There is no mistaking a chardonnay for a gewürztraminer, a torrontes or a muscat. The perfumed fruits of the latter three wines surround you before you even get your nose in the glass. These, as well as riesling, sauvignon blanc and countless others, are aromatic grape varieties, or what can be called your Type A grapes. Their natural fruit and floral aromas grab your attention.
While chardonnay is no wallflower, it is more of a Type B: a non-aromatic grape. Not that it is neutral — the best are far from it. Chardonnay will give you something when prodded, and it will shine when the winemaker goes the extra mile.
The chardonnay grape naturally provides green plums, green apple and citrus when grown in cooler climates. With a little warmth, you’ll coax out stone fruits and riper citrus flavors. Give it an extra shot of warmth and tropical fruits will flourish. Sometimes there will be an underlying mineral or stony characteristic. But it is the winemaking that can define a chardonnay wine the most. The grape marries well with oak-influenced flavors from barrel fermentation or aging; and it can also take on creamy, buttery flavors when allowed to go through malolactic fermentation (which happens right after alcohol fermentation). Stir the wine on its lees, and the winemaker adds richness to the wine’s texture.
At its recent tasting of current chardonnay vintages (2013, 2014 and 2015), the St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel reviewed 25 wines and determined that local winemakers are going that extra mile, crafting wines with great complexity and texture.
“The wines display really good winemaking,” said Brett deLeuze of ZD Wines. “Across the board, they are really well made, well balanced. Stylistic choices were made (regarding oak use, malolactic fermentation, etc.), but they are all good.”
Matt Reid, winemaker at Benessere Vineyards, commented, “The oak is restrained; the fruit shines through.”
Tom Rinaldi, a longtime winemaker in the valley, agreed, noting, “The oak is turned down. The wines are not as over-the-top as they used to be. The same goes for the residual sugar. The wines are more food-friendly.”
“Many of the wines are high in citrus notes, beautiful floral, even jasmine. They are not just residual sugar and oak bombs any more,” added Ashley Broshious of Arkenstone Vineyards.
Napa Valley chardonnays have not always been known for their restraint. Often, the grape’s natural aromas and flavors were lost in a sea of oak and butter. Rombauer’s wine gained particular attention during the tasting. Long known as the epitome of the highly oaked and buttery style of chardonnay, panelists noted Rombauer’s balance and restraint.
When it came to prices, they did not necessarily reflect panelists’ favorites. While the most expensive wine, a special commemorative chardonnay from Grgich, won first place in its flight, there were also winners in the $20 and $30 range.
Panelists’ top chardonnay wines:
Grgich Hills Estate 2013 Paris Tasting Commemorative ($93)
There was lots of talk about what Mike Grgich would drink to celebrate his 90th birthday. We think this is the wine for his 100th. Wild yeast, 18 months in French oak, no malolactic fermentation, and the use of grapes from the best vineyard lots all define the final style of this wine, but it is the special, illustrated label that screams celebration.
O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery 2014 ($50)
This chardonnay was aged on its lees for 10 months, adding a richness to the wine while also keeping it fresh and lively. Aging was divided among oak and neutral vessels: 32 percent new French oak; 42 percent neutral barrels (barrels used several times previously so no oak flavors are imparted on the wine); and 26 percent in stainless steel. Grab a glass of this wine and scroll through the website’s About section for a great read. (You’ll feel like you know the crew.)
Clos Pegase 2014 Mitsuko’s Vineyard Los Carneros ($30)
Winemaker Richard Sowalsky came to Clos Pegase with a diverse educational background including enology, medicine and the culinary arts. (That likely makes for one healthy and well-fed family at home.) This 2014 chardonnay has a refreshing lift of acidity with its lemon citrus, peach and fresh herb flavors.
Pine Ridge Vineyard 2014 Dijon Clones Los Carneros ($38)
Chardonnay is one grape that particularly benefited from the use of clones (exact copies of a vine that shows outstanding qualities). Growers in the valley used to eschew chardonnay as a stingy producer that cowered to disease easily. Once higher-yielding, virus-tested clones were used, chardonnay’s fortunes turned for the better. Dijon clones (a number of different clones coming from the French region of Dijon) are particularly celebrated for use in fine wines. Pine Ridge’s Dijon Clones Chardonnay has a rich, lemon zestiness to it.
Also winning favor in second place in each of their flights, were these Napa Valley chardonnays:
Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards 2013 Chardonnay ($50)
Todd Anderson was all about the dirt and rocks even before he jumped into the wine business. The problem with his previous career in geology was that he didn’t actually get to touch the stuff. Todd and his team deftly marry fresh oak-influenced aromas and flavors with stone fruit, lemon citrus and an intriguing note of lemon curd.
JAX Vineyards 2014 JAX Y3 Chardonnay ($20)
The terms urban and fun come to mind when thinking about JAX, which has a chic tasting room in San Francisco. It looks like some pretty good parties go on there, but the family has vineyards in Calistoga. Winemaker Kirk Venge is the one to cheer for the wine’s richly textured body and juicy stone fruit flavors.
Frank Family Vineyards 2014 Carneros ($35)
Robert Parker has been giving lots of love to Frank Family wines lately. Whether that excites you, this chardonnay by longtime winemaker Todd Graff has generous sweet oak notes with pronounced lemon zest and sun-ripened peaches. The palate is rich and soft, a chardonnay for those who want a fully flavored and powerful chardonnay from Napa Valley.
Baldacci Family Vineyards 2014 Sorelle Los Carneros ($38)
Hired to build a stone wall at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Rolando Herrera’s personality and talents caught the eye of proprietor Warren Winiarski. Rolando would later be selected to work in the cellar, and then on to Cellar Master at the celebrated winery. Today, he is winemaker at Baldacci, making top wines such as this lemon and peach fruited, sweet vanilla and herb infused chardonnay.
Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at email@example.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.