Monday, May 16, 2016

How to Choose the California Chardonnay Right for You

A version of this post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

For the California Chardonnay newcomers, or those looking to expand their palates and try different kinds of Chardonnay, welcome to the club. There are more diverse California Chardonnays today than ever before, and no matter what kind of style you like, there is a Cali Chard out there for you.

I love exploring lesser-known varieties and interesting blends from all over California, but there’s something about these wines that never gets old for me. Are some of them bland or over-oaked? Sure. But, for me, those well-priced delicious bottles and the more expensive gems I come across are worth the effort of exploring some of the less exciting wines. A lot of my wine friends have moved on from Cali Chard, as if it were a gateway drug one consumes before moving onto the hardcore stuff from Chablis and the Cote de Beaune. But I never outgrew the stuff, partly because California Chardonnay is a constantly evolving field, reinventing itself over and over again, interpreting incredibly diverse sites into unique and compelling wines.

But it all boils down to what you like to drink. For relatively new explorers, there are a few key factors in the winemaking process that will help you hone in on the style of Chardonnay you like, and hopefully keep you away from the kinds of wines you don’t like. Sometimes this information is on the label, but your sommelier or wine store employee should be able to direct you to the style you crave. A basic idea of what you’re looking for will go a long way.

You’ll be set if you keep these two concepts in mind: oak treatment and maloactic fermentation.

Oak treatment

Oak barrels (especially high toast ones like the ones from this Napa cooper) can add overt
flavors of toasted nuts and popcorn to a Chardonnay. It's all about knowing what you like.

Chardonnay and oak have a long and bumpy relationship together. For years, it seemed that every mass-produced and commercially successful Chardonnay from California was so totally slathered with oak that palates struggled to pull out the fruit underneath. This led to a widespread perception by many wine consumers and I personally find the best Chardonnays are fermented or aged in some portion of oak, and I prefer just a bit of new oak. However, there are a lot of Chardonnays aged in all old oak (which imparts less overt flavors) or stainless steel. The stainless steel-fermented wines (sometimes referred to as "unoaked" or "naked") tend to be more steely, crisp and bright in their approach.

The next time you’re tasting a Cali Chard, take notes on what you think about the oak. Is it overbearing or too toasted? Or does it accent the fruit nicely, like a dash of pepper in a sauce? If you find a wine whose oak influences jive with your palate, try to find out what kind of oak treatment the wine went through. If it’s 100% new French oak, congratulations, you’re an oak lover. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If you dislike the sometimes strong vanilla elements from new American oak, that’s something to avoid in the future. If the stainless steel-fermented wine feels a bit too thin, maybe steer clear of unoaked Chardonnays.

Maloactic Fermentation

Reading this word might make your eyes glaze over, but it’s an important factor to consider in wines, and especially white whites like Chardonnay. All wine goes through what’s called primary fermentation, in which the grape’s natural sugars are converted by yeasts into glorious alcohol. However, red wines, and many whites, undergo this secondary process. After alcoholic fermentation, lactic acid bacteria can convert malic acid to lactic acid. Malic acids are sharper and more intense (think lemons and green apples), while lactic acids are less harsh (think yogurt and milk).

If you've tasted a Chardonnay and thought of buttered popcorn of whipped honeybutter, odds are it went through a decent amount of maloactic fermentation. Like oak, maloactic fermentation occurs on a spectrum. Winemakers can inhibit it entirely, or winemakers can allow the process to undergo "full malo," resulting in a wine of significant creaminess. Many wines fall somewhere in the middle, with moderate levels of creaminess but some tart, crunchy aspects from some amount of malic acid. If the buttery and creamy nature of some full malo Chardonnays is too much for you, move on down the spectrum and seek some out that undergo some (or no) maloactic fermentation. If a wine is sharply acidic, like biting into a hard green apple, try one that has undergone maloactic fermentation.

Since my
last report on California Chardonnay, I’ve tasted through a bunch of wines, most from the 2014 vintage, although a few late-released 2013s are still hitting shelves. These wines represent a good example of what’s available on the market. These wines were received as trade samples and tasted single-blind.  

2014 Tom Gore Vineyards Chardonnay - California
SRP: $13
Light gold color. Smells of honey, pear butter, yellow apples, yellow flowers and nougat. But the palate provides refreshing acid to complement the creamy, almost chunky, mouthfeel. Flavors of glazed pears, orange marmalade, bruised apple, along with nougat and honey. Rich and full of forward flavors, but the zesty acid keeps it balanced. 60% barrel-fermented, the rest in stainless steel. (85 points)

2014 Prisoner Wine Company Blindfold - California
SRP: $30
Light gold color. Nose of creamy pears, apples, peaches and kiwi, a fruit salad of goodness, along with some honey salted nuts and toasted coconut. Rich and creamy but moderated by some light acidity. Flavors of baked pears and apple butter, some apricot jam, along with cinnamon, peanut brittle, honeyed green tea. I get hints of chalk underlining the wine as well. Rich flavors but doesn’t get too heavy, as there’s a bit of freshness underneath. A kitchen sink blend of Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Chenin Blanc from renowned vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara and Mendocino. Aged mostly in French and Hungarian oak, 25% new. (87 points)

2013 Gainey Chardonnay - California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills
SRP: $22
Light gold color. Such vibrant aromas of lemon curd, lime zest, white floral perfume, sea breeze and chalk dust. So clean and racy on the palate, this is crisp but shows some plumpness as well. Lemons, limes, oranges and yellow apples, the fruit is pure and lively and accented by pretty notes of nut, nougat, chalk and minerals. Aged 10 months in about 25% new oak, mostly French with about 20% American oak. A crazy value at about $20. (90 points)

2013 Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay Highland Estates Camelot Highlands - California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley
SRP: $30
Light gold color. Smells of roasted peanuts, hazelnut spread and bread dough on top of yellow apples and oranges, but I also get some floral perfume notes. Bold and creamy on the palate with a rich presence, but some moderate acid keeps it refreshing. The yellow apple and nectarine fruit is slathered in wood, toasted almond and honeyed tea. I have a high tolerance for oak in Chardonnay, but this is pushing the limit. Some underlying floral perfume and chalky elements try to shine through, but the oak beats them down. Aged nine months on the lees in 40% new French oak. (85 points)

2014 Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay Highland Estates Santa Maria Valley - California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley
SRP: $28
Rich gold color. A big and tropical aromatic blend of orange marmalade, baked pear, toasted nuts, pear butter and honeysuckle. Fat texture, creamy but some refreshing acidity. Yellow apples and pear butter topped with toasted nuts and honey. A viscous style but so tasty. Nine months in 36% French oak, 14.5% alcohol. Almost all fruit from the Camelot Vineyard. (85 points)

2014 Cambria Chardonnay Bench Break - California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley
SRP: $22
Medium gold color. Smells of yellow apples, honey butter, toasted nuts and apricot jam. Bright acidity bounces off the plump yellow apple, apricot and lemon fruit. Crisp and clean, which is balanced with nutty and creamy elements. Refreshing, lingering minerality. Very nice for the price. (87 points)

2014 Jordan Vineyard & Winery Chardonnay Russian River Valley - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $32
Bright gold color. Aromas of yellow apples, apricot, lemon curd, and well-woven creamy and nutty sense that plays well off bright floral and chalky elements. Medium+ bodied. A lightly creamy presence on the palate is rushed over by refreshing acidity. Flavors of green and yellow apple, lemon curd and crunchy apricot mix with notes of honeyed tea, raw almond, cinnamon and some floral perfume and a hint of chalk. Lots of flavor, but it stays bright and crisp throughout with a long finish. Another solid example of this perennially good Chard. An all-around infielder of a Chardonnay, considering the modest maloactic fermentation (30%) and well-integrated oak (this spends about five months in new French oak.) (89 points)

2012 WindRacer Chardonnay Russian River Valley - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $40
Light gold. Bright but rich at the same time, I get plenty of rich yellow apple fruit, along with oranges, baked pear and a mix of honeycomb, white tea and chalk dust. Rich texture, a full wine but showing some vibrancy from the acid. Yellow apples and orange rind, the fruit is juicy and topped with hazelnut, honeycomb, white tea, vanilla and cinnamon. Full and modern, wears its oak proudly, but nuanced and showing some solid complexity. Aged 14 months in about 30% new French oak. (87 points)

2013 Alma Fría Chardonnay Plural - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
SRP: $40
Pale gold color. A beautiful and intoxicating nose of juicy oranges, lemon curd and all sorts of apples, there’s a richness here but it’s also so floral and full of spice and sea breeze. Such vibrant acidity, the wine is totally mouthwatering but packed with flavors. Oranges, apricots, pineapple and lemon curd, such complex but pretty fruit – lots of chalk, crushed shells and white flowers but some richer elements of honey and hazelnut are woven in wonderfully. Wow, such a long and nervy finish with crisp acidity and lingering minerals. A gorgeous Chardonnay that reminds me a bit of Cameron’s Clos Electrique in its insanely bright and delicious quality. (94 points)

2014 Matanzas Creek Winery Chardonnay - California, Sonoma County
SRP: $26
Nose: Creamy yellow apples and apricots, some honey butter, mixed in with bright oceanic breeze and nuts of peanut skin and almond. Palate: The body is creamy and velvety, but the acid is also bright and crisp. Rich with yellow apples, apricot, candied orange, notes of cinnamon, yogurt covered raisins, but also some bright chalky and sea breeze notes. Impressive stuff, it plays a lot of the Chardonnay positions well and provides a lot to like for the price point.- Fermented for eight months in French oak, 39% new. (89 points)

2014 Three Sticks Chardonnay Origin Durell Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
SRP: $48
Pale gold. The aromas entice me with their floral perfume, bright orange, peach and apricot, along with fresh salty breeze. The acidity is racy, which plays off the bold texture and vibrant fruit, but the balance is very impressive. Ripe apple, peach, papaya, drizzled with line, topped with chalk, crushed shell, saline. Contrast those with some almond and honey, which add complexity. This is a deep and lasting wine with an intriguing mineral-driven finish. From two different plots in the Durrell Vineyard, this wine is fermented in concrete eggs and aged in stainless steel with no maloactic fermentation. Wow. Seriously. (92 points)

2014 Three Sticks Chardonnay One Sky - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Mountain
SRP: $50
Medium gold color. Rich and tropical nose with guava, pineapple, honey, roasted nuts, bold but complex in the range of aromas. Bold, creamy texture on the palate, chewy almost but the acidity keeps it fresh and vibrant. Flavors of guava, apricot and limes mixed in there, the fruit is full but nuanced, and I get a range of non-fruit elements that I like: dried yellow flowers, honeycomb, coconut shavings, vanilla, crushed chalk and sea shells, some nettle and white tea. A lot of mountain stream and mineral complexities. Wow. This undergoes full maloactic fermentation in French oak barrels (40% new). It’s a beautiful wine, and an interesting contrast between the Origin Chardonnay. (91 points)

2014 Ghost Pines Chardonnay Winemaker’s Blend - California
SRP: $20
Rich golden color. Smells tropical and rich (pineapple, mango, white peach, honey) but there’s some bright elements of cut flowers and perfume. Creamy, buttery texture but some medium acidity keeps it relatively fresh. Baked pear, rich golden apple, topped with cinnamon, toasted nuts and nougat, some underlying notes of flowers and honey nut oats. Uncomplicated but well-made and very tasty stuff. Mostly from Monterey with some Napa and Sonoma fruit thrown in, this spends time on French and American oak. (85 points)

2013 Artesa Chardonnay Estate Reserve Carneros - California, Napa, Carneros
SRP: $40
Pale gold color. Aromas of yellow apples and pears, the honey and nutty notes bounce off of bright floral and dandelion elements. A gorgeous creamy texture on the palate is balanced by some refreshing acidity. The baked pear and yellow apple fruit is rich but not too much, topped with a mix of hazelnut spread, cinnamon, honey and toasted almond. Smooth, creamy finish. This opens up and shows all sorts of floral and toffee elements, which leads me to believe holding this for a year or two would be a good idea. A rich and creamy style but so delicious and quite complex. (88 points)

2013 Grgich Hills Chardonnay - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $43
Light gold color. Starts subtle on the nose, but time and swirling coaxes out lemon, guava and green apple along with some wildflowers, honey and mountain stream. This really gets going on the palate, though, with bright acid and some velvety texture. The fruit tastes like a mix of juicy orange, apricot and glazed pear. Just under the surface, schools of mixed nuts, dried flowers, honeysuckle and chalk. A moderately forward style but the wine taunts the palate with suaveness and freshness. Lingering finish with elements of mineral and salt. I think this will improve significantly over the next few years. The wine spends 10 months in French oak (40% new). (91 points)

2014 Freemark Abbey Chardonnay - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $30
Aromas of cinnamon, butter cream and toasted nuts underneath green pear and yellow plums. On the palate, this is a rich style with toasty notes but crisp acid and a bright approach. Flavors of baked pears, roasted nuts, nutmeg and toasted almond. Fun stuff. (85 points)

2012 Wind Racer Chardonnay Anderson Valley - California, North Coast, Anderson Valley
SRP: $40
Medium gold color. Aromas of apricot jam, baked pear, yellow apple, the fruit is topped with plenty of cinnamon, crushed peanut shells, some chalk dust and potpourri sneaks out on the back end. A velvety and smooth mouthfeel is balanced by moderate acidity. I get apricots and bruised apple, but also some lime juice drizzled in, which adds some freshness. Oak-influenced flavors of nougat and roasted peanuts are a bit on the heavy-handed side, but they don’t dominate. The wine finishes long and fresh with some notes of chalk and white tea. Bold but pretty. Aged 14 months in 100% new French oak. (88 points)

2014 FEL Chardonnay - California, North Coast, Anderson Valley
SRP: $28
Rich golden color. A ripe and juicy aromatic display of apricots, juicy pears and some, honeyed tea and slight cinnamon spice. A full-bodied, creamy wine, balanced a bit by refreshing acid. Straightforward flavors of baked pears, apple, topped with nuts and nougat flavors, some underlying floral elements. Stays fresh on the finish. (87 points)

2014 Wild Horse Chardonnay - California, Central Coast
SRP: $15
Medium gold color. Nose of rich baked pears, honeybutter, honeysuckle, some nutmeg. Plum and juicy texture, slight acid, a waxy, circus peanut kind of style with baked pears and apricot jam mixed with notes of almond and honey. Fermented in a mix of stainless steel and new and old French oak. Includes a 10% mix of Pinot Gris, Malvasia Bianca and Viognier. (83 points)

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