Wine Talk

Snooth User: EMark

I'm Liking Napa Chardonnays

Posted by EMark, Jul 12, 2013.

I am pretty much prejudiced towards red wines.  However, that does not mean that I drink them exclusively.  I do drink quite a bit of white wine.  Probably, because, like most Americans my age, we are encouraged to bias out protein input away from red meats.  The good news for me is that I do love seafood and chicken.  So, that is really not a sacrifice at all.  Also, while I am quite OK with drinking red wine with fish or chicken, most of our home preparations are fairly simple, and, so, I would say that something more often than 50% of the time I will have a white wine with them.

Some time ago, I took pains to drink any white wine but Chardonnay.  More than likely, the reason for that is that everybody I knew seemed to order nothing else in restaurants (talk red and drink white), and, I guess, I wanted to be contrary.  Interestingly enough, when wine ordering was passed to me in a restaurant, and I ordered a Sauvignon Blanc or an Albarino, people would rave.  "Wow, that's really good.  What kind of Chardonnay is that?"  OK, that should make it pretty obvious that few of my professional associates knew precious little about wine.

But I am getting way off course, here.

In the last couple of years I have been trying more Chardonnay--no particular reason--and I have discovered that I am more impressed with California Chardonnays from Napa Valley than from any other region.  For clarification "any other region" means any other region in California.  I have already posted in this Forum that I agree that White Burgundies are outstanding.  So, I do not have to be convinced of that.  I am not familiar at all with Oregon Chardonnay's.  So, I still may have some research to do there.

I the last few years I can recall having outstanding Napa Chardonnays from Beringer Private Reserve, Chappellet, Heitz (thanks, again, Jon), Keenan, and Lewis.  The Sonoma Coast seems to get a lot of attention for Chardonnay, but, to my recollection, the only example that I have had from that region that stood out was from Flowers.  The only standout from the Central Coast that comes to mind was a Foley "Steel" that saw no oak 

If I was to characterize my preference, I would say that Napa Chardonnay's are a leaner style than other California versions--more acid, a hint of fruit, but not overwhelming, and, most importantly, no in-your-face butter or vanilla.  I happened to be reading notes on Keenan's current offering, and I noticed that the do not use malo-lactic fermentation.  I don't know if that is the norm with other Napa producers.  It is also worth noting that in addition to the Napa bottling from Lewis, I have also enjoyed their Sonoma bottling.  So, I am wondering if winemaking technique is the key here as opposed to geography.

So, are there any more opinions about the relative merits of California Chardonnays?  Feel free to recommend that I try one of your favorites.  I am happy to continue the research.

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Reply by JonDerry, Jul 12, 2013.

Chardonnay & Cabernet, the old CA stalwarts...I can go explore as much as I want but it always feels like coming home to old friends when drinking these wines.

I've come around on Chardonnay for its easy going, refreshing nature and good citrus and nutty taste, and when it has some crunchy acidity and judicious oak it's really enjoyable. Heitz has been one of the few Napa Chard's that gets credit for having the above qualities. I'm sure there are more sourced from Carneros, Napa's default cool climate for Chard and Pinot Noir that aren't yet on my radar, but I'd imagine it's hard to beat Heitz at the price point.

Speaking of Napa whites, it'd be worth your time to sign up for Dirty & Rowdy's list to grab some Napa Semillon. It's very restrained and pure, absolutely a delight to drink. They're expecting to sell out this weekend, so best to act today.

For the Sonoma Coast, you may find that you have to pay a little more for the top notch (single vineyard) stuff, because the general Sonoma Coast is huge and can get a little watered down, depending on the producer. If you want to experience the best, Ceritas and Littorai both source from top notch vineyards like the Heintz vineyard in the SC. Unfortunately these can be tough to get, but Littorai is more obtainable, and their list probably has space as I was able to jump on. When visiting Littorai, I was also impressed by their straight Sonoma Coast Chard.

Sta Rita Hills in Santa Barbara is also worth your time. Liquid Farm and Clos Pepe are my favorites, while Dragonette's Sauvignon Blanc gets heaps of praise. With the addition of Sandhi, you would do well to just live on these producer's whites. 

Reply by outthere, Jul 12, 2013.

Guess who else does some great Napa Chards...






wait for it










Arnot-Roberts of course.

I think I impressed eMark with their Matthiasson.

Reply by napagirl68, Jul 12, 2013.

Nice thread, and timely!  I am gravitating back to chards... this time, vs. the minerally RRVs, I am liking the Central coast chards that are made with little to no malo (NO BUTTER PLEASE!), but I do like a kiss of oak.  Just a tad bit of toast.  I mostly describe this as a chard with a lemon creme brulee taste... That lighter, floral lemon at the start, with a hint of "brulee" at the end.  NICE.   JD, I want to try Liquid Farm after reading your various posts about it.  Will seek it out :-)

Reply by GregT, Jul 12, 2013.

So Emark, it's kind of interesting. Eric Asimov wrote about Chardonnay recently in the NYT. I sent a riposte to a friend, but I don' think he published it on his blog yet. 

For a long time I didn't drink much Chardonnay at all, not because I didn't like it but because there was a lot of other wine to drink and I didn't encounter a lot of it in my normal activities. Then a few years ago I tried to sell some and realized that I liked it a lot and I understood why people like it. 

Two reasons mostly. First, it has the most beautiful name of any grape. It just sounds pretty. Second, it can be quite good. Since it has so little personality of its own, it completely reflects what the winemaker wants it to. The problem is that it's all over.

About six years ago I was in Hungary tasting some magnificent Chardonnay at a winery that dated back to 900.  The winemaker informed me that it was the last vintage because they were going to rip out all the Chardonnay. "Why?" I asked.  His response was that it was too hard to sell just another Chardonnay.

And that seems to be the case - the stuff is all over. It's in Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Texas, California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and that's just up the Pacific Coast!  I can't think of a wine-producing country, and very few regions, that don't have some Chardonnay somewhere.

I don't know that Napa is really the best place for it, although the examples you mention are fine and up in the mountains I guess it should do fine. But there's a lot in CA and elsewhere and it's not crazy-priced either, except for some. In WA, the Columbia Crest Chardonnays and those from their sister winery Chateau St, Michelle, are really great values. In Michigan, there's some really good stuff.

Whether oaked or unoaked, it's all over and a lot of it is good. I have no objection to buttery, oaky Chardonnay if that's what I feel like drinking, and BTW, it's great with lobster in a butter sauce, but something from Beaujolais or the Sonoma Coast or Penedes can be really good too. And if you get a chance, try some from Domaine Bongran. He was told his wine wasn't "typical" so he couldn't label it as being from the region. It's from Mâcon. 

Reply by JonDerry, Jul 13, 2013.

You're right about the name Greg, same goes for Cabernet as well. 

They're both everywhere, and I hear more about Australian Chard lately.

Any Michigan wineries you recommend? Have been meaning to try some wines up there.

Reply by GregT, Jul 13, 2013.

Wyncroft. May be the best. Farther south than some of them , closer to Chicago.

Farther north, Circa makes an outstandingly good Blaufrankisch. And Chateau Grand Traverse does a credible Riesling and Chardonnay and a really good Gamay Noir. Stands up to anything from Beaujolais. 

Reply by EMark, Jul 13, 2013.

Thanks for the comments, folks.  I am continuing the research.

Jon, I am still looking for Liquid Farm.  Maybe I should travel over to the west side--or drive up to Lompoc.  I am on the wait list for Ceritas.  With luck enough current enrollees will die before I do.  (For what it's worth I am also on the Bedrock waiting list, and received a note the other day indicating that I might have a chance to be upgraded next month.)

Yes, OT, that was another good one.  Mrs EMark agrees.

NG, I think you and I are on the same page.  Central Coast Chardonnays that I have tried have been consistently good, but few of them snap my carrot quite like the ones that I cited.  On the other hand, a blind tasting might be instructive.

GregT, as is not unusual, makes a good observation about the name "Chardonnay."  I also agree, Greg, that the Columbia Crest/Chateau St. Michelle offerings are very attractive, especially, when you look at price.


Reply by JonDerry, Jul 23, 2013.

Greg has a promising Chard report up: Looks like good values all around CA



Reply by EMark, Jul 23, 2013.

I had a Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch the other day.  Outstanding, but I'm not sure it was a "value."

Reply by JonDerry, Jul 24, 2013.

What year was the Shafer?

I agree, not the best QPR for CA Chard, but not horrible either. I probably won't buy it again unless they curtail the oak but there's little chance. Shafer loves that expensive French oak.

Reply by EMark, Jul 24, 2013.

2011, Jon.  $47.99 at Wine Club in Santa Ana.  The most I've ever paid for a Chardonnay--including Burgundy.

Again, though, the good news is that we both enjoyed the wine.  There was definite oak, but the part I liked was the tartness from acid.  So, even though I barked a bit, if I saw again, I'd buy it.  Referencing your proposed binary rating system (from what, a year ago), I guess this wine rates a 1.

Reply by JonDerry, Jul 24, 2013.

2011 is great for finding that sourness/freshness in CA. It was an anomaly for CA really, so you might consider stocking up. Second to 2011 would be 2010.

Reply by JenniferT, Jul 26, 2013.

I have having problems making peace with most of the california chard I've been trying. This is especially sad - now that I'm travelling more frequently for work (and working longer hours when I do so), my wine consumption  (and dedicated time to educate myself about wine) has gone waaaay down.

Whining aside, it is true that wine is more disappointing now when I dislike it...since I am drinking less. 

With california chardonnay, I find that I am really having trouble with the "in your face butter and vanilla" that emark describes. Specifically the sensation that I am drinking butter...or a more intense version, like movie theatre "butter". It's not even that I think I'm anti malo-lactic fermentation and oak - however I usually find that the "butter" seems to dominate the wine and I can't really appreciate the other elements. The best (worst?) example I've found of this thus far is the Rombauer chard - speaking from personal taste.

Interestingly enough, I did try two chardonnays from Mer Soleil (Santa Lucia, I think), and I thought that both their oaked and unoaked chardonnays were pretty fantastic! 

So I'm thinking that I only like the wines that seem to have "well integrated" butter/vanilla/toast qualities. I only say this to approximate what I enjoy drinking - but I would like to know what makes these wines different. Clearly vintage and origin must have something to do with it? JonD, you recommend the 2010 - 2011 vintages as they have greater sourness/freshness...I will look out for some of this chard. I was also wondering why? Did winemakers generally keep their approaches constant and it was due to unusual weather? I would like to do a vertical tasting of the same wine to see for myself.

Ideally I'd like to understand more about WHY I hate the wines that I do. :)

Similarly, I glean that Napa and Central Coast chardonnay are regions that offer wine more in lines with what I am looking for? I'd love to hear some ideas and explanations...are the differences due to style, climate, terroir, or some combination of all of it? 

I'll soldier through some more california charonnay (cough, cough) based on your recommendations, and look for some chardonnay from Oregon (or perhaps WA) to compare.

Reply by outthere, Jul 26, 2013.

Jennifer, I think that you prefer a stylistically different wine than the standard bearer butter bomb that has come to be known as Cali Chard. Look for unoaked Chardonnay to begin with because that will give you more of what you are looking for. Malolactic fermentation is common with almost all Charonnays and most reds as well. There tends to be a camp of anti-malo people but in all reality without it the wine would not be very good. Some winemakers shut down malo before it's finished but no malo will produce a  Chardonnay that is bitter and unapproachable. The oak treatment is more of what you are not liking rather than the fermentation processes. So look for some unoaked Chards to begin this stage of your journey.

Reply by EMark, Jul 26, 2013.

Jennifer did you look at GDP's Chardonnay article that Jon referenced, above.  He makes some interesting editorial comments about California Chardonnay styles.  Then he reviews a list of samples.  The wines in this list are not low-dollar (in either US or Canadian), and may or may not be easy for you to find. 

The unoaked Mer Soleil that you tried.  Was that their "Silver" bottling?  I learned recently that it is cement-fermented.

Reply by JonDerry, Jul 26, 2013.

Jennifer, I with you and think your findings with CA Chards are completely normal if you're sampling/buying mainstream Chards.

OT makes a good point about fermentation...I think producer is the most important aspect of increasing your chances of getting good-great Chard that you'll enjoy. Only thing is they can be tough to find or buy. Names like Ceritas and Littorai are among the best but you can hardly get them short of making their list.

I'd suggest checking out some producers from the Sta. Rita Hills of Santa Barbara. Liquid Farm (their white hill sees no new oak), or their golden slope, which sees some new oak. Other producers recommended from this area are Clos Pepe, and Sandhi.

As I've mentioned before, I like Heitz for Napa Chard.

For Oregon, again I've heard great things about Big Table Farm.

Definitely try to key in on the 2011 vintage...Chardonnay shines in cool growing seasons in CA...otherwise too much heat will usually result in the grapes ripening too fast, losing their natural acidity/freshness. Growers can always try to counteract Mother Nature, but it's always best when the weather serves it up so little to no intervention is necessary.

Reply by JenShoe, Jul 27, 2013.

Hi All,

My job is actually to try wines from Napa and Sonoma county to see what ones we want to put on our marketplace.  I have had some AMAZING (non-buttery Chards) this summer.  Some of my favorites have been Iron Horse UnOaked Chard, VML from the Russian River Valley, Davis Family, Gary Farrell, Pezzi King...there are so many.  I think people are starting to get away from the big buttery...I love both so I hope they keep making the butter bombs like Rombauer, Cakebread, Frank Family that are my long time favorites.

Reply by EMark, Jul 27, 2013.

There's room for everybody's opinion, here, Jen.  Welcome to the Forum.

Reply by JenniferT, Jul 27, 2013.

Thanks, everybody! As always, the recommendations are appreciated.

And yes, emark: the mer soleil wine I was talking about was their "silver" bottling. It is my understanding that it's cement fermented. The same winery does another oaked chard. I purchased both (same vintage) to compare side by side earlier this year, when I started trying to learn about wines. 

OT: Thanks for the info re: malo-lactic fermentation. I didn't know it was necessary. Is it "excessive" malo-lactic influence that makes a wine so buttery? Or do those elements also come from elsewhere?

I did read through GDP's article and I thought it was excellent! (Super informative for me, anyway). I do think part of what trips me with chard is how easily it can be made to express whatever a winemaker wishes. It certainly seems to be more of a blank canvas, for better or worse - depending on how much you happen to like an artist, I guess. Hence, the importance of the producer, as Jon suggests.

To the best of my limited knowledge, two of the most overt avenues for outside influence/manipulation are malo-lactic fermentation and oak. So I'm trying to figure out where my happy medium is - where these outside influences seem to elevate the wine and not mask it, I guess. 

I did find that I appreciated some butter and oak awhile ago when I did the number of pairings with lobster thermidor (still scarred from cheese grater incident - literally, lol!). However I thought the Rombauer was too much...even for that dish. I've heard that Cakebread is other iconic cali chard but haven't tried it. I may refrain from buying a bottle if it falls into the same butter bomb category (so thanks Jen!) I digress, but Iron Horse does one of my favorite sparkling my mind it seems like it has a foot in both the old and new worlds - to use stereotypes that I suspect are becoming antiquated. I'll have to look for their chard. (So much less romantic sounding than chardonnay! - I never thought of the influence of a grapes name on mass appeal before GregT's initial comment. Poor spatburgunder... now it will never be favored by the masses and ladies-who-lunch types, lol! Only weirdos like myself. And pirates, maybe. Now PN, on the other hand...)

Again, I digress. I've made a list of wines to look for from your suggestions...I'm going to see what I can find. I'll come back and let you know!

Thanks again!


Reply by fabb4lvr, Jul 27, 2013.

Still absolutely love Chateau Montelena's Chardonnay!

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