OK Chardonnay

OK, enough already; we’ve collectively beaten up on Cali chardonnay for so long now that it’s about time for a comeback. (Some things, like Hummers, don’t deserve the reprieve they may get via an Indian manufacturer, but that’s another issue.) So here they are, the first recent words out of my mouth in praise of chard. From California, the former bastion of over-oaked bombs. This will be a little listy. (My editor hates list-y articles.) But so be it.

Parducci calls itself “America’s Greenest Winery,” and who am I to dispute the contention. (Look for an anti-green backlash one of these days, too; mark my words.) I do remain a bit skeptical of claims that sustainable/organic/biodynamic practices actually produce detectably better wines, but Parducci’s 2007 Mendocino County Chardonnay (about $12) struck me as a very friendly wine, full of green apple, pear, and some melon notes, and very light on the oak. Friendly is not a bad thing, in case you were wondering. (Also try their Sustainable Red, a zesty blend of seven grape varieties, including viognier.)

Sequoia Grove’s 2005 Carneros Napa Valley Chardonnay is a little pricier at around $20, but its complexity makes the wine worth the extra bucks. Spice, green apple, tropical fruit with time in the glass … this is a beautiful wine with good acid to balance the plush flavors and aromas. It’s now produced from a Dijon clone, which should add a Frenchier quality (it did, however, lack the typical French minerality — at least in the short time I had to taste it) — but the proof is in the glass, and this one wins. By the way, it did not go through malolactic fermentation, that fancy term that means malic acid is changed into lactic acid, yielding a “buttery” quality and making the wine more food-flexible.

The winemaker from ever-popular and always-dependable Simi, Susan Leuker, was in town recently, and I tasted several of her wines — all great, by the way. The white that’s at our price point is the Sonoma County Chardonnay (always look for the latest release; we tasted the 2006). It was a paragon of balance (a favorite word, you might have noticed), teasing with retrained oak, flowers, apple, and pear on the nose, then seducing further with a little spice, and following through with delicate fruit and more apple and pear on the palate. It’s around $15, and if you want to up the ante on all fronts a little, consider putting down an additional $10 for Simi’s Russian River Chardonnay; it’s ramped up several degrees with more oak, true, but oak that’s subtly integrated. A real value (and that is part of our title after all) is represented by the Lincourt 2005 Chardonnay from Santa Barbara; at around $18, it delivers with floral aromas and fruit on the nose (let’s say pear and melon) and follows through with tropical fruit on the palate. “Juicy, but not fleshy” say my notes (they are, for once, legible), which I apparently thought was a good thing at the time — and still do, for that matter.

Of course, traitor that I am, I am sipping a French chardonnay as I write this. It’s the Joseph Drouhin 2006 Chablis, and it’s beautiful. The aromas and taste are minerally (I’m sure editors hate this kind of terminology as well), with hints of slate; lemon lingers on the palate (some might say lemongrass, and they have my assent), and I suggest a little green almond, too. As good as CA chards have become in the face of ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) criticism, their producers should all be tasked with tasting more Chablis. At least I will.

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