Chardonnay vineyards in Sonoma.
The word "Chardonnay" has become synonymous with
"white wine" here in California. People seem to buy virtually anything
labeled "Chardonnay", whether the wines actually taste like Chardonnay or not.
In fact, I often wonder whether the average bear can identify the
character of Chardonnay. This is because many wines produced in California are
subjected to so much oak, either in the form of real barrel aging or some sort of oak
"flavoring" (new staves being introduced into a barrel or tank or oak chips or
sawdust being added -- the laws don't require a winery to disclose this on the
label) that an unwooded Chardonnay doesn't "taste" like Chardonnay to Yogi or
Boo-Boo. Similarly, I have noticed that many tasters describe other white wines as
being "Chardonnay-like" when these are dominated by wood.
The Chardonnay grape was not treated like royalty until a few years ago. Old-timers
such as Inglenook, Christian Brothers, Beaulieu Vineyards and Charles Krug made simple dry
white wines of Chardonnay grapes. The Wente Brothers winery was thought to be at the
vanguard of Chardonnay production, making a fresh, non-oaked dry white wine. In those
days, Chardonnay was thought to be a relative of Pinot Noir and was routinely called
"Pinot Chardonnay." It is, as it turns out, not related, so it's now
called "just" Chardonnay.
first really important work in marrying oak with Chardonnay in the traditional style of
France's Burgundian winemakers started with the Hanzell winery in Sonoma. This was
back in 1957, when James Zellerbach imported French oak barrels for the aging and
maturation of his Hanzell wines. Wonder of wonders! Oak!!!
It's taken many years for winemakers to learn how to use oak in making wine. Some of
them use oak as a crutch, propping up weak, thin wines and overloading them with wood.
Others employ a combination of wood and residual sugar to give character to wines
which are malnourished, wimpy wines. Many of these are quite popular, even
"scoring" highly with those who claim expertise in judging wine.
McDonald's hamburgers are quite popular, too, but few would say those are the best
examples of beef on the planet.
We enjoy a nicely oaked Chardonnay---don't get me wrong. I have been
accused of liking the most woody tasting wines. I cite Napa Valley eno-scribe Bob
Thompson who once wrote something like "My parents marveled that, as a boy, I
ate the fruit and not the tree." He was poking fun at
those who prefer Chardonnays with so much wood that determining if the beverage was
actually made from grapes is impossible.
The Chardonnay grape finds its home in France's Burgundy region, though it also is
cultivated in Champagne. In Burgundy's Cote d'Or, the major appellations of
Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault account for the top wines, but
other villages turn out good wines, too. The best Cote d'Or producers barrel ferment
the juice, using, at least, a percentage of new oak cooperage. The wines are often
aged on the spent yeast and this sediment is stirred in barrel, contributing a toasty,
smoky element to the wines. As the juice tends to be rather high in acidity, most
winemakers induce a secondary fermentation (called a malolactic fermentation). This
reduces the acidity and makes the wine rounder, creamier and somewhat buttery in
California vintners make a full range of Chardonnays. At the low end you'll find
wines from the "hotter-than-hell" Central Valley where tonnage is high and the
intensity of character is low. On the higher end, you'll find wines from cooler,
coastal climes, from low-yielding vineyards which can be sublime. Some wineries make
light, crisp, "simple" Chardonnay, while others attempt to emulate the top wines
Some winemakers liken Chardonnay to a blank canvas. The character of the
Chardonnay grape is dependant upon its origins, clonal selection, soil type, exposure,
etc. The "seasonings" bestowed upon it during its maturation (oak,
secondary fermentation, etc.) further determine the character of the wine. Some old
clones of Chardonnay display a mildly appley note. Newer ones seem to have a more
Diversity and individuality are what make winetasting fun and challenging. Don't
fall into a rut! Be adventuresome and experiment with Chardonnays from
different regions and unknown producers.
Current BEST BUYS
BUEHLER 2018 CHARDONNAY
- The Buehler family has been making Chardonnay from Sonoma since
the early 1990s. They don't make a wine that's terribly fancy,
they'll tell you.
Yet the fruit comes from good vineyards and yet they leave the wine on the
spent yeast following its fermentation.
They do lees-stirring to add a measure of complexity and there's a
secondary, malolactic fermentation to soften the edges of the wine.
Add in a modest amount of French oak aging and you've got a rather nice
On top of that, factor in a modest price tag...It's $20 at the cellar
long been fans of Pedroncelli's single vineyard bottling from the Frank
Johnson vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley. This vineyard is
actually along the border of Dry Creek and Russian River appellations.
The Pedroncelli's have usually made a terrific wine from this fruit and each
vintage is seems to improve.
The 2019 is delicious. The wine undergoes full malolactic fermentation
and it's creamy and mildly toasty...lots of ripe apple notes with a touch of a spice note. Dry, of course.
Post-Script: We stopped by the Pedroncelli winery
in February of 2017...having visited a number of other wineries on our
little tour, we had tasted a bunch of Chardonnays, all of them priced
between $40 and $75. Ridge Estate Chardonnay, at $50, was the best of
the tour, but Pedroncelli's Frank Johnson bottling was a winner, doubly so
given its modest price tag.
Currently in stock: 2019 PEDRONCELLI Dry Creek Valley "Frank
Johnson Vineyard" CHARDONNAY Sold Out...they did not make this
Fritz was in the shipping business, once upon a time, and he started a little winemaking
enterprise in the late 1970s.
They began with much fanfare and made some really good wines back in the
early days. Over the years they had some challenges and changes in
winemakers which didn't "help."
The past few years we've seen them get their sea legs back and a number of
their wines are quite impressive and they have attractive price tags.
Jay's son Clay has been running the show for some years now and they seem to
produce consistently good wines.
We've long had a stack of cases of Fritz Chardonnay in the shop...they get
fruit from some growers in nearby Russian River Valley (Fritz is in the Dry
Creek Valley...too warm, typically, for Chardonnay). The fermentation
starts in stainless steel, we're told, and then it's racked into French
oak...a fair bit of new wood but they moderate the oak by not leaving it in
those new barrels for too long. Then it goes into older, more neutral
They do a partial malolactic fermentation to soften the acid and round out
the wine, adding a bit of complexity.
We're able to offer the wine at a really nice price, too...
- Currently in stock: 2019 FRITZ Russian River Valley
CHARDONNAY (winery price $35) Sale $20.99
OKAY...NOT FROM CALIFORNIA, BUT GOOD
LAMBLIN & FILS
- We've long had this little French white Burgundy stacked by the case in
our shop. It comes from the Lamblin family in France's Chablis
region and, as you might expect, it's styled along the lines of a crisp,
mildly flinty white wine.
You won't find any sweetness here and it's not an oak aged wine, either.
Nothing fancy but for a really solid weeknight Chardonnay, this is the
house favorite of many people in our neighborhood.
Currently in stock: LAMBLIN 2020 BOURGOGNE BLANC Sale $15.99
- A few years ago we stopped in to see the Talmard winery as we were
visiting Beaujolais and Macon. Monsieur Talmard was blown away to
have someone come 6000 miles to say hello, see the place and have a sip of
Macon. Most of his visitors come from within a 25 kilometer radius
and they carry away bottles and cases of wine.
"Why did you come visit?" he asked.
I explained that we've been selling his lovely little Chardonnay for
several decades and as I was traveling through the region on my way to
several other wine regions, I simply had to visit this font of
Macon. Well, we were also hanging out with friends from the Macon
region and dining together.
- "But there's nothing to see." he said. "It's just
some tanks, some bottles and a non-descript winery building."
- We told him we'd sold hundreds of cases of Talmard Macon and I just
wanted to say "thanks" for making a good wine and offering it
for a modest price.
Every year we taste Talmard Macon-Chardonnay and it's routinely a
delight. Nothing fancy, mind you, but it's solid, easy-to-drink
Chardonnay. And affordable. Talmard is not getting rich making
this wine and neither are we, as we sale-tag it in hopes people will want
to discover other French whites.
Currently in stock: TALMARD 2020
That may be the only oak barrel in the cellar...and it's used as a table,
not for aging wine.
Comtesse Marion is $13.99 and comes from the south of France...no oak, but it's
beautifully aromatic and appley...easy drinking and we've been seeing numerous
case purchases by customers who've enjoyed a bottle or two to start...
It's from the Domaine Preignes le Vieux, some 31 southwest of Montpellier and
some 9 miles east of Béziers, well off the beaten path.
The fortress pictured above was built in the early 1200s.
The property was acquired by the Vic family in the early 1900s.
They have about 270 hectares of land, much of which is planted with vineyards.
These days the place is run by Aurélie Vic and her husband Jérôme.
She's the winemaker, having studied enology years after getting her degree in
chemistry (and doing clinical research in another field).
The Chardonnay grape can produce a rather neutral, bland wine if it's not
properly farmed. Chances of finding a good, non-oaked Chardonnay from the
Languedoc, where vineyards are often pushed for high yields are pretty small.
But this Comtesse Marion wine is remarkable as it displays the classic
apple-like fruit of Chardonnay with a pear-like tone, too.
Currently in stock: 2020 COMTESSE MARION CHARDONNAY
- The Textbook label was created by our friends Jon & Susan Pey.
Jon worked for a national importer of wines and his Pop spent a lot of
time in Paris. Susan worked for a small restaurant group here in the
Bay Area as a wine scout.
One thing led to another and after many years of working for other
enterprises, they launched their own brands.
Jon carried on in Susan's stead as she passed away unexpectedly some years
They had a vineyard in Marin County and made some darned good
Riesling and Pinot Noir. But working as a one-man-band took some wind out
of Jon's sails, so he has changed course and sold his Textbook brand to some
wine investment company which owns a number of other brands including MacRostie
and Markham in California and Argyle in Oregon.
We're not sure how much Jon is involved these days, but he is still mentioned prominently
on the winery website.
The winemaker is Abigail Horstman who has been affiliated with Carlisle,
Rombauer, Robert Mondavi and Markham.
The 2021 Chardonnay is styled to be a crowd-pleaser: Barrel fermentation
and a high percentage of a malolactic fermentation...ten months in French oak
with one-third of the barrels being brand new. The acidity level is modest
so we find this to be on the softer end f the spectrum. The fruit is
sourced from the southern part of the Napa Valley...Oak Knoll predominantly.
Another feature of this wine is its price. We have it sale-tagged at just
$19.99, while the winery price is $27.
WE TYPICALLY OFFER A FEW CHARDONNAYS FOR SAMPLING IN OUR
- Wine Tasting Daily.