Napa Valley chardonnay hits many pleasure points for wine enthusiasts. The iconic style is packed with ripe fruit flavors, oak spice complexity, and a rich, round texture. What causes pause, at times, is the price tag. In a quick scan of online offerings, single-bottle retail prices of $49.99; $55, and $72 glare back from the screen.

While sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio may have risen up the white wine ladder of popularity, chardonnay continues to dominate the scene, remaining the highest volume varietal wine sold in the United States. We want chardonnay. But with the astronomical costs of land, grapes, and oak barrels among thousands of other expenses, can great Napa Valley chardonnay be made at $40 or less a bottle? The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintner Tasting Panel explored this question with a tasting of current vintages at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Prices of the wines ranged from $15 to $40, and the vintages spanned from 2013 to 2016.

Panelists included local Masters: Peter Marks MW and Bob Bath MS, and some of the valley’s top winemakers: Cameron Parry (Groth); Dan Pearson (Larkmead); Alison Doran (Hill Family Estate); Mike Conversano (Pine Ridge); Todd Graff (Frank Family); Tom Rinaldi (Pellet Estate); Julie Lumgair (J. Moss Winery); Ashley Heisey (Long Meadow Ranch); May Britt Malbec (Malbec & Malbec); and Laura Lujan (on the Silverado cellar team).

When asked her impressions of the wines following the blind tasting, Julie Lumgair commented on the interesting range, “There are bright, crisp wines and classic, fuller-figured chardonnays; very stylish for the price points.”

Cameron Parry caused laughs around the room while discussing the retained acidity in many of the wines, declaring: “Hi, I’m Cameron Parry and I like acid in my wines.” He also liked the fact that oak played a supporting role in many of chardonnays, instead of dominating the show.

Ashley Broshious, Advanced Sommelier and a Master Sommelier candidate, said she was “extremely impressed” by Napa’s chardonnays, saying she would have confused a few of them for white Burgundies if this were a multi-regional tasting. Napa Valley and other premium wine regions around the world create their chardonnays using Burgundy’s long-instilled techniques of barrel fermentation and maturation; malolactic fermentation, and lees stirring, which all add complexity to the final wines. Despite the lower price points of these Napa Valley chardonnays, Ashley found all levels of oak-influenced flavors; something that is more expected at the higher end of the price scale due to the expense of oak barrels.

Winemaker Tom Rinaldi picked up a mineral character in some of the wines, and questioned whether concrete eggs were one of the vessels used to produce these particular wines. He was also surprised at the more restrained use of oak in the wines, recalling the “oak bombs” of past Napa Valley chardonnays.

Given that the majority of the wines still had oak complexity, Bob Bath found them well-priced, and also noted that while the alcohol levels of the wines varied greatly (ranging from 12.8 percent to 15.1 percent), that did not seem to be a factor in overall assessments.

Peter Marks brought age-ability into the discussion, commenting on the complexity in the chardonnays with bottle maturity. He found wines from the first flight, which included one from the 2013 vintage, and the remainder from 2014, “beautiful,” believing these wines can age well.

Grab a bottle of Napa Valley chardonnay from the store shelf, and you can expect these premium-level characteristics from your wine: flavor complexity, oak spice, bright acidity —- even when that wine is less than $40.

Top choices

The panel’s choices of top Napa Valley chardonnays at $40 and less are:

Clos du Val 2015 Chardonnay Los Carneros ($32), generous oak flavors and a creamy texture are balanced by refreshing acidity in this flavorful, full-bodied chardonnay.

Hagafen Cellars 2016 Chardonnay Oak Knoll District ($30) melds ripe fruit flavors with coconut-toast complexity, making this wine taste like a trip to the tropics.

JAX Vineyards 2015 JAX Y3 Chardonnay Napa Valley ($20) Peach, pear and juicy apple fruits mingle with toasty oak in this velvet-textured, rich chardonnay.

Sequoia Grove Winery 2015 Chardonnay Napa Valley ($28) Pear and red apple fruits are beautifully layered by toasty oak flavors in this seamless sip of chardonnay goodness, finishing with a lively freshness from the bright acidity.

Silverado Vineyards 2016 Chardonnay Los Carneros ($35) A complex blend of tropical fruit flavors such as banana, mango, melon – and some toasty oak to boot.

Starmont Winery & Vineyards 2014 Chardonnay Los Carneros ($22) has pronounced aromatics with plenty of stone fruit flavors, white floral and toasty oak complexity.

TEXTBOOK 2015 Chardonnay Napa Valley ($27) While generous with fresh oak and toast, this wine balances in plenty of ripe pear and fresh lemon zest flavors that linger luxuriously on the elegantly long finish. A beautifully structured wine.

Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at catbugue@gmail.com. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. 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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