With Mother's Day quickly approaching, it's time to focus on the family matriarch. If wine makes for a good gift, put away those masculine zinfandels and Italian barolos. Mom wants chardonnay.
As much as critics and wine snobs scoff at chardonnay, it continues to hold title to the top-selling wine varietal in the U.S. One out five bottles sold is chardonnay. It is also the most widely planted grape in the world.
Because chardonnay rules, it's as vilified as the champion New England Patriots. Much of this is due to its abundance and commonality, but also to its twisted manipulation by mass producers. Too many chardonnays are over-oaked, too buttery, and even too sweet. If you want something more refined, look to France. Chardonnays produced in cooler climates – Chablis and the Maconnais – have higher acidity and restrained fruit flavors. Those made in the United States tend to be buttery and alcoholic because of excessive malolactic fermentation, warmer climates, and generous exposure to oak barrels.
There are a number of West Coast producers we like: Ramey Wine Cellars, Sea Smoke, Chehalem, Calera, Patz & Hall and Au Bon Climat. We have been particularly impressed recently with the string of chardonnays made by David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars in the Russian River Valley. He has eliminated skin contact, adds a bit of oxidized juice, uses only native yeasts, and is experimenting with neutral concrete egg vessels instead of oak.
Happy Mother's Day to all the moms. Now, go buy mom a bottle of expensive chardonnay:
Ramey Estate Chardonnay Westside Farms 2015 ($65). Very rich and complex, this big chardonnay would challenge anything Burgundian. Lots of tropical fruit flavor with a heavy dose of oak-infused coconut. We also liked the Woolsey Road chardonnay ($65).
Ramey Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2015 ($42). The cooler climate vineyard in this normally warm region provides a more crisp, balanced chardonnay. Tropical fruit, long finish, complex.
Ladera Pillow Road Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 ($50). Now in its 10th vintage, this single-vineyard chardonnay from the Russian River Valley is stunning. Very expressive in the nose with ripe apple and pear notes, bright peach and apricot flavors with a dose of oak-infused vanilla. Long finish.
Sea Smoke Chardonnay 2015 ($60). Winemaker Don Schroeder has reduced the oak exposure to his chardonnay and the result is a more food-friendly, elegant wine. In addition, he doesn't filter this wine so it gains more viscosity and mouthfeel. Peach and tropical fruit flavors with honeysuckle aromas.
Gran Moraine Yamill-Carlton Chardonnay 2015 ($45). This Oregon gem was one of our favorite chardonnays in this lineup. With character unique to this terroir, the wine has all pistons firing: texture, balance, and only a kiss of oak. After the wine gets happy in oak barrels for 16 months, it is transferred to outdoor stainless-steel tanks and left to mature in the cold Northwest winter.
FEL Anderson Valley Chardonnay 2016 ($32). You get a lot of chardonnay for the money here. With grapes coming from the cool Anderson Valley and no malolatic fermentation, the producer is able to keep the acidity fresh and the fruit bright. This is the style of chardonnay you should be serving at the table.
Frank Family Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay 2016 ($35). A friend of ours served nothing but Frank Family wine at her daughter's wedding reception and said people were amazed at the quality. So are we. Across the board, Frank's wines are great values. This chardonnay excels: creamy texture but lively acidity, apple and pear flavors with a dash of vanilla and spice. If you like your chardonnay on the oaky side, this is a winner.
River Road Un-oaked Sonoma County Chardonnay 2016 ($13). Ron Rubin Winery has an impressive series of inexpensive wines. We liked the price point of this unadorned, unoaked chardonnay. Citrus notes with pineapple and apple flavors and a dash of allspice.
Novellum Chardonnay 2015 ($12). This is one of the best values in chardonnay we have tasted in a long time. A part of the Eric Solomon impressive portfolio, the wine is made in the Cotes Catalanes region of southern France. It reminded us of a Macon Village from Burgundy with clean, pure fruit flavors and no oak. Simple, balanced, and loaded with unadulterated tropical and apple fruit flavors.
Benziger Sonoma County Chardonnay 2015 ($16). Bright apple and pear notes with a hint of vanilla and balanced acidity.
Drouhin Chablis Grand Cru Vaudesir 2015 ($75). It's hard to judge grand cru chablis because it typically needs at least 5-7 years to begin to reveal itself. However, this lovely chablis grants a glimpse of what is to come. Citrus fruit and of honey already show and a beautiful roundness in the mouth hints at future potential. Be patient with this well-crafted wine and you will be rewarded. The producer makes less expensive chablis that requires less aging.
Cuvaison Adda Chardonnay 2015 ($50). We loved the complexity and texture of this delicious, single-vineyard chardonnay from the cool Los Carneros AVA. Balanced with good acidity and lively citrus and peach notes.
Landmark Vineyards Damaris Reserve Chardonnay 2016 ($35). Created as an homage to winery founder Damaris Deere-Ford, this opulent and rich chardonnay has tropical fruit and citrus flavors with hints of vanilla and spice.
Stags' Leap Napa Valley Chardonnay 2016 ($30). Reasonably priced for what you get here, this big chardonnay has classic tropical fruit and pear flavors with a rich mouthfeel and a kiss of oak.
Mi Sueno Winery Los Carneros Chardonnay 2015 ($42). Generous pear aromas give way to grapefruit and lemongrass flavors with oak-inspired butterscotch. Soft mouthfeel.
Etude Grace Benoist Ranch Chardonnay 2016 ($32). Made from estate-grown Carneros fruit, this classic chardonnay has pear and apple flavors, balanced acidity and a mineral thread that sets it apart from the pack.
Dry Creek Vineyard DCV Estate Block 10 Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2016 ($36). Barrel fermented and aging in French oak barrels produces a luscious elegant tropical fruit driven spicy chardonnay. The ripe fruit and richness coats the tongue for a long lasting sensory experience.
Raeburn Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2016 ($22). This is a well-balanced chardonnay exhibiting medium bodied pear/apple fruit with a hint of citrus. Just a bit of toasty oak completes the package. A real winner from the Russian River Valley.
The Provenance Carneros Chardonnay 2015 ($35). With grapes from the well-respected Sangiacomo and Winery Lake vineyards, this chardonnay has stone fruit character, pear and honeysuckle aromas. Good and long finish.
Sonoma-Loeb Envoy Chardonnay 2016 ($38). We liked this wine for its balance, burgundian-feel and moderate oak flavors. Citrus and clove aromas w3ith stone fruit flavors.