As one of the world’s most popular wine grapes, I feel bad for Chardonnay. Opinions of the wine are intense and quite polarizing thanks to California winemakers’ style choice back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Wines, back then, were flamboyantly big, bawdy, and voluptuous. They were heavily oaked, and in the case of Chardonnay, they were also heavily “buttered.”
Some wine critics praised the choice, so the crowds dutifully followed. But these wines were the antithesis of the more restrained Burgundian style, and that’s when the maligning began. As the California trend continued, sadly, the market was flooded with cheap and poorly made wines that overdid it, and the choruses got louder and louder. It became #chardcore versus the ABCers – (anything but Chardonnay).
Where do we stand today? While the Old World versus New World divide remains, many New World winemakers have moderated their recipes away from the overly oaked and buttered.
From here, I think it’s time to remind ourselves not to “judge a book by its cover” and revisit the various styles that exist today, as I am sure you can find one or two that suit your palate.
I hope this post tickles your fancy and will broaden your experience with Chardonnay.
Climate’s Effect on Chardonnay
Most wine grapes have a preferred climate, falling into either a cool or a warm climate. So, naturally, few will thrive in both. But one that does is Chardonnay.
Cool climate Chardonnay typically has more acidity and mineral characteristics. It is lighter-bodied, lighter in alcohol, and elegant. Flavors will range from citrus to orchard fruit like apples and pears. One may also find notes of minerals and stones.
Old-world, cool-climate regions producing Chardonnay include Burgundy, France, Champagne, France, Germany, Austria, and Northern Italy. New World regions include the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley in California, and Willamette Valley, Oregon. Additional areas include Canada; Tasmania, the Mornington Peninsula in Australia; New Zealand; and some regions in Chile.
Warm-climate Chardonnay typically is medium to full-bodied with medium acidity and higher alcohol. Look for opulent flavors, including stone fruits like yellow peach and apricot, to tropical flavors of papaya, mango, and pineapple.
Old-world, warm-climate regions producing Chardonnay include Spain and Southern Italy. New-world wines include almost all other wine regions in California, South Australia, and much of South Africa.
The Art of Being Malleable
In addition to being a dual climate beast creating different flavor profiles, this grape readily accepts guidance from the winemaker. In a word, it is malleable or easily influenced. And that, my friends, makes Chardonnay the “winemaker’s wine.”
If you want a clean, bright, and mineral-driven wine, there is one for you. If you want a plush, velvety, full-bodied wine that is oaky and buttery, there is also one for you. But more importantly, many wines also fall in between these polar opposites.
The factors that create these styles include the fermentation vessel (Stainless Steel Tanks, Oak Barrels (new and used), or Cement Eggs) and the aging vessels. In addition to where it is aged is, how it is aged. Will one age the wine sur lie or sur lie with bâtonnage (stirring)? Will there be a second fermentation – full or partial malolactic fermentation?
Stainless Steel tanks and Cement Eggs create fruit and mineral-driven wines (unoaked). Wines aged in oak barrels develop wines with a range of spice notes, including but not limited to vanilla, nutmeg, and other baking spices. Sur lie aging will add bready, yeasty, or pie crust aromas and flavors. Lengthy aging may also introduce nutty flavors like hazelnut or almond. Malolactic fermentation softens the acidity while adding body, texture, and mouthfeel.
Lastly, I will add that Old World Chardonnay “recipes” are driven by centuries of tradition with rules set forth by the region’s winery governing bodies. Whereas new world wines more or less have free reign to make whichever style they choose.
I could wax on and on and fall even deeper into a rabbit hole, but I think that is enough for now.
Chardonnay, Worth a Try
But first: About these wines
Quality comes first, and the price is second. That said, the least expensive on this list is $16.99, and the most expensive is $75.00. This list is a mix of wines available at wine shops (mostly Old World) or directly from the winery (New World). As you should expect, there are no mass-market wines on this list.
Ramey Chardonnay, Rochioli Vineyard,
Russian River Valley ($75.00)
This is my splurge, Chardonnay. It is a single vineyard designated wine sourced from the Rochioli Vineyard. The Rochioli family has grown grapes on their property since the late ’50s. The third generation now farms the vineyard.
The first time I had this wine was the 2017 vintage. It was the highest-rated Chardonnay on Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 List in 2020. And I can see why. The 2018 vintage was equally astounding. The 2019 vintage has sold out, and 2020 is not yet released.
This wine will stay on my radar. It is sold directly from the winery for $75.00 a bottle. And worth every penny.
It is elegant with stunning acidity. It is lightly oaked, fruit-driven, yet with a hint of flinty minerality.
Ramey Wine Cellars primarily sells its single vineyard-designated wines on its website and at the winery. Ramey Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($36-$42), is sold throughout the country.
Colline aux Fossiles Chardonnay, Vin de France,
Roussillon, France ($16.99)
Most Chardonnay in France is from Burgundy and Champagne. Both of these regions are cool climates. Wines from these areas are highly regulated to preserve the quality and traditions of the regions. This is not one of those wines.
This wine hails from the Roussillon region in southern France, thus a warm climate. So the wine will offer characteristics unlike the designated Chardonnay regions in the north. Additionally, the wine must be designated “Vin de France” (essentially a French table wine). This wine is leaps and bounds better than its designation, so for $16.99, this wine is a steal.
Of Note: In most of France, the variety is not on the front label. However, as you can see in the image on the right, this wine clearly states “Chardonnay.” That means that this wine is for export only.
This wine is hand harvested with fermentation and aging in stainless steel tanks and 500L French oak barrels.
This is a lovely wine that will please almost any Chardonnay drinker. Lightly oaked, medium body, moderate acidity, and gently fruited.
It sells at bottle shops around the country. In Charleston, you will find it at Seven Star Liquors, 915 Folly Rd., in the strip mall at Folly and Camp Rds. Again, it sells for $16.99
Methven Family Estates Chardonnay, Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, OR ($28.00)
Willamette Valley offers a gamut of wine varieties but is most known for Pinot noir and Chardonnay. These are gorgeous cool climate wines.
Methven Family makes fantastic wines, and the Chardonnay is no exception. When I hosted a tasting of their wines, I sold 42 bottles of the Chard, the most of any of their wines.
This wine ages for ten months in French oak barrels (20% new French oak, 80% neutral)
Tasting notes: Lush, stone fruit nectar, not buttery or oak-driven, with a creamed honey mouthfeel and a medium weight.
The wine sells at the winery and online for $28.00 a bottle. Shipping is additional and pushes the price over $30.00+ a bottle. But ask my clients… It’s worth it.
Claude Manciat Macon Villages,
Burgundy, France ($19.99)
Thevenet & Fils Macon-Pierreclos,
Burgundy, France ($19.99)
I have lumped these two wines together because of their similarities. They are both from Burgundy. And they are both from the southernmost district in Burgundy, the Mâconnais. There are further distinctions, but for my purposes, this is enough.
When many think about white Burgundy wines, they think they are expensive. And some are, especially those from the Côte de Beaune sub-region of Burgundy.
But the Mâconnais is where you can find value-driven Chardonnay that drinks way above its price.
Classically French! Delicious
These wines sell for $19.99 and are fan favorites for many of my concierge clients. They are currently selling the 2020 vintages.
Both sell at bottle shops around the country. In Charleston, you will find it at Seven Star Liquors, 915 Folly Rd., in the strip mall at Folly and Camp Rds.
Harney Lane, Chardonnay, Home Ranch,
Lodi, California ($30.00)
Harney Lane, Chardonnay, Scottsdale Vineyard,
Lodi, California ($28.00)
These two Chardonnays are polar opposites, and I love that a winery chooses to make completely different styles of this classic grape.
Home Ranch Chardonnay ($30)
The Home Ranch Chard is more of a traditional style. You can see from the bolded words in the description below that this wine is lightly oaked with a medium body and texture. “Just Right.”
Individual lots are barrel fermented in French oak with a combination of indigenous and inoculated yeast, undergoing partial malolactic fermentation. We choose our barrels to best emphasize the fruit and vineyard characteristics rather than showcasing the oak itself.
Scottsdale Vineyard Chardonnay ($28)
The Scottsdale Vineyard Chard is lean and austere. Think Chablis when you think of Scottsdale Vineyard. Lively, vibrant, and lightly fruited.
The grapes go into the press, whole cluster, and the subsequent juice is then fermented cold in stainless steel tanks before it moves to stainless steel and neutral barrels*. The wine does not undergo secondary fermentation**. It ages, without stirring, on light lees for six months*** before it is racked from barrels and prepared for bottling.
*neutral barrels have been used several times and will impart little to no oak flavors into the wine. Neutral barrels do allow for oxygen transfer.
** No Malolactic fermentation – so no buttery, creamy notes
*** no bâttonage with a short period “on the lees” means less influence
Try these wines side-by-side to understand how winemaking influences the outcome.
Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley, California ($37.99)
A new distributor in SC is bringing some stellar wines into Charleston. And this Chard from Napa is rocking my world. Soft and round with pleasing, lively acid. Balance. Great structure!
Matera’s winemaker is Chelsea Barrett, daughter of Heidi Barrett Peterson. If you know the Barrett name, it needs no further explanation. But trust me when I say that Chelsea stands on her own as a great winemaker. So far, I have sampled three of her wines and find each one to be an outstanding example of what the wine should be.
If you have never heard of Materra and love Chardonnay, get your butt to Seven Stars to pick up your first bottle. It will not be your last.
It sells at bottle shops around the country. In Charleston, you will find it at Seven Star Liquors, 915 Folly Rd., in the strip mall at Folly and Camp Rds. It sells for $37.99 at the shop.
We know this is a long post, but we hope you found it interesting and useful.
We would love to know what your favorite Chardonnay is, so please leave us a comment below.
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After the credits……
Chardonnay is one of the primary grapes in Champagne. Blanc de blanc champagne is 100% Chardonnay
Just some of the same of French Chardonnay: Chassagne-Montrachet, Montagny, Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault, Saint-Albin, Saint-Véran, Pouilly-Fuissé, Côtes-de-Beaune, and Chablis