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The Mystery of California Chardonnay
By Robert Whitley
Aug 7, 2012
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California Chardonnay, according to the Wine Institute, is far and away the most popular wine sold in America. At the end of 2011, there were nearly 100,000 acres of Chardonnay under vine in California. And Chardonnay accounts for nearly 30 percent of all the table wine shipped from California to the U.S. market.

So how is it that hardly anyone I know drinks the stuff? This is the mystery of California Chardonnay. Few will admit they love it, yet wine merchants can’t keep it in stock.

I believe I know the answer. Chardonnay is the Wonder Bread of wine. It is consistent – there really isn’t a great deal of truly bad Chardonnay around – and reliably impresses with its richness and flavor. For the winegrower, Chardonnay is a money crop. It can yield several tons per acre and still produce credible wine. For the winemaker, making Chardonnay is sort of like painting by the numbers.

The result is predictable: Millions upon millions of gallons of very decent Chardonnay come to market each vintage and consumers buy it because it’s not only good, but relatively cheap. The problem for those who have a deeper curiosity about the wines they drink is that the Chardonnay narrative is boring. All of these wines are remarkably similar in taste and texture, as well as price.

Whether your producer of choice is one of the big companies such as Gallo, Kendall-Jackson, or Bronco, or the likes of the Napa Valley Chardonnay titans Beringer and BV, you can get a good bottle of wine for less than $10, which is the price point that takes up about 90 percent of the market.

If you want to ratchet up your Chardonnay selection a notch, you’ve got to pay. The question then becomes, what’s the point? Is more expensive Chardonnay necessarily better? Well, yes and no.

There is plenty of expensive Chardonnay I can’t get excited about. Rombauer, despite its dedicated following, comes to mind. Too rich, creamy and buttery for me. I can replicate the same taste sensations with a much less expensive bottle of wine.

The Chardonnays that rock my world are those that have the capacity to improve with age, much like fine white Burgundy. Cellar-worthy California Chardonnay is a rare commodity. Most of the Chardonnay produced in California, and elsewhere in the United States for that matter, is made with the idea that it will be consumed within days or weeks rather than months or years.

There are exceptions. These would be Chardonnays that have the firm structure necessary for extended ageing in the cellar. I can count them on one hand; at least the California Chardonnays that I’ve had good luck with over the past three decades. Typical California Chardonnay will begin to go darker in color and show signs of oxidation after about five years in the bottle. Exceptional Chardonnay with the structure to improve over time will remain fresh and lively, with good color, at a similar stage of evolution.

Chateau Montelena resides at the head of the class. This is the wine that triumphed over a stellar group of white Burgundies at the Judgment of Paris tastings in 1975. The Montelena story was portrayed in the 2008 movie “Bottle Shock.” Chateau Montelena Chardonnay retails for about $45 a bottle and is likely to improve for up to 10 years if stored under ideal conditions.

Grgich Hills Estate is right up there with Montelena. In fact, Mike Grgich, who made the wines at Grgich Hills for more than 30 years before his recent retirement, was the winemaker at Chateau Montelena at one time and made the Chardonnay that won the Judgment of Paris. Grgich has so much confidence in its Chardonnay that its new releases are always a vintage behind its rivals in the Napa Valley. The average price for Grgich Hills Chardonnay at WineSearcher.com is $38.

Nickel & Nickel Searby Vineyard Chardonnay is one of the finest wines in the Nickel & Nickel portfolio and probably its top Chardonnay. It is a vineyard-designate Chardonnay from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. The Searby Chardonnay always exhibits good spine, with fresh mouth-watering acidity and inviting aromas of lemon oil and spice. The average price at WineSearcher.com is $44.

Patz & Hall Zio Tony Ranch Chardonnay
is another simply stunning Russian River Valley Chardonnay that’s always firm and crisp, with underlying richness and a broad, complex palate of aromas, most notably a bright citrus and lemon oil overlay. Year after year this is one of California’s greatest Chardonnays. The average price at WineSearcher.com is $55.

Franciscan Cuvee Sauvage Chardonnay
is typically richer and heavier on the palate than I care for, but it has the acidity to penetrate its oily texture and the backbone to carry the wine for up to a decade in a good cellar. I’ve had many vintages that were remarkably complex, fresh and alive at the 10-year mark. The average price at WineSearcher.com is $35.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.