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In California, how different from expensive Chardonnay is everyday Chardonnay?



I did a little experiment yesterday. Went down to the local BevMo, got six inexpensive ($10-$15) current release Chardonnays and tasted them, blind, along with a far more expensive one, also blind: the $75 Liquid Farm “Four” Chardonnay from Sta. Rita Hills.

First, the Liquid Farm review: A very rich wine, with strong, inviting aromas of golden apricot jam, tropical fruits, tangerines, honey and buttered toast. There may be a touch of botrytis that adds to the opulence, but the finish is dry. Crisp acidity, nice minerality, creamy smooth, a balanced and complex wine with tremendous concentration. Score: 92.

Then we move onto the six inexpensive wines, which I will not identify except to say that all are among the biggest Chardonnay sellers in the country, as measured by IRI. They are familiar presences on supermarket shelves, so when it is said that Chardonnay is the top-selling wine in America, these are the brands that are helping to make it happen. (For the record, Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, which is by far the number one Chardonnay in the country, was not in my tasting.)

What I found in just about all of the inexpensive Chardonnays was that they were marked by excessive oak. Some of the wines weren’t particularly fruity—had possibly been overcropped, so that the actual wine itself had the aroma and flavor of water, or watered down fruit juice (although, oddly, some of the wines were overripe). But then, it also is commonly said that lots of Chardonnay drinkers believe that oaky, buttery, smoke and vanilla flavors come from the Chardonnay grape, and not the oak regimen (one hesitates to say “barrels,” for some of these wines may never have seen the inside of an actual oak barrel).

Then too, some of the wines seemed to have residual sugar. There is a vast difference between the honeyed richness of the Liquid Farm, which is opulent but not insipid, and the white-sugary sweetness of cheap Chardonnay—not that a little R.S. can’t help Chardonnay, but it has to be balanced. Crisp acidity can help to balance out residual sugar, but in most of the inexpensive wines the malolactic fermentation was dominant; the buttered popcorn smell and taste added to the impression of movie-theatre candy. There was one wine, from the Central Coast, that retails for $15 and that rose above the other five inexpensive Chards; I think the reason was because it comes from a very cool region and possessed a varietal purity that made it a particularly good deal. You can grow very fine Chardonnay in warmer places—Alexander Valley is a good example—but you have to limit your crop and pick the grapes at precisely the right moment. It’s far easier to grow it in a chilly place, in a good year with long hangtime, as our recent vintages have been.

In the end, Chardonnay, being a “noble” variety, can rise to its peak expectations only in the same way that other noble varieties can: through growing in the most exquisite terroir, limiting yields and being vinified in an exacting way. The inexpensive Chards in my tasting certainly represent a triumph of American viticulture and winemaking in the sense that millions of cases of them can be produced, vintage after vintage, in a way that is acceptable and even loved by millions of Americans, so that if I score them (as I mostly did) in the 85-86 point range, that is not an insult but a compliment, especially given the prices. But the Liquid Farm (a blend of four top Santa Rita Hills vineyards, hence the designation “Four”), which is a very typical 92-point Chardonnay, shows how the essential element of balanced concentration lifts a wine out of the mid-80s doldrums. Whether a 92-point California Chardonnay is worth $75 the bottle is, of course, an entirely different question.

  1. I did a similar tasting in my retail wine buyer days. Anytime I noticed sweetness in the wine (which often rose to Kabinett level), the wine was cheap.

    What was interesting was that when the bags came off, the wineries that made sweet $15 Chardonnay also had sweetness in their $25-$50 Chardonnays. Good $40 producers, at least in this tasting, rarely made a $15 example.

    One of the other surprise was how may $25 Chardonnays couldn’t be distinguished from $10 Chardonnays.

  2. Just something to think about. If the biggest selling Chardonnay brands are rated in the 80’s and low volume $75 Chardonnay is rated in the 90’s maybe the critics are out of touch with what wine really should taste like. Maybe the biggest sellers deserve a higher score, they are after all 90+ point wines in the minds of those huge number of buyers.

  3. @PeterBourget – Do you think that the biggest selling brands are so almost entirely because of price and distribution power. If the 90 point wines had the same price and shelf placements of the 80 point brands, what do you think the sales volumes will be?

    Corollary: More people eat at McDonald’s than will ever eat at a Three-Star-Michelin restaurant. Does that mean that McDonald’s should get Three Stars?

    Popularity shouldn’t be confused with Quality.

  4. @AustinBeeman – “Popularity shouldn’t be confused with Quality” I agree, I just couldn’t resist taking a dig at professional critics.

    I also agree with Steve on his critique of the inexpensive Chardonnay. I too find them to have too much oak and RS.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    Peter writes:

    “I also agree with Steve on his critique of the inexpensive Chardonnay. I too find them to have too much oak and RS.”

    Steve, you commented favorably (albeit briefly) on this wine in one of your recent Chardonnay tastings for Jackson Family Wines:

    Your award of 98 points is an eye-catcher.

    I renew my encouragement to elaborate on your drinking experience.

    (I await my Regal rep getting his hands on a bottle — apparently designated for the on-premises [i.e., restaurant] market — to sample me on.)

  6. Bob Henry, these tastings are entirely blind.

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Did you have any tasting notes to share?

  8. Yes, we see this all the time with low end chards. – Personally, I usually prefer a well-oaked Chardonnay to the minimal oak trend, but there’s a big difference between using oak to cover flaws vs. to draw out a noble grape. It needn’t be expensive. We kept Edna Valley’s $12 chard as our everyday white for years when it came from their Paragon Vineyards (and dropped it when they started mixing it from Gallo properties up and down the coast). Wolff (also in SLO) has an old vine chard at $20 that stunning. You can get mature Pouilly examples for nearly that price. There is artful Chardonnay abouding (but not usually on those supermarket shelves).

  9. redmond barry says:

    Plenty of Macons from sources like K and L(I’m just a satisfied customer) will murder $15 Cali chards. And $25 ones for that matter. Even quality producers like Freemark Abbey and Matanzas Creek ( lately) are likely to lay on the oak a bit more than is absolutely necessary, though those wines might blend nicely in a couple of years. IMHO, Cambria and La Crema’s basic Chards are often discounted to around $15, and worth it.

  10. Recently sampled the 2014 vintage Kopriva from Carneros (Sonoma):

    No oak barrel fermentation or aging. No malolactic. Bouquet and flavor and mouthfeel enhanced by lees stirring.

    Has an appealing pear aroma and flavor that is so elusive in California Chards.

    $19 at Whole Foods in Los Angeles . . . and other environs?

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