California Chardonnay: Reviews of New Releases
ABC [Anything But Chardonnay]? Chardonnay is California’s most widely planted variety, and is the most popular wine in the US. It represents an astounding 28 percent of all California wine. One of the secrets to Chardonnay’s success is the variety of styles it offers, from vanilla-infused, unctuous wines with significant residual sugar to unoaked, fresh and frisky wines that can pair with oysters on the shell. [About the latter, see our Report #10 Unoaked Chardonnay.] We’ve recently tasted a number of California Chardonnays from the relatively cool 2009 and 2010 vintages. And they’re quite a contrast with the warm 2007 and 2008 years. Given the vintage, we also find a variety of winemaking styles. While the traditional California style is well-oaked, buttery and rich, the new style is often aged in neutral oak, crisp and mineral-like with a low percentage going through secondary, malolactic fermentation. Tasting through the 25 wines reviewed below, we wondered if the pendulum has swung a bit too far towards the new style, especially for cooler vintages.
Our conclusion: Making a world class Chardonnay is very difficult. We all want a wine that’s full of fruit, with almost no obvious oak, of low residual sugar and good acidity, yet with a creamy, full mouthfeel and perhaps a chalky mineral note on the finish. Californian producers are getting better at making this ideal Chardonnay, but there’s still a way to go.
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