California Chardonnays are undergoing some positive stylistic changes, which has been refreshing. I've just finished tasting 300 of these wines, a mix of 2008s and 2009s, for Wine Spectator's July issue.
Chardonnay has its detractors, and there's plenty to critique about this often mass-produced, innocuous wine. But it is still the most consistently excellent wine made from the Golden State (although there is more competition now than ever). What makes Chardonnay the best, most steady performer (better than Cabernet or any other grape) is that it rarely bombs (like Cabernet did in 1998, 2000 and 2003.
By consistently excellent, I'm referring to overall quality, diversity both of style and appellations, availability (with good case numbers—Bogle made 250,000 cases of $8 Chardonnay that's very nice) and affordability (see prior comment). It's also true that Chardonnay takes in a lot of territory, from exquisite single-vineyard bottlings to high-volume California appellation wines that have sweet, fruit cocktail flavors.
But at its best, Chardonnay is still by far the top white wine made in California, even as Sauvignon Blanc makes notable quality gains.
The most exciting stylistic changes revolve around two factors.
One is that there are better-made "naked," or non-oak versions. These wines are fermented in stainless steel and typically have crisper acidities, snappier flavors, lower alcohol levels and often little or no malolactic fermentations. They offer a great alternative to the more popular and ever-present Burgundian versions that are typically barrel fermented, with malo, etc. That approach can lead to richer, fuller-bodied and fuller-flavored wines. But not necessarily.
The second change is that more 2009s made in the Burgundian style are sleeker, with higher acidities and fruit that's fresher and more vibrant. Winemakers say that the 2009s didn't necessarily have lower sugar levels, but did have higher acidities. That, plus some are simply backing off on oak a little. I noticed both the Paul Hobbs and Kistler Chardonnays seemed to have pulled back a little on ripeness and oak.
Change is one constant in wine. The Chardonnay market is a mature one, without much room for new brands, so there are fewer wineries trying to squeeze into it.
But even within the ranks of producers, there are so many variables, vintages aside, that allow winemakers to be even more creative when they have a chance to tweak a wine here or there. These are very positive changes.
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — April 11, 2011 7:54pm ET
Cutting Edge Selections — Ohio — April 11, 2011 11:20pm ET
Don R Wagner — Illinois — April 12, 2011 2:38pm ET
James Moseley — Rome,GA — April 13, 2011 3:48pm ET
Joseph Kane — Austin — April 13, 2011 4:33pm ET
James Moseley — Rome,GA — April 14, 2011 10:43am ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — April 14, 2011 11:48am ET
William S Price — Sonoma — June 3, 2011 12:18pm ET
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