Wanted: Well-made Chardonnay; sawdust lovers
need not apply
Check out Gabe's View for more wine reviews!
World-wide, Chardonnay is the most widely planted grape. Take a look at the shelves of your local wine shop, grocery store or virtually anywhere you can buy wine and it’s likely to astound you how many Chardonnays are on the shelf.
This is a wine that knows no price boundaries. Careful shopping will unearth examples for less than $5, or well north of $100. Within that range is a host of differences. Real estate is the first thing that will affect the price. Chardonnay planted on prime property in Burgundy France is going to command more than wine from an unknown region. After location, reputation, oak treatment and the amount of fruit used per acre all come into play. Of all of these, oak treatment is something of particular interest to me. For years, many California wineries specifically were guilty of over-oaking their Chardonnay. What they created were oak-laden butterball monsters that literally tasted like you had sawdust in your glass. Don’t get me wrong -- I like some oak on my Chardonnay; it adds complexity among other things. But I want to taste the fruit. So I’m going to present three Chardonnays that I like. Each of these has varying degrees of oak on them; none of them goes over the edge in my opinion.
The first Chardonnay is from Irony in Napa Valley. The 2007 Irony Napa Valley Chardonnay was made mostly from fruit sourced in the southern part of Napa. Small amounts of Monterey Chardonnay and Viognier were also blended in. The majority of the juice was aged in oak for 10 months, the remainder in stainless steel. About 9,500 cases of this Chardonnay were produced, and the suggested retail price is $13.99
Apple, caramel and vanilla characteristics are prominent when you take the first whiff of this wine. Pineapple and orchard fruits make their presence known from the very first sip. These flavors continue through the mid-palate, which leans towards tropical fruit notes. At the end of the mid-palate, toasty oak and apple pie crust notes emerge. These continue through the finish, which continues vanilla and touches of cream along with white pepper spice. This Chardonnay is framed by good acidity and will match well with light warm-weather foods such as soft cheeses, entrée salads or grilled chicken.
Often the struggle with lower priced wines is to find examples that taste like the grape in question. For $13.99 (less you shop around) this Chardonnay from Irony is a fine example of this great grape. It has sufficient complexity and good character. It’s not a wine made to blow you away, but for the price it will satisfy and provide value and pleasure.
Switching regions, the next wine is from Argentine producer Valentin Bianchi. I’ve been drinking their wines for several years now, and have found that they make some excellent ones in a pretty diverse array of styles and price points. They’ve become a go-to winery for me. When I tasted this Chardonnay I was pleased to find that it was another feather in their cap.
The Valentin Bianchi 2007 Chardonnay is made from fruit sourced in San Rafael, Mendoza, Argentina. This wine is all Chardonnay. This offering spent 8 months in oak. The barrels were 100 percent French and they were one third each new, one-year-old and two-years-old. About 4,000 cases were produced, and the suggested retail price is $17.99.
Vanilla, apple and white pepper are the most striking aromas in the nose of this wine. Orchard fruit such as apple and peach are conspicuous throughout the palate of this wine and accompanied by an underlying layer of creaminess. As you drink this Chardonnay, the mouth-feel is lush and luxurious, making for an elegant wine. There’s a ton of lingering spice in the finish along with a pleasant sized wallop of toasty oak and a final hit of crème brulee. Pasta dishes with cream sauce, four-cheese risotto and medium cheeses will be a good match for this selection.
The most impressive thing about this wine is how much it over-delivers in its price category. South American wines are known to do that, but of course not every example is a great value; the Valentin Bianchi is. If this were a Napa or Sonoma Chardonnay, let alone a French example, it would probably be a $28 or $30 wine. As it stands it’s one of the nicer instances of Chardonnay coming out of Argentina. Usually selling for under $15, it’s also very fairly priced and pretty widely available.
The third and final Chardonnay I’m looking at today is from Hess Collection. They’re in the Mount Veeder section of Napa Valley. This is a distinct mountain region generally known for a dozen or so wineries that produce primarily Cabernet Sauvignon. Some, such as Hess Collection, also produce other varietals as well.
The Hess Collection 2007 Mount Veeder Chardonnay is sourced at the Summit Vineyard, which is between 1,300 and 2,000 feet above sea level. This wine was aged in 4-to-5-year-old neutral French oak barrels. About 1,900 cases of this selection were produced, and the suggested retail price is $35.
Gooseberry, citrus and honeysuckle aromas are apparent in the nose of this mountain Chardonnay. Peach, apple and touches of pear come out throughout the palate. The two words that come to mind when drinking this wine are intense and pure. From top to bottom this offering is loaded with a solid core of unadulterated fruit. Spice and mineral notes make up the finish, which is impressive and lengthy. While this wine will pair well with an array of foods I prefer enjoying this concentrated and notable expression of Chardonnay on its own.
What I like most about the Hess Collection Chardonnay is that it does an excellent job of showcasing the intensity and persistence of mountain fruit. While at $35 this isn’t an everyday drinker, it’s worth every penny it costs. If you want to experience top notch Chardonnay from Napa Valley this example from Mount Veeder is a tremendous example. At close to 2,000 cases it won’t be on every shelf, but it won’t be too hard to locate either.
Each of these Chardonnays passes my test of having complexity without being overwhelmed by oak. That said each varies in style and price point, making this a trio of wines that will fill many of your different Chardonnay needs.