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My relationship with Chardonnay is a little complicated. I’ll explain in a minute.
First, I share my professional view of Chardonnay. I’ve tasted a few thousand Chardonnays for consideration at my wine shop and, before that, shops and restaurants that also carried some of the world’s best wines. Chardonnay is one of the top 5 wine grapes in the world. For white wines, it runs neck & neck with Riesling for being the greatest. It can reflect the land from which it comes as well as any grape. It runs the gamut of personalities, from light & crisp to rich & oily. It all depends what the vineyard gives and what the winemaker wants to do. When all the pieces fit together (land, farming, winemaking), Chardonnay can make some of the best wines on the planet. The best Chardonnays can age well: ten years easy. The best age gracefully much longer. Indeed, there many faces of Chardonnay.
That’s the good stuff on Chardonnay. Here’s the bad: it’s easy to grow in most any climate and soil. It can yield a lot of grapes per vine or acre, and, circling back to a winemaker’s influence, it can be too much. In fact, it often is. Put just OK vineyard, high yields and heavy-handed winemaking together and you have the makings of a “blah Chardonnay.” (Blah is not a technical term, by the way.) This is where the current Chardonnay backlash comes from. It’s justified.
Free wine advice from a former Napa wine shop owner & sommelier
The backlash, unfortunately, has affected all Chardonnays, not just the bad ones. I’ve listened to countless customers state, “I don’t like Chardonnay anymore: it’s too oaky and heavy.” When I hear this, I can do one of two things in the spirit of good customer service: present the “Chardonnay hater” a quality Chardonnay to try to change his/her mind, or move on to another grape. In a retail environment, I choose the latter, thank you very much. Make a sale, make a happy customer, and keep the day rolling along.
Back to my complicated relationship with Chardonnay. I champion the grape, I recommend them with passion to the many customers who enjoy them as I do. But at home or out and about, I don’t drink Chardonnay very often. When I do, it’s usually with the intent to pair it with a particular dish or type of food. My white wine drinking is dominated by lighter and more aromatic wines than Chardonnay usually is. But look at me, pigeon-holing Chardonnay even though I know it’s wrong. Why am I telling you all this? Because it doesn’t matter how much of these wines I drink when it comes to recommending them. In fact, I make the case that my Chardonnay recommendations are more spot-on because I look at them with a clearer perspective than a grape I drink all the time.
Many Faces of Chardonnay Recommendations
Here are seven Chardonnays I highly recommend for their character and quality. Each one appeals to a different type of Chardonnay drinker. My copy with each below identifies the respective customer. Click over to the wine’s review page for its full description.
Domaine GARNIER Chablis A.C. 2015 ($25). For my home, this is the top pick of these 7 Chardonnays, regardless of price. Great acidity but not “too much” whatever that means. No oak, taste of the Chablis soils. DDWA Score 91. Value Rating 5.5. HALL of FAME Value.
McEVOY RANCH Chardonnay “Stubbs Vineyard” Marin County 2016 ($22). For the devoted Chardonnay drinker who likes some butter & oak. Wants to taste the fruit and likes some acidity too. The price makes it case-purchase worthy for many households. DDWA Score 86.5. Value Rating 3.9. GREAT Value.
ALEXANA Chardonnay Willamette Valley 2014 ($22). This great value Chardonnay supports Oregon’s claim to be the Burgundy of America. Choose this for a well-priced Chardonnay that will shine on the dinner table. DDWA Score 88. Value Rating 4.0. GREAT Value.
MAITRE de CHAI Chardonnay “Kierkegaard” Alexander Valley, Sonoma County 2015 ($30). Here’s a look at what the “next generation” is making. Richer style with texture and complexity. I would have advised them to sell it for $40 or $50 a bottle. Oh well. DDWA Score 90. Value Rating 4.5. AWESOME Value.
FLYWHEEL Chardonnay “Brosseau Vineyard” Chaline 2013 ($38). Richer Chardonnay with an oily quality, complex and with a taste of the land, will put you back a little bit. This gives you all of this, and with a little more bottle age, which in this case is a great thing. DDWA Score 90. Value Rating 2.3. GOOD Value.
SIXTEEN by TWENTY Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2015 ($42). For fans of the richer style California Chardonnays. The butter and oak are there, and so is the fresh fruit basket and acidity. Great match with buttery and/or garlic-y fish and white meat dishes. Paul Hobbs, winemaker. DDWA Score 90. Value Rating 3.2. VERY GOOD Value.
BERNARD BONIN Meursault “Les Tillets” 2015 ($68). Not getting into the nuance of this White Burg over all the others. Let me just say it’s got it all, is reasonably drinkable now, and for family-owned/made, artisan Cote d’Or Burgundy, the price is right. DDWA Score 92.5. Value Rating 2.7. GOOD Value.