When you think of California Chardonnay, what sort of wine comes to mind? Oaky? Buttery? Those descriptors certainly apply to many of the state’s Chardonnay offerings, and for thousands of American wine drinkers, that rich vanilla-laden style has magnetic appeal.
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But not for this wine drinker. When it comes to whites, I’d rather taste fruit than barrels.
Luckily, it’s much easier to find subtly oaked California Chardonnays today than it was in the barrel-obsessed 1990s and early 2000s. In those days, California wineries bragged about using 100% new oak barrels for their Chardonnay. (The newer the barrel, the more oak character it gives the wine.) This practice was not only extravagant — a new French oak barrel can cost close to $1,000 — it produced wines so oaky they practically left splinters in your throat.
Wine drinkers eventually grew tired of those heavy Chards, and California winemakers responded by scaling back on the oak, or even abandoning it altogether to create unoaked versions. The unoaked Chardonnay trend seems to have tapered off in the last few years — some people found the wines to be too simple and austere — but interest in more restrained styles of California Chardonnay continues.
Making an elegant Chardonnay isn’t simply a matter of going easy on the new oak. Picking the grapes earlier in the season so they retain their acidity can add brightness to the wine, as can skipping or reducing malolactic fermentation, a process that softens wine and gives it a creamy or buttery character. If a winemaker is concerned that a lightly oaked wine will lack complexity and texture, stirring the lees — dead yeast cells that collect at the bottom of the barrel — can add depth.
This more restrained style of California Chardonnay is still more the exception than the rule, but the wineries that have embraced it are well worth seeking out. Here are six complex, fruit-driven examples of just how beautiful California Chardonnay can be.
Hanzell Vineyards Sonoma Valley Chardonnay 2010 ($75): Hanzell is known for its elegant, minerally Chardonnays, and this wine is the perfect example. It has aromas of lemons, green apples and pears, along with apple and citrus flavors. The wine is concentrated, with a rich texture and vibrant acidity.
Hanzell Vineyards Sonoma Valley “Sebella” Chardonnay 2011 ($36): This is a wonderful contrast to Hanzell’s richer flagship wine. It’s made with fruit from younger vineyards, fermented in stainless steel and aged in barrels that are one to three years old. The result is a bright, crisp wine with notes of green apples and nectarines, and a long lemony finish.
HdV Napa Valley Carneros Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 ($60): To fully appreciate this wine, it helps to know something about its pedigree. HdV (Hyde de Villaine) is a partnership between Larry Hyde and the De Villaine family, co-owners of Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Along with pear and nectarine aromas and flavors, the wine has racy acidity, minerality and beautiful purity of fruit.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Napa Valley “Karia” Chardonnay 2010 ($22): A terrific value for a California Chardonnay of this quality, the Karia starts out with aromas of soft vanilla and citrus. It’s bright and fresh on the palate, with spiced apple, stone fruit and citrus flavors, and nicely integrated oak. The wine is medium bodied, with excellent balance.
Marimar Estate Russian River Valley “Acero” Don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay 2011 ($29): With a name that means “steel” in Spanish, this wine is made without oak. It’s certainly “steely” in character, but it also has a bit of creaminess, thanks to full malolactic fermentation. The wine is fresh and food-friendly, with aromas and flavors of citrus and nectarines.
Patz & Hall Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2011 ($38): With lemon and mineral aromas, this pretty Chard has flavors of pineapple, citrus and spice. It’s crisp and tangy, with a nice bit of roundness on the palate and a touch of vanilla at the finish. A lovely, well-made wine.
Top photo: California Chardonnays. Credit: Tina Caputo