American consumers have a love/hate relationship with chardonnay. Still the king in white wine sales – 20 percent of all wine sales last year – chardonnay is as reviled as it is adored. Either it is a tasty wine with lush tropical fruit flavors and disguised sweetness or it’s Kool-aid with no redeeming value.
However tightly fans cling to its delicious character, critics find its profile so discordant and flighty that chardonnay just can't seem rise to the level set by great burgundies. Although some California producers aspire to produce a burgundian-like chardonnay with elegance and style, opportunists have jumped on the grape's success with sweet, over-extracted and over-oaked fruit bombs.
One new producer – Notable – has even created two versions that conveniently help you choose between a chardonnay that is fruity and crisp (Australia) or oaky and buttery (California). They sell for $15 each and give you a decent comparison of the two styles.
Those looking to define their chardonnay palates would be wise to gather a few to taste the differences that money can make. Alas, the French burgundies are prohibitively expensive but you could start with an inexpensive chardonnay from the Macon region or even pick an austere and minerally chablis. Both regions produce chardonnays that are starkly different than those made in the rest of the world.
Pay attention to barrel aging – one of the most significant influences to an oak-vulnerable chardonnay. Oak provides complexity, but also butterscotch, caramel, mocha, honey, and vanilla flavors. This may sound delicious to you, but to others it is an odyssey at the candy store.
That this style has met with new and growing resistance has spawned a field of chardonnays that are unoaked. Indisputably, these chardonnays complement food much better. You'll clobber Dover sole with a fruit bomb, but elevate it with an unoaked, pure chardonnay. However, those who abhor these chemistry experiments shouldn't be surprised to find an unoaked chardonnay shocking: your palate is so conditioned to taste oaky chardonnays that a naked version will blast the palate with a certain astringency.
Here are a few chardonnays to guide your palate. We have additional chardonnay reviews on our website, MoreAboutWine.com.
J. Lohr October Night Chardonnay 2015 ($25). This California producer doesn’t mess around when it comes to making boldly flavored chardonnays from a variety of clones. This profile is due largely to the stirring of the lees and malolactic fermentation that tend to give this chardonnay more dimension and texture. This one from Monterey County has opulent tropical fruit and peach flavors with hints of vanilla and coconut.
Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch Chardonnay 2015 ($44). This full-throttle Sonoma County chardonnay gets a full treatment of malolatic fermentation, sur lies aging and whole-cluster pressing to provide concentrated and forward fruit flavors. Apples and pears with a dash of mineral and caramel with moderate oak.
Wente Vineyards Riva Ranch Chardonnay 2014 ($22). Wente makes some of the best values in wine. This delicious example, spiked with a bit of gewurztraminer, has a full mouthfeel and a good dose of vanilla as a result of 90 percent barrel fermentation. Full malolatic fermentation and sur lies aging adds a creamy, buttery character.
Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Chardonnay 2013 ($35). Reasonably priced for the complexity you get here, the Duckhorn is swathed in oak with vanilla and butterscotch notes to add to the pear and peach flavors.
Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay 2013 ($22). People want to condemn K-J chardonnay because it's so common on the market, but bang for your buck it provides a consistent, well-made value chardonnay, albeit a tad sweet.
Bread & Butter Chardonnay 2015 ($15). Lots of oaky flavors burst from this value chardonnay. Vanilla, tropical fruit and citrus flavors with a creamy mouthfeel.
Dolin Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 ($39). From the ideal Santa Maria Valley, this delicious chardonnay has good complexity and balance. Full-bodied with apple and pear notes with a hint of nutmeg, orange zest and coconut.
Jordan Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2015 ($32). This reasonably priced, full-bodied chardonnay overdelivers with excellent balance, crisp acidity, bright peach and apricot flavors and a distinctive minerality.
La Follette Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 ($38). This silky chardonnay retains good acidity and a mineral component that keep it from going over the top. There is a dose of oak and vanilla, though. Peach and spice dominate the flavor profile.
Sea Smoke Chardonnay 2014 ($60). Just about everything from this Santa Rita Hills producer is smoking hot. Albeit expensive, we thoroughly enjoyed the Burgundy-like elegance of its estate chardonnay. The generous use of stainless steel tanks keeps the wine fresh and the fruit pure. The use of new French oak barrels (55 percent) adds a touch of vanilla to the mango and citrus flavors.
Domaine des Valanges Macon-Prisse Le Clos 2015 ($15). We love the chardonnays from this region of Burgundy. Using grapes from older vines and stainless-steel fermentation, freshness and crisp acidity are preserved. Delicate nectarine and citrus aromas with focused apple and tropical fruit flavors. A great value from the Macon.
Joseph Drouhin Laforet Chardonnay 2015 ($12). This venerable Burgundy producer has had a secondary line of wines called Laforet that represent great value. They may not have the character of Drouhin's premier cru burgundies, but they express the terroir.
Clos du Val Estate Chardonnay Carneros 2015 ($35). Only 20 percent of this wine underwent malolactic fermentation and only 20 percent of new oak was used during 10 months of barrel fermentation. That restraint preserves the pure fruit and acidity of this delicious and balanced chardonnay.
Stoller Dundee Hills Chardonnay 2016 ($25). Tasted in a flight of several chardonnays, we had to check the label to make sure this wasn't a sauvignon blanc. Without the oak treatment, the unoaked Stoller chardonnay stands out in a crowd. Crisp and unadulterated with tropical fruit and distinct lemon flavors.