When the St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintner Tasting Panel met recently at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone to taste chardonnay wines priced at $30 and less, one thing was glaringly obvious. There were not many wines to discuss.

Just over a dozen samples were submitted for review. For an earlier tasting of red wines priced at $25 and under, several cases were submitted. Chardonnay, it appears, is quite different.

Panelists tasted through the 14 wines and then discussed the economics of chardonnay. Chris Phelps, winemaker at Swanson Vineyards, noted that it comes down to a return on investment and the fact that the market can bear a certain price for Napa Valley chardonnay.

Barbara Trigg of Appellation America spoke from a consumer standpoint, saying that when she wants to sip on a chardonnay, she wants it to be a good one and is likely to spend more than $25.

Panelists also discussed the availability of chardonnay fruit in the Napa Valley and whether this prompts wineries to only produce one chardonnay. It was noted that very little chardonnay exists north of Carneros and a good deal of that fruit is likely going into the region’s sparkling wines.

Christie Dufault, instructor at the CIA, spoke of the inherent characteristics of the grape, saying that chardonnay is a cool climate grape. Napa’s temperature climate, she said, lends itself more to Bordeaux varietals. Savvy consumers, she noted, are looking for cooler appellation chardonnay — the coast and Carneros.

Paula Moschetti of Rutherford’s Frog’s Leap Winery added that the winery does not use estate fruit but purchases chardonnay from Truchard Vineyards in Carneros. Their chardonnay has a suggested retail price of $26 — a wine that is not at the high end of the price range for a Napa Valley chardonnay. Moschetti explained that the wine’s production methods help reduce costs. While the winery ferments its chardonnay in barrels, there is not the cost of expensive new oak for aging the wines. The chardonnay matures in stainless steel or concrete vats to preserve its freshness, and the wine’s richness comes instead from the use of lees.

Panelists all agreed: chardonnay is very malleable. So many different approaches can be taken in the cellar that change the final wine, from malolactic fermentation, lees stirring, leaving residual sugar in the wine, the use of stainless steel, staves or oak barrels, and so much more.

Kimberlee Nicholls has been with Markham Vineyards for 20 years and calls chardonnay “a winemakers wine” for its very flexibility. Chardonnay wines are more reflective, she noted, of a winemaker or the house style. The chardonnay she makes is 100 percent barrel fermented but only 40 percent goes through malolactic fermentation; she wants it to be a food wine. Oak is used in maturation but only 30 percent of that is new oak.

This, however, brings on difficulties in the marketplace as Chris Oggenfuss of CADE and Plumpjack wineries pointed out. “Napa has a hard time defining what a ‘Napa chardonnay’ tastes like.”

This led panelists to discuss the need for stylistic variety in the market versus the confusion this can cause when diners review a restaurant wine list. If they don’t know a particular producer, they won’t know the style of chardonnay they are ordering.

The top wines of the tasting indeed included a range of styles from un-oaked to round and buttery. Three different vintages (2010, 2011 and 2012) were included in the tasting and the three flights were arranged by vintage.

Panelists chose the following as their favorite chardonnays priced $30 and under:

Big Vine Wines Chardonnay Carneros 2010 ($16). Big Vines is a cooperative of wine industry professionals which makes a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and this Carneros chardonnay in Napa, and a zinfandel in Dry Creek. Owner is Andrew Siegal and Director of Winemaking and Vineyard Sourcing is Kent Jarman. This fresh, full-bodied wine has great lemon citrus and orange rind flavors. It is fermented in stainless steel and aged for 11 months in neutral French oak.

Domaine Chandon Chardonnay Carneros 2011 ($26). This wine has rich, ripe pear, nectarine and spice flavors. Chandon recommends grilled salmon and halibut with their chardonnay. If you have not seen the Domaine Chandon cookbook by Jeff Morgan, you are really missing something. A flip through the first few recipes and you’ll likely be planning your next dinner party.

Chandon winemaker Tim Tiburzi has been with the winery for years, but that has not diminished his excitement for the science behind winemaking. If you are studying wine, you are going to want to talk to Tiburzi.

Beringer Chardonnay 2011 ($16). It is worth a visit (or return) to Beringer to remind ourselves of the work done by our pioneers like the Beringer brothers. They were some of the first to plant grape vines in Napa Valley. This 2011 chardonnay has lemon and lime citrus and ripe red apple and pear fruit flavors along with well-integrated baking spices. Winemaker is Laurie Hook along with Ed Sbragia, winemaster emeritus.

Ca’ Momi Chardonnay 2012 ($19.95). This is a full-bodied chardonnay with pronounced aromas of ripe, tropical fruits such as pineapple and peach, red apple and pear. You can try Ca’ Momi wines at their Napa Enoteca in the Oxbow Public Market. Completely authentic, the owners are fanatic about every single ingredient that goes into, and on, their pizzas.

Laura Michael Wines from Zahtila Vineyard 2012 ($22). The Zahtila Vineyards sit at the foot of Calistoga’s Oat Hill and their fruit is used by Laura and Michael Swanton to make this chardonnay wine. This 2012 has flavors of red apple skin and finishes with spices and a touch of heat.

(Catherine Seda is the St. Helena Star’s tasting panel writer and works for Balzac Communications & Marketing in Napa. She holds a diploma in wine and spirits from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, and enjoys all things wine. Contact her at catseda@gmail.com. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Not all wines submitted are chosen to be tasted as often there are more wines submitted than tasted. The wines are chosen by random. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.)


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