In its native home of Burgundy, France, some of the highest priced and long lived Chardonnays come from some of the world’s tiniest vineyards.
In the time before new world wines were recognized internationally, Chardonnay ruled white wines on the continent. The French were regarded with admiration for their beautiful and long-lived white Burgundies.
And then, in 1976, came the Judgment in Paris which resulted in international recognition of New World wines. The explosion of Chardonnay in the New World had begun. The California wine industry in 1976 still had the blush of youth.
The Judgment was a Game of Thrones kind of change. This blind tasting, in Paris, with predominantly French judges, was organized by an Englishman. Each judge could award up to twenty points to each of the twenty wines served.
The level playing ground of a blind tasting focuses on aromas, color, taste and finish. No pedigree or pretty labels to distract. Price is no concern. Just aroma, flavors and finish.
Well, in a field of ten, Chateau Montelena 1973 Napa Chard beat the pants off the French Burgundies. Roulot 1973 Meursault Charmes did come in second ahead of Chalone Vineyards and Spring Mountain.
As a result, the growth of Chardonnay vineyards in Australia, California and Washington increased royally. The boom of the 1980s was responsible for making Chardonnay available to the common folk.
In the 1980s, Chardonnay was the height of fashion and so widely planted in a wide range of climates that a glut seemed possible. It was so easy to produce a high yielding crop that it quickly became the cash crop. Chardonnay can go from grape to glass in less than a year.
Winemakers love Chardonnay for its reliability and flexibility. It responds well to a wide range of winemaking techniques. It could be fermented in stainless or barrel, it does well with malolactic fermentation, aging sur lies and in oak barrels.
When ripe there are ample fruit sugars and because of the abundance of fruit sugars, higher alcohol content regularly occurs. It’s the one white grape that can be successfully matured in new oak barrels because the wine has the fruit to balance the new oak.
When the vineyard site is premier, yields are not too high and not too low, acidity is perfect, and the winemaking team makes all the right calls, Chardonnay can produce wines that could age very gracefully for a decade.
And these are the reasons why is there such a dramatic difference between a $3 bottle of Chardonnay and a $75 bottle of Chardonnay.
Various factors such as vineyard age, management and placement, yield per acre, labor for the various winemaking techniques that may be used, and the price of oak barrels.
A $3 bottle will most definitely come from high yielding vineyards, fermented in large stainless steel tanks and if oak is used, it’ll be chips or cubes. Much more affordable than a $800 barrel.
On the other side of the spectrum, a small, old vineyard with moderate yields, could be barrel fermented, aged sur lie, inoculated for malolactic fermentation and then aged in new Limousin oak barrels. Each process adds complexity to the finished wine. All this for only $75.
Depending on your needs and desires, there are still so many Chardonnays in this world to grace your table, patio and blind tasting. Here are a few worth considering:
Rolling Bay 2014 Reserve Chardonnay from the old Upland vineyard is complex, and balanced with lemon, butterscotch and minerality. Toodle on up to Bainbridge for a taste of this elegant wine.
Woodward Canyon Walla Walla Reserve Chard is another wine from old vineyards that shows beautiful fruit aromas and complexity of flavors that finish lavishly.
Owen Roe’s DuBrul Vineyard Chardonnay has both intense fruit and balancing acidity. This is achieved by blending lower elevation grapes with the tropical and citrus characteristics with the higher elevation grapes that have more intense acidity. The final blend saw 35% new French oak and 40% malolactic fermentation for rich, complex flavors.
Terra Bianca’s Arch Terrace 2015 Chardonnay is a great example of one of the many Dijon clones, the preferred French.
75% of the wine is fermented in stainless steel and the remainder is barrel fermented in neutral oak and spends 6 months sur lie. The wine exhibits red apple and tropical fruit flavors.
In California, this noble grape is the most widely planted. In 2014, the state crushed 718,000 tons and shipped 54 million cases.
Mendocino, Russian River, Santa Barbara and Santa Maria are some of the best California has to offer in terms of quality. Many of these areas are planted to the Wente clone.
The Wente clone is budwood used to plant Chardonnay at many vineyards. In 1912, Ernest Wente took cuttings from the France’s University of Montpellier nursery and planted them in Arroyo Seco.
Cuttings from the Wente vineyard then spread to a number of other wineries before eventually being certified by UC Davis. These certified vines are known as “Wente” and “Old Wente” if they are from vines before certification.
The reign of big, buttery Chardonnays persisted through the 1990s and early 2000s when the ABC movement got started. Anything But Chardonnay was hoping to quash the grape but only succeeded in changing the flavor profile.
One remarkable winery to put on your bucket list is Hanzell. They “work with a conservative hand in the use of French oak barrels and malolactic fermentation.” Their Chardonnays have richness with complexity and balance. And it ages very well.
Stony Hill on Spring Mountain is another. The 2013 Chardonnay has green apple, a graceful hint of citrus
Ferrari Camano is more readily available as is Kendall Jackson’s Camelot. Chateau St. Jeans has a bevy of vineyard designated Chardonnays and Mount Eden Old Vine Reserve is a favorite.
Pahlmeyer from Atlas Peak has aromas of honeysuckle and lemon oil and flavors of nectarine and pear. The wine is rich and balanced.
And the Judgment in Paris winner? Montelena’s 2013 Napa Valley Chardonnay has aromas of roses, lemon blossoms, and melon. Flavors of lemon meringue, peaches, and vibrant acidity would pair well with cream sauces on fish or chicken dishes. All this for $50.00 which is nothing compared to the second place winner whose wine is selling for upwards of $350.
Treat yourself royally and enjoy this noble grape in all its glory.