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Some Chardonnays I liked in 2012

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Most of the top Chardonnays I tasted in 2012 were from the 2010 vintage, not an easy one in coastal California. It was cold; Spring was wet; the harvest was delayed. Alternating heat waves, cold snaps and showers punctuated September and October. Mold was a problem, especially in the cooler, damper areas. Yet wineries that practiced careful viticulture, and had strong sorting regimes, made some magnificent Chardonnays.

The Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast, including the Green Valley, did particularly well. Alcohol levels typically were in the mid-14s by volume, giving the wines weight and warmth. Long hangtime resulted in intense flavors. Most veteran winemakers have mastered their house styles concerning interventions, including barrel and malolactic fermentation, battonage and oak aging, those traditional Burgundian techniques that make Chardonnay so unctuous. Yet these Chardonnays also possess a lyrical quality that suggests cold streams flowing over granite.

Among my favorite 2010s from Sonoma County were Failla Estate, Rochioli South River Vineyard, Dutton-Goldfield Ranch Rued, Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard, Lynmar Susanna’s Vineyard, Joseph Phelps Pastorale Vineyard, Matanzas Creek Journey, Marimar Estate Don Miguel Vineyard La Masia and Parallel. All scored from the mid- to high 90s. They are wines of incredible richness and delight, and explain why Chardonnay remains America’s favorite white wine.

Chardonnay has not achieved the ridiculous price levels of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir—not yet, and I suspect it never will. There seems to be some kind of built-in feeling on the consumer’s part that a California white wine, no matter how good it is, simply doesn’t deserve the big bucks of a red wine. I’m not sure exactly why that is. The majority of the best Chards I reviewed last year cost between $30 and $60. Granted, there were exceptions at the upper end, but for every $70 and up Chardonnay there is a cheaper analog that’s pretty much as good—often from the same winery. Vintners will charge what they think the market will bear, but they also charge on the basis of reputation and low production, which doesn’t necessarily mean the wine is better, only scarcer.

2010 also saw lots of bargain Chardonnay. Chardonnay is easier to make good and inexpensive than any other variety. That’s because the grape grows well almost everywhere (better in cool areas, but still…), but it’s also relatively neutral in flavor, so the winemaker’s contribution can fancy up even a plain wine. I grant that many among the Anything But Chardonnay crowd will find a lot of the bargain Chards I liked simple and sweet. Chacun a son gout. But from a price-quality ratio point of view, 2010 was a good year. Among my value 2010s were Annabella, Kendall-Jackson Avant, Liberty School, Leese-Fitch, Chalone, Round Hill, Greystone, Beaulieu Coastal Estates and Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi—all of them $13 or less.

  1. Chardonnay has not achieved the ridiculous price levels of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir—not yet, and I suspect it never will. There seems to be some kind of built-in feeling on the consumer’s part that a California white wine, no matter how good it is, simply doesn’t deserve the big bucks of a red wine. I’m not sure exactly why that is.

    Steve. Delete the word California and the setence continues to be true regardless of the place you talk about. Even in bourgogne the same phenomenon happens. Great whites always cheaper than the great reds…

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