Think what you may and drink what you like, but California Chardonnay is alive and well. At the top end of quality, the wine is not only surviving, but thriving.
The 2010 vintage provided plenty of challenges for vintners in California. But in the end, the long, cool season, extending into October, played into Chardonnay's favor. It is a versatile grape, a winemaker's wine, since it can be made in a wide range of styles, with the two popular extremes being the full-on Burgundian approach snd the unoaked, stainless steel version.
The major difference between cooler years and warmer years lies in acidity and range of flavor. In cooler years, acidity is higher and tarter, and the core flavors lean toward citrus and stone fruits—tangerine, nectarine and white peach—and mineral. I also find that other green-skinned fruits such as green apple and pear can be tarter or riper depending on the year. In Chardonnays from warmer years, flavors can extend to more tropical pineapple, fig and apricot. Oak often plays a key role in flavor and texture.
Winemakers insist they haven't changed styles, despite talk that many are responding to calls for lower alcohol levels and less opulence. "I would hope producers are not intentionally changing their style, but instead embracing the uniqueness and qualities of the vintage," said Jason Jardine, president and winemaker for Flowers on the Sonoma Coast. "If you think about it, style should be the winery's or individual's interpretation of the vintage along with philosophical goals [and] objectives."
The best producers' Chardonnays are selling out, and many are increasing production in response to heightened demand. Chardonnay has come under fire from some wine-drinking quarters. It's a small but vocal minority, winemakers say. "Depends on who you listen to," said David Ramey, of Ramey Wine Cellars in Sonoma, "young somms and bloggers, or wine drinkers. Last I read, Chardonnay was still the most popular variety in America, and internationally, the single most expensive white bottling."
"I think there is a trend in California toward more elegant, less oaky Chardonnay, and that's good, because the wines are becoming more distinctive as a result," said vintner Brian Talley, whose vineyards are located in the Central Coast appellation of Arroyo Grande. He says the "'Anything but Chardonnay' [crowd] has run its course, and I'm seeing renewed interest in California Chardonnay in the marketplace. The less oaky style is very appealing to people coming off of other varietals produced with very little or no oak."
"The state of high-end Chardonnay as a varietal, I believe, has made a comeback during these recessionary times as consumers returned back to varietals they know well such as Chardonnay and Cabernet," said Elias Fernandez, winemaker at Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley. "If [consumers] splurged it was going to be on varietals they know something about and on brands they know are consistent producers."
William Hunter of Chasseur in Sonoma said that despite Pinot's ascent, it's Chardonnay that's in greater demand. "The state of Chardonnay as far as my project goes is doing very well," he said. "I'm actually significantly increasing the production of Chardonnay, with Pinot Noir remaining generally stagnant."
In my tastings of more than 200 Chardonnays from the 2010 vintage, quality is high, just perhaps a bit off the pace of 2009. Indeed, the cooler season in 2010 yielded wines with the aforementioned prominent citrus, white peach and mineral characteristics.
There's a nasty 2011 vintage on the horizon, one of the most difficult for California vintners in recent memory, but for now, it would seem that California Chardonnay will continue to rule the shelves, no matter what the naysayers may argue.
Mr Andrew J Green — Kansas — April 6, 2012 8:54am ET
Christopher Ogorman — St. Helena, CA — April 8, 2012 11:16am ET
Tim Mc Donald — Napa,CA — April 9, 2012 3:03pm ET
Ray Ondrejech — San Luis Obispo, CA — April 11, 2012 10:36am ET
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