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Time to stop beating up on domestic chardonnay

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Overheard at least 5x at the tasting tables of the Pebble Beach Food & Wine show: “I CAN’T STAND American chardonnays, because they are too…oaky, syrupy, monodimensional, unbalanced, (enter adjective here)…” Also heard at least 5x by servers of chardonnay (with insecure, apologetic tone): “Our wine is more BURGUNDIAN in style , unlike those other producers that make versions that are too oaky, syrupy, (enter adjective here)…”

Before spending a day inside the glitzy white tents (with Morimoto himself slinging jazzed up pork buns), I had thought the assualts/apologies for the “1990s style” of California chardonnay were long over. And that consumers are well aware of the amazing diversity and quality in domestic chardonnay styles available today.

But I was wrong.

So many people are stuck in chardonnay’s spotty American past. And to me, that’s sad. Domestic premium chardonnay ($15+ a bottle), as a whole, has never been better than it is now. And it’s not just California that’s producing the good stuff — Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, are doing quite well.

As proof, I’ve picked out a few wines ranging from $15-25, intended to counter the ‘classic complaints’ I’ve heard recently about what's wrong with American chardonnay:

* Over oaked? How about the no-oak 2008 Chehalem INOX Willamette Valley Chardonnay.
* Lacks balance? Try the 2007 Gainey Sta. Rita Hills.
* Like ‘em rich like Montrachet? Try the 2008 Alfaro, Lindsay Paige, Santa Cruz.
* Lacking acidity? Try the 2006 Au Bon Climat Bien Nacido Historic.
* Skip the butter? Try the 2007 Landmark Overlook Chardonnay.

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  1. My favorite domestic Chard is the Plumpjack. Not too oaky, not too buttery - just right.
    Next is the Ramey Chards.
    I also like Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay.

    1. With all due respect, I too can pick out five specific Chardonnays that can go against the tide -- five Chardonnays *different* from the ones you have selected. In the ocean of vapid wines, a) picking five -- or even 10 or 20 -- isn't all that hard; b) doesn't mean there still isn't an ocean of vapid wines out there . . . .

      7 Replies
      1. re: zin1953

        Ding, ding, ding!

        1. re: invinotheresverde

          Yes, Jason. Even with some restraint (less ML, less oak, less overall unctuousness) in Chardonnay making in the last year, there are also many formerly adequate Chardonnays
          who got "Yellow-Tailed."

        2. re: zin1953

          Sure there's an ocean of vapid wine out there - and not only Chard.

          I think Kaysyrahsyrah's just saying there are some good domestic ones and rather than dissing all Chardonnay as a group, perhaps step out of the box and try some others.

          Not that I'm implying that you, zin 1953, should step outside the box - I think you've tasted and drank more wine (and apparently stellar wine) than I will in this lifetime.

          1. re: Cookiefiend

            Problem No. 1: Clichés become clichés for one simple reason: they are true.

            Problem No. 2: There are ALWAYS exceptions to EVERYTHING. ;^)

          2. re: zin1953

            Jason - true that, I suppose I should have mentioned the surplus of vapid chards out there.

            1. re: kaysyrahsyrah

              No, not really necessary . . . there is a sea of vapid EVERYTHING out there. But there are ALSO excellent wines available in every category, be it Chardonnay, Merlot, Chenin Blanc, and even White Zinfandel . . . .

              "Vapid" does not preclude the existence of "Excellent," any more than "Excellent" doesn't preclude the existence of "Vapid." Napa Valley has a reputation for being an excellent source of Cabernet Sauvignon, but that doesn't mean that every Napa Cab is excellent. There have been, and will continue to be, Napa Cabs that are horrid -- or worse, "vapid." And the reverse is certainly true for domestic Chardonnays, too. Add into the equation that we each have our own palate, and our own preferences, and there will always be a healthy -- uh, "discussion" -- about what's great and what's not.

              For me, I prefer my California Chardonnays to be from the Santa Cruz Mountains, or the cooler appellations of Sonoma and Mendocino counties (think Sonoma Coast or Anderson Valley, for example). I tend not to like a lot of Napa Chardonnays; the climate is too warm. Yet I've had many outstanding Napa Chards in my life, and not every Chardonnay from the Santa Cruz Mtns. AVA is excellent.

              OTOH, I personally find better Chardonnay wines -- meaning they subjectively suit my personal palate preference better -- from France . . . not to mention less expensive/better QPR. But that's a whole other can of worms!

              Cheers,
              Jason

              1. re: zin1953

                'OTOH, I personally find better Chardonnay wines -- meaning they subjectively suit my personal palate preference better -- from France . . . not to mention less expensive/better QPR. But that's a whole other can of worms!"

                Bingo. Of the Chardonnay in my cellar, 1/4 is Californian, 1/4 is Austrailian and the rest is French. ;-)

          3. Good points. There is still an ABC crowd, and they are very active. Now, that can be "anything but Chardonnay," or "anything but Cabernet [Sauvignon]" but they are vocal and it seems that there are always some of these folk in the press [bloggers now count too], and they have many sheeple, who will follow every utterance.

            It should be about the tastes, and not the varietal.

            I am not normally a fan of US Merlots, but just had two bottles of Dan Duckhorn's Napa Merlot, and they were great. One of the most interesting wines that I have tasted was the Beringer's Howell Mtn. Bancroft Mtn. Napa Merlot. Hey, that should be a double-whammy. Didn't Beringer and Blass merge? Yes. Isn't US Merlot evil? Well, some of it IS. Didn't you watch "Sideways?" Yes, but I don't take my wine cues from Hollywood. I am an adult, and can decide for myself, so do not need someone else telling me what to like.

            Hunt

            3 Replies
            1. re: Bill Hunt

              I'm usually in the ABC camp, but I found something at the Vintner's Market that I'm actually going to buy a case of and split with my family: Jason-Stephens Chardonnay: $21(not remembering the appellation or the vintage at the moment, '06 or '08 I think)

              Jason has figured out a way to put the butter in and leave the "oaky" taste (which I really don't like) out by only putting the wine in barrel for only 2 months. This wine is not listed on the website as he has less than 100 cases left and is preferring to sell it through the Tasting Room in Gilroy. However, if you're interested I'm sure you could e-mail the winery: info@jstephens.com and check on availability.

              1. re: BigWoodenSpoon

                >>> Jason has figured out a way to put the butter in and leave the "oaky" taste (which I really don't like) out by only putting the wine in barrel for only 2 months. <<<

                No big secret here. In fact, it's easy. Oak does not equal butter. Diacetyl equals butter.

                Cheers,
                Jason

                (It's not me, BTW; different Jason.)

                1. re: BigWoodenSpoon

                  Not familiar with that wine.

                  Personally, so long as a wine is balanced, I have few issues with oak, toast, malolactic fermentation, or riper fruit. Elements just need to balance. If over done, then the thumbs point down - domestic (US), or otherwise.

                  I'll keep this producer in mind and look for it. Might not be my "thing," but that's OK, so long as others enjoy it. We do not have any trips to CA (that's California here) planned, but have "operatives" scattered about. I'll put out some feelers, and see if any can score a bottle, or two. I just know that if I can only get 1 bottle, I will likely fall in love with it - that sort of thing happens al too often.

                  Thanks for the H/U.

                  Hunt

              2. My favorite domestic chards come from Kistler, Rivers-Marie, and Aubert. Absolutely awesome, and just the right amount of oak IMHO. Good stuff. We'll be drinking some Kistler for a starter tonight before the pinot noir fest in Manhattan. Bring on the duck! -mJ

                1 Reply
                1. re: njfoodies

                  If you can find Kistler in the OP's price range ($15-25), please let me know where! :)

                2. Gotta disagree. There is a sea of lousy domestic chard.

                  Of course, there is a small tiny stream of good domestic chard.

                  However, those are a rarity. And far too many wine lists (particularly in the modest places I usually frequent) are crowded with unpleasant domestic chardonnays, leaving little room for other more interesting whites.

                  So I feel like we need to keep bashing mediocre domestic chards until restaurants and wine purveyors offer a better balance of interesting white wines.

                  10 Replies
                  1. re: Ed Dibble

                    Actually, there is an ocean of good domestic chardonney out there, and not all of it is super expensive. The problem is that there is a lot of vapid stuff out there too. For example, Wine Spectator lists over 100 domestic 2007 chards that scored 85 points or better and were produced in quantities of at least 5000 cases and cost less that $40 retail. That doesn't sound like there aren't good chards availablle. Now great chards is another matter, but like njfoodies noted, there are some great ones too. Unfortunately the tend to be made in small quantities and are hard to get..

                    1. re: dinwiddie

                      >>> Wine Spectator lists over 100 domestic 2007 chards that scored 85 points or better . . . <<<

                      Hardly a ringing endorsement! ;^)

                      For a v-e-r-y long time now, I've maintained that California made the best California Chardonnays in the world, that France made the best French Chardonnays, and so forth . . . then Australia started making the best California Chardonnays and California started making swill. It was all very confusing. (Same thing happened with Merlot, FWIW.) Do not misunderstand: there have ALWAYS been some truly outstanding Chardonnays produced in California, as far back as the 1950s, and certainly since the 1969 vintage. But the ratio of great-to-plonk took a serious turn toward the plonk in the 1980s, and I'm not sure it's fully recovered. But just as there have always been some excellent California Merlot, so, too, have their always been some excellent California Chardonnays.

                      Making wine is a bit like a pendulum, Wines swing in one direction, then in another. The 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s saw most Chardonnays made in stainless steel with no oak. The late-1970s and 1980s saw most Chardonnays with heavy oak, with very little use of stainless steel. The swing is now towards dialing back on the oak . . .

                      C'est la vie!

                      Cheers.
                      Jason

                      1. re: zin1953

                        Jason - head's up. I hear China is making the best French and Australian chardonnays now. And 20 years from now when the ice cap melts, it's going to be north of Calgary. Just kidding.

                        That's a great historical perspective. I've finally been drinking wine long enough to see a few of these pendulum swings myself. :-)

                        1. re: zin1953

                          Jason,

                          Just a personal observation: when the bankers get involved in the winemaking business, quality very often goes down, and in a hurry. Some winemakers are true to their art, their craft. Most continue to create good wines, regardless of where they are located.

                          I know winemakers, who were physicians, airline pilots, rocket scientists, computer game designers, graphic designers, farmers, and many other occupations, or avocations. I cannot recall having met a good winemaker, who was a banker. Gotta's be out there somewhere, but I have yet to meet them.

                          Hunt

                          1. re: zin1953

                            I didn't mean it as a ringing endorsement, but rather to point out that there are plenty of "good" but not great chards coming out of CA. To the average wine drinker, that is all that is needed. However, for the most part I much prefer French to CA unless I'm buying some very small production stuff from CA.

                            Like the old joke, when a patron asked for a white wine, but anything but a Chardonney, the waiter suggested that "madame might prefer a Chablis?"

                            I think you have good point about the pendulum, and the over-oaked crowd was in charge for a while. However, I note that some of the things I'm buying now have just a touch of oak and are very good. I recently had a 2007 Radio Coteau Savoy Vineyard Chard that I loved and would put up against most French chardonneys any day (most I emphasize) in terms of quality and enjoyability. However, as I noted, the best chards coming from CA are small production, usually single vineyard, and crafted with skill and care by winemakers who are passionate about their craft. I think there are more and more good ones coming out that noone has heard of (I certainly wish Mark Neal would make them again, but he is not satisfied with the grapes he gets to do so) but are well worth seeking out if you are a major wine geek.

                          2. re: dinwiddie

                            That is what I was attempting to articulate, but you said it better. Not sure about the grades, but I seldom really rely on those. I do a lot of tastings at home, so have some "go-tos" on most higher-end wine lists.

                            As you say, not all of the really good ones are that expensive.

                            Now, I do have to admit that I have seldom found a really good, though cheap Chard, just like a Pinot Noir. There might be some out there, but I do not seem to find them. Maybe I do not look hard enough?

                            Hunt

                            1. re: Bill Hunt

                              I don't think I've ever found a really good "cheap" chard either but while I admit that the best CA chards (and there are some very good ones like njfoodies mentioned) are much less expensive than trying to buy the great Montrachets and Meursaults. OF course, that is why my go to wine on a wine list is probably to look for something from Joseph Drouhin when I am looking for an affordable and tasty French white and to bring a small production CA chard with me when I can.

                              The same probably applies to Pinot Noir, I prefer Burgs, but don't want to spend what it takes to get the great ones, and I have enought of the small production CA PNs that I enjoy to bring with me. But I've never met a cheap PN that I thought was worth drinking.

                              1. re: dinwiddie

                                Drouhin is a very good negociant, and does some excellent wines from some great properties. If I cannot find a producer on the list, within my price-point, i seldom hesitate on Droughin. Louis Jadot does some very nice wines, below that rarefied point of the major white Burg producers. Often, the difference is >US$150/btl. and that does count with me.

                                Same holds for PN's. I love the great Burg producers, but am not like the US Govt., where I can spend much more than I make. When I can get them, I indulge myself. Otherwise, I have to rely on the domestic producers, though I still enjoy those, even if they are very, very different.

                                Now, if I could ONLY hit the Powerball...

                                Hunt

                          3. re: Ed Dibble

                            Ed and Jason are right, there is a sea of vapid chard out there and I should have made that point clear.

                            But I'll still insist that the 'small tiny stream' of good domestic chard is getting larger, and it's never been more diverse in terms of flavors/styles avail.

                            I agree that there are too many chardonnays on a typical wine list -- especially outside of major food cities. That needs to be rectified, pronto.

                            1. re: Ed Dibble

                              Ed,

                              That tiny stream might exist on many wine lists, but that is a different story. Even in deprived AZ, we have samplings from many really good domestic (US) Chard producers. If I look in the groceries, or at slightly up-scale chain restaurants, well then the bulk Chards do show up.

                              I think that the declaration of quantities of "really good," will likely be predicated on where one is looking.

                              Though I more often look to FR for my restaurant Chards (often better pairings with food), I can usually find several really good domestic Chards on the wine lists of the restaurants, that I frequent. These are usually in several styles, and there is most often a really good one for the fare that night.

                              Based on the total quantity of production, I will quickly agree with you. As to what I commonly see, not quite so much.

                              Just my personal observations,

                              Hunt