valley fruit, fermentation in 75% new oak barrels (French, Hungarian, and American), and only twenty bucks? It would make a little more sense, perhaps, if the wine were not very good, but here’s the puzzler: it is pretty darned good. Sure, there is an oak influence on the nose and the palate, but there is also plenty of fruit–lemon curd, a touch of banana, some vanilla. Really, this is a solid wine, regardless of price, and when you throw in the tariff? Close to Gangbusters. Excellent. 90 Points.

2018 Rodney Strong Chardonnay Chalk Hill, Sonoma Coast, CA: Retail $15. Golden straw in the glass with ripe pear and white peach, vanilla, honeysuckle. The palate is quite luscious with plenty of fruit, initially a bit round and heavy with the acidity coming in on the midpalate (along with some depth and oak flavors). Medium-length tart finish. A lovely Chard (that certainly falls more into the “traditional” style of Cali Chard). Very Good. 89 Points.

2018 Wente Vineyards Chardonnay Single Vineyard Riva Ranch, Arroyo Seco, CA: Retail $22. 98% Chardonnay, 2% Gewürztraminer. Wente is one of the biggest names in California Chardonnay and is the oldest continually producing family-owned winery in the U.S., founded in 1883. This is one of the largest, in terms of production, in the winery’s lineup and it certainly falls into the “traditional California Chardonnay” category. Day-bright straw color with tropical fruit aromas, plenty of lemon curd, and oak (90% oak fermented, 60% new). The palate falls right in line with the nose, fruity, oaky, good acidity. I get it, not everyone likes the oak. I get that. But for twenty bucks, this is a very nice traditional style Cali Chard. Very Good. 89 Points.

2018 Wente Vineyards Chardonnay Morning Fog Livermore Valley, CA: Retail $18. 98% Chardonnay, 2% Gewürztraminer. 50% fermented in neutral oak, and that half was aged 5 months in barrel sur lies, with bâtonnage monthly. This certainly falls into the “traditional California Chardonnay” camp with lemon curd, tropical fruit, vanilla, and subtle oak on the nose. The palate is round, luscious, and rich with many of the same characteristics as the nose. If you like big, juicy, and somewhat oaky Chards, here you go. Very Good. 88 Points.

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