5 White Lies about Chardonnay, Plus 25 Excellent Bottles to Try

Photo © Con Poulos
By Ray Isle Posted February 25, 2015

No wine has ever been so unfairly maligned as Chardonnay. F&W’s Ray Isle debunks the myths and extols the magnificence of great bottlings at every price and in every style.

No wine has ever been so unfairly maligned as Chardonnay. F&W’s Ray Isle debunks the myths and extols the magnificence of great bottlings at every price and in every style.

Myth: All California Chardonnay Is Big & Buttery
Once upon a time (let’s say the ’90s), it might have been true that the vast majority of California Chardonnay was big and buttery. But there’s been a slow swing back from the most excessive styles. There are still plenty of big, rich wines, but on the whole they’re less oak soaked than before. And each year there are more unoaked Chardonnays. Typically aged in stainless steel rather than wood, they’re crisp, zingy and full of unadorned Chardonnay character.

Wines to Try
2013 Joel Gott Unoaked Chardonnay ($18)
Winemaker Joel Gott sources grapes from all over California's North Coast (Monterey, Napa and Sonoma) for this tropical fruit-accented white.

2013 Balletto Teresa's Unoaked Chardonnay ($20)
Low-temperature fermentation and zero use of oak barrels keep this Chardonnay bright and minerally; Balletto's substantial vineyard holdings also mean the winery has access to top-quality fruit.

2013 Hendry Unoaked Chardonnay ($20)
Napa Valley's Hendry is best known for its impressive single-vineyard Zinfandels, but this peach-scented Chardonnay shows that winemaker George Hendry has a deft hand with whites as well.

2013 Morgan Metallico Chardonnay ($22)
One of the first wineries to focus on the unoaked style of Chardonnay in California, Morgan has been making its Metallico bottling since the 2001 vintage. The 2013 has a citrus-zesty character due in part to the cool winds that flow in from the Pacific across the Santa Lucia Highlands, where Morgan's vineyards are located.

2012 Marimar Estate Acero Chardonnay ($29)
Clean, crisp and impressively precise, this focused wine from Marimar Estate gets its name from the Spanish word for "steel" ("oak," by the way, is roble).

Myth: All Cheap Chardonnay Is Bad
Often, when I'm searching for terrific bottles among 50 bargain-price wines, I wonder whether playing Powerball might give me better odds. But in hunting for vale Chardonnays, I've found that two or three good ones always turn up. Not all cheap Chardonnay is bad—the variety grows well and easily in wine regions around the world, so a talented winemaker can coax out surprising complexicty at low price.

Wines to Try
2014 Man Family Chardonnay ($11)
A touch of American oak (10 to 20 percent, depending on the vintage) gives this direct, citrusy white a little spicy sweetness that's very appealing.

2013 Yalumba Y Series Unwooded Chardonnay ($12)
A perennial great value, this bright, peachy Australian Chardonnay balances ripe South Australian fruit character against the zestiness that comes from stainless steel fermentation and aging.

2013 Milbrandt Vineyards Traditions Chardonnay ($13)
The Milbrandt family farms more than 2,500 acres of wine grapes in eastern Washington state—essentially a reservoir of quality fruit that allows them to produce impressive wines like this appley Chardonnay for equally impressive prices.

2014 Brampton Unoaked Chardonnay ($15)
Lime aromas and flavors are the hallmark of this lively, stainless steel-fermented white.

2014 Viña Leyda Chardonnay ($16)
Chile's Leyda Valley has a cool climate ideal for producing streamlined, lightly herb-scented Chardonnays like this crisp bottling. It would be a great partner for shellfish of any kind—particularly oysters on the half shell.

Myth: Big, Oaky Chardonnay Are Passé
When it comes to Chardonnay, oak-aging itself is never going to be passé. The truth is that most of the world’s best Chardonnays—from grand cru Burgundies to California’s greatest bottlings—spend time fermenting and aging in some percentage of new oak barrels. The key is intelligent, nuanced winemaking that uses oak to subtly influence the wine, not warp it; to accentuate the wine’s natural character, not conceal it. That’s how a grand cru white Burgundy might be aged for almost two years in new oak barrels and taste sublime rather than unbalanced.

Wines to Try
2012 Olema Sonoma County Chardonnay ($15)
Winemaker Joel Aiken spent many years in charge at Beaulieu Vineyards; that may explain how he’s able to coax so much flavor and grace into a sub-$20 white like this one.
2012 Walter Hansel The Meadows Vineyard Chardonnay ($32)
Appropriately enough, this creamy Chardonnay, full of bright tropical fruit notes, comes from a vineyard planted in a low-lying meadow near Sonoma’s Santa Rosa Creek.
2013 Patz & Hall Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($38)
Donald Patz is mostly known for his large range of single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, but this regional blend is superb in itself: Spice notes mingle with ripe orchard fruit flavors under a light sheen of oak sweetness.
2012 Beringer Luminus Chardonnay ($39)
Beringer’s full-bodied Luminus draws on fruit from the warm southern end of Napa Valley, the Oak Knoll AVA. Its ripe citrus flavors get a toasty note from oak barrel fermentation, but winemaker Laurie Hook kept the acidity high enough to give it freshness as well.
2012 Sbragia Gamble Ranch Chardonnay ($40)
The Gamble Ranch is a massive property in the center of Napa Valley. Renowned winemaker Ed Sbragia culls some of the top rows for this richly textured white; though it’s full of ripe pear and apple fruit, it doesn’t come off sweet in the slightest.

Myth: Experts Despise Chardonnay
For every trend crazed sommelier or wine writer who dismisses Chardonnay in favor of oxidized Jura Savagnins or funky Friulian Ribollas aged in ancient clay amphorae, there are probably five others who recognize that a disproportionate number of the world’s greatest white wines are Chardonnays, and not only from France. These are wines that deeply express where they’re from (that show terroir), that have the capacity to age in a cellar, and that are truly, inarguably distinctive. Besides, I’m a wine expert, and I like Chardonnay, so that disproves this myth right there.

Wines to Try
2013 Varner Bee Block Chardonnay ($48)
Bob and Jim Varner make several world-class Chardonnays from their home base in California's Santa Cruz Mountains. In 2013, the one that impressed me the most was the floral, citrus-edged Bee Block bottling: It has the acid structure and focus to age for years in a cellar.

2012 Antinori Cervaro della Sala ($50)
A touch of Grechetto (15 percent) gives this benchmark Italian Chardonnay a little additional zip. But it’s the quality of the Chardonnay fruit from Antinori’s Castello della Sala estate in Umbria that has made the wine famous.
2012 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay Napa Valley ($75)
There’s no doubt this Napa Chardonnay—which weighs in at 14.9 percent alcohol—is a substantial wine. But it’s also beautifully focused, with layers of stone fruit, lemon, honey and toasted nut flavors.
2012 Joseph Drouhin Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot Marquis de Laguiche ($135)
From a famed premier cru vineyard and marked by a ruined stony abbey in the center of its vines, this white has the precision and complexity that mark top Burgundies. It’s lovely now but should age for up to two decades in a cellar.
2012 Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay ($130)
When Penfolds head winemaker Peter Gago launched Yattarna in 1998, his ambition was to create an Australian Chardonnay that could compete with the best wines in the world. The 2012 is his best vintage yet—a gorgeous white, remarkably complex and yet seamlessly integrated.

Myth: French Chardonnay Is Expensive
Great white Burgundy is expensive—no one would deny that. Top grand cru bottlings run in the hundreds or thousands of dollars; even good-quality premier cru wines can set you back $80 or $90. But top Burgundies are a tiny percentage of the Chardonnay grown in France, and there are a surprising number of alternatives available in the $10 to $20 range. The trick is knowing where to look. Skip the prestigious Côte de Beaune. Instead, hunt for bargains in Burgundy’s more affordable southern end, the Mâconnais, and in the extensive vineyards of the vast Languedoc-Roussillon region.

Wines to Try
2012 Les Jamelles Chardonnay ($11)
Selected vineyards from a number of subregions within the Languedoc area provide the grapes for this fragrant, almond-inflected white.
2012 Paul Mas Estate Chardonnay ($14)
The scent of lime zest and flavors that recall ripe apricots define this appealing Chardonnay from a fourth-generation Languedoc winemaker.
2013 Château de la Greffière Mâcon La Roche-Vineuse ($18)
Winemakers Isabelle and Vincent Greuzard work together with noted importer Peter Weygandt to produce this pretty and surprisingly rich Mâcon white.
2013 Les Charmes Mâcon Lugny ($17)
A cooperative of more than 250 wine estates in Burgundy’s Mâcon region (which together farm over 3,700 acres of vines) produces this widely available, lighty minty wine.
2013 Christophe Cordier Mâcon Vieilles Vignes ($25)
50-year-old vines near the village of Charnay-lès-Mâcon are the source for this lovely, lightly smoky Chardonnay.

Recipes to Pair with Chardonnay:
Pork-and-Ricotta Meatballs in Parmesan Broth
Crispy Pork Chops with Warm Fennel Salad
Roasted Winter Squash with Vanilla Butter
Scallop-and-Bacon Pizza
Steamed Sea Bass with Potatoes and Avocado-Tarragon Salsa
Crisp Salmon with Sesame-Cumin Eggplant Panzanella
Apricot-Thyme-Glazed Roast Chicken
Caramelized Endives and Leeks with Smoked Mozzarella

Chardonnay Pairings
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