What’s not to like about California Chardonnay?

What’s not to like about California Chardonnay?

A lot. They can cling to the palate like a child to his mom on the first day of school. Most smell of buttered toast and vanilla rather than apples, pears and citrus. Too many are tooth-numbingly sweet and have a palate heat that comes from letting the grapes get so ripe that alcohol approaches 15%.

These fat, rich Chardonnays stand out in tastings, win medals and earn high scores from influential American critics. ‘Publication X gave it 94 points’ is all a salesperson needs to say to customers, and the wine flies off the shelf. That’s why vintners keep making them, although I suspect the producers of full-throttle Chardonnay don’t drink much of it themselves. Finishing a glass can be tiring.  

Also, this style isn’t compatible with many dishes. Buttery, caramelised, alcoholic Chardonnay isn’t a food wine, though it might make a fine partner for crème brûlée – or perhaps served as dessert all by itself.

During the past decade, most California Chardonnay has followed the same formula: toasty oak (from barrels, chips, powders or staves) + buttery softness (from malolactic fermentation) + ultra-ripe fruit = sales success. Chardonnay remains the top-selling varietal in the US, and it’s the mouthfilling, hedonistic California style that Americans have come to love.

Collectively, we don’t know any better. We don’t have a history of drinking wine with meals. We’ve been raised on creamy milk and sugary soda pop. There is an astonishing amount of sugar in our processed and fast foods, and we develop a taste for it. We crave instant gratification, and that’s what most California Chardonnay delivers; there is no need to search for nuance nor guess at the optimum drinking window.

Thankfully, high-end producers such as Stony Hill, Hanzell, Mount Eden,Mayacamas and Chateau Montelena have stayed their original courses, producing flinty, lemony, structured Chardonnays that have palate-cleansing acidity and the capacity to improve in the cellar. Rarely do they score 90+ points upon release, yet, when placed on the dinner table, they dazzle with their balance, backbone and minerality.

Better still – drum roll, please – there are signs that the stylistic pendulum is swinging back towards Chardonnays of refinement and crispness, at all price points. I’m seeing more firm, palate-cleansing wines that show less movie-theatre popcorn and toast character and more pure fruit and clarity.

Perhaps it’s because winemakers are winning the battle with their score-seeking marketer and producing wines they want to drink themselves. Maybe it’s pressure from writers who have bashed the heavy-handed sameness of California Chardonnay (guilty). Or are consumers beginning to embrace the concept that wine should go with food?

Savvy vintners are increasingly sourcing grapes from California’s cooler regions, like the Russian River Valley and its chilly sub-appellation, Green Valley, in Sonoma County. Carneros, which straddles Sonoma and Napa counties, Monterey County and Santa Barbara County are also among the coolest areas in the state to grow Burgundian varieties.

The trick is to get the fruit ripe in a cool climate, so it slowly develops complex aromas and flavours and refreshing natural acidity. Growers experimenting with rootstocks, clones, trellis systems and moisture control encourage mature flavours at lower alcohols.

Some winemakers now ferment a portion – and in a few cases, all – of their Chardonnay in stainless steel tanks or barrels, to preserve brightness and acidity. More wines are going into older barrels rather than new French oak, allowing for texture development without wood and vanilla overload. Complete malolactic fermentation is no longer a given.

For 30 years, Gary Farrell has walked the tightrope between elegant understatement and palate richness in his Russian River Valley Chardonnays. The 2004 Gary Farrell Cresta Ridge Vineyard ($38) is seamless in its integration of fruit and subtle oak, and there is a flash of minerality that’s difficult to mine from California’s soils and climate.  

The 2004 Buena Vista Carneros ($20) is toasty on the nose, yet the palate bursts with lively green apple and preserved lemon notes, with an elegant finish and relatively moderate 13.9% alcohol. Jekel’s 2004 Gravelstone Chardonnay from Monterey County is lean and Chablis-like, and at $12, it’s tremendous value.

I hope the trend for Chardonnays to pair with something other than lobster thermidore continues. But what took so long?

What Linda’s Been Drinking This Month

Charles Krug, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley 2005

It’s heartening to see a winery rebound after years of underachievement. The Charles Krug Sauvignon Blanc is proof of recovery from a 1980s–90s funk. The wine is racy and refreshing, with minerals, moderate grassiness, juicy lime and tropical fruit on a midweight palate. Drink now. $17; US markets

Dumol, Syrah, Russian River Valley 2004

It’s a huge, powerful wine now, yet give this infant 2–5 years in the cellar and its  tannins should integrate nicely with the ripe black fruit, roasted meat and cocoa character, brisk acidity and most-welcome minerality — a rare find in Rhône varietals made in California.  $50; US markets

Written by Linda Murphy