We all love chardonnay. Can’t we just admit it? Chardonnay is the most popular grape planted in the United States and it accounts for about one in five bottles of wine sold in the United States, yet oddly consumers don’t want to admit they like it because, well, it’s so common.
Winemakers love it too. They start with a blank slate, exploiting opportunities that are greater in number than those involving other grape varieties. The choices explain why styles range from austere to buttery, oaky to unoaked, rich to lean.
In spite of denials that wine enthusiasts prefer the lean style of French chablis, they are buying “butter bombs.” Some producers even label their wines “buttery” to attract these fans. This character is attained through a secondary fermentation process called malolatic fermentation, which converts the tart malo acids, like those found in apples, to lactic acids like those found in milk. Producers who choose to convert all of their wine into lactic acids generally get a richer, more buttery wine. Others prefer more balance by adding sulfites to stop the process.
The roundness and creamy quality are also abetted by sur lies aging, or letting the wine rest on spent yeast cells. Those cells give a wine a yeasty, bread-like flavor but also enhance the mouthfeel.
Where the grapes are grown can also influence a chardonnay’s personality. Those grow in cool climates tend to be fresh and crisp with mineral, stone fruit and apple notes. Those chardonnays made in warm climates, such as the Russian River Valley, are rich and buttery with tropical fruit flavors.
Finally, the type of vessel use for fermentation and aging will have a profound impact on chardonnay’s personality. One aged in French oak, for instance, will be more complex — and more expensive because a barrel cost a winemaker more than $1,000. Unoaked wines are fermented in stainless steel or concrete tanks. These wines are stripped of oak characteristics, such as vanilla and spice.
Prices vary wildly for this grape variety. First and perhaps foremost, Napa Valley property is expensive and grapes there command a high price. It costs more than $6,000 to plant an acre of vines in Napa. A chardonnay from, say, Lodi will be considerably cheaper. Also, chardonnays from a specific vineyard are considerably more expensive than blends made from several regions.
Here are 10 luxury California chardonnays to tempt your palate — and your pocketbook. Don’t fret: next week we’ll have some bargain chardonnays from here and abroad.
Kosta Browne Bootlegger’s Hill Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2018 ($165). This luxurious wine defies the current model of over-oaked, extracted, creamy chardonnays that are popular in Russian River Valley. Instead, this single-vineyard wine has good acidity, leanness but depth and only moderate oak flavors. Fresh fruit character with grapefruit, pear and citrus notes.
Chappellet Grower Collection El Novillero Chardonnay 2020 ($55). The vineyard for this wine is located on a wind-swept section of rocky Carneros benchland. The wine has generous tropical fruit aromas and concentrated pineapple and spice flavors. The entire wine undergoes malolactic fermentation to give it suppleness.
MacRostie The Key Chardonnay 2019 ($70). Winemaker Heidi Bridenhagen draws grapes from top vineyards, such as Olivet Lane and Bacigalupi, to make this textured, complex and rich cuvee. Pear and honey notes with a dash of citrus.
Cattleya Cuvee Number Five Chardonnay 2020 ($55). Now in her fifth year with her brand, Bibiana Gonzalez Rave continues to make extraordinary chardonnays from the Sonoma Coast. The expressive aromas include ripe pears and Meyer lemon with a thread of salinity. The flavors are complex and rich with apple and honeysuckle notes.
Calera Mt. Harlan Chardonnay 2019 ($55). Sourcing grapes from a mountain, limestone-rich vineyard, Calera has a nicely balanced and barrel-fermented chardonnay. Aged 15 months in oak — 30 percent in French oak — it has vanilla flavors but it is not smothered in oak notes. Subtle aromas with white peach and citrus flavors and rich mouthfeel.
Copain DuPratt Chardonnay 2018 ($55). This California producer makes a number of chardonnays but this one from Anderson Valley is luxurious. It undergoes 100 percent barrel-fermentation and malolatic conversion, so there are oak notes and smooth mouthfeel. Apple and almond aromas with apple, citrus and mineral flavors.
Darioush Napa Valley Chardonnay 2020 ($58). This is a full-bodied wine with juicy apple notes, soft mouthfeel and hints of stone fruit and almonds.
Ram’s Gate Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay 2019 ($70). The Hyde Vineyard in Napa Valley graces the labels of a lot of respected producers, so you know you’re in for something special when you see it. Using a blend of musque and Robert Young clones, this Carneros chardonnay has a perfumy, melon nose and a rich texture. It underwent full malolactic fermentation. Tropical fruit and honey flavors with a dash of spice.
Mira Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 ($95). Also from the Hyde Vineyard, this big and full-body chardonnay undergoes full malolactic fermentation and is aged on its lees for 24 mouths to give it a rich, hedonistic mouthfeel. Complex, long in the finish and full of apple and peach flavors.
Lucia Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay 2020 ($50). We like what Jeff Pisoni is doing with chardonnay. Although known more for his pinot noir, the two chardonnays he crafts has the right touch of oak. Pear and peach notes make this a delicious quaff. The Lucia Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay ($65) is even more complex.
Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($36). Reasonably priced, this youthful cab has floral and herbal aromas with black cherry, red currant and olive flavors.
FEL Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2020 ($42). Anderson Valley is getting a lot of attention lately — this delicious and youthful pinot noir explains why. Luscious but bright raspberry flavors with a touch of clove and red currants.
The Mill Keeper Cabernet Sauvignon ($35). A project of third-generation vintner Tom Gamble, this wine draws from multiple vintages and is intended to assemble a blend of small, overlooked vineyards with the idea of preserving family-owned farms in Napa Valley. The name is inspired by the mill keepers of the 1800s. Simple, delicious dark fruit flavors with a dash of spice. Tom’s grandfather farmed crops in Napa Valley in 1916.