Thursday, April 11, 2019

Versatile Chardonnays

Chardonnay is the queen of white grapes.  It makes the famous earthy white Burgundies of France, crisp and citrusy Northwest versions, and the toasty vanilla cream and oak Chardonnays that began in California and spread throughout the wine world.  The best Chardonnay wines have components from all three categories: earthiness and light “forest floor” notes, hints of lemon and grapefruit in the middle and finish, and a complex oak character that shows itself as spice, smoke and caramel.  Inexpensive Chardonnays often have a small amount of barrel-fermented wine blended in for smoothness.  While light in body they make excellent everyday sipping wines and are often very nice food wines.

Chardonnay is revered for both sipping and serving with food. I once served toasty oaky, vanilla flavored Chardonnay with Twinkies to the staff at The Hogue Cellars to demonstrate why Americans might have developed a taste for the style. Other attributes of the Chardonnay variety are more mainstream: smooth citrus with Asian foods; notes of anise and butter with broiled salmon; crisp and mineral flavored wines with light meats and many seafood selections.  It is indeed a versatile and (therefore) popular wine.

Herewith are the first suggestions for this multi-part series: 

Mount Hood Winery 2017 Chardonnay, Estate, Columbia Gorge - $34

This was my favorite wine at our recent tasting. It is not the most powerful wine, nor the most complex, but it speaks of the Pacific Northwest and is very food friendly featuring pear, apple, citrus and mineral with hints of oak and vanilla. Visit the winery by following Highway 35 south from Hood River, Oregon into the beautiful rolling orchard lands of the Hood River Valley.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards 2017 Chardonnay, Freestone Vineyard, Sonoma Coast - $60

This wine has been the favorite of my tasters many times before, and it is certainly at the top of the heap this year, though also at the top price point. Several years ago Chef Ted and I agreed that it was the finest American Chardonnay we had ever tasted. This vintage offers lots of richness with a profile of citrus and tropical fruits on the nose and palate. Complex toast and vanilla frame this picture perfect Chardonnay for enjoyment with fine seafood or lighter meats.

Grgich Hills Estate 2015 Chardonnay, Napa Valley - $43

Mike Grgich established his eminence for Chardonnay in California when his 1973 bottling from Chateau Montelena beat the best of France at the “Judgment of Paris” tasting in 1976. Establishing his own eponymous winery in 1977, Grgich has continued to be a leader in California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. I found this 2015 Chardonnay to be rich and powerful, but with greater complexity of spice, mineral, fennel, floral notes and tropical fruits. This is perhaps the most sophisticated Chardonnay for food discussed in this column.

King Estate 2017 Chardonnay, Willamette Valley - $22

I have followed King Estate Winery near Eugene, Oregon practically since their founding in the early 1990s. The grape growing and winemaking here are impeccable and wine quality is correspondingly consistent.  This latest Chardonnay release offers bright aromas of citrus, melon and stone fruits with notes of vanilla, tropical fruits and French oak. It is a delightfully versatile food wine.

La Crema 2017 Chardonnay, Russian River Valley - $30

La Crema continues to impress my tasters with a decidedly Old World style derived from cool climate Russian River Valley fruit combined with modern winemaking techniques and judicious use of oak barrel aging. This opulent-yet-complex wine offers tropical aromas and flavors including tangerine, Meyer lemon and nectarine, while a creamy palate edged with vanilla and toasty oak has just enough finishing acidity to make this an excellent food wine.

Woodward Canyon Winery 2017 Chardonnay, WA - $43

Winemaker Rick Small has a long relationship with Celilo Vineyard on Underwood Mountain in the Columbia Gorge where he gets Wente clone Chardonnay each year to blend with his estate Walla Walla fruit, which is UC Davis clone 108.  Experience makes the difference in crafting this tempting wine showing peach, pear and spicy apple mingling with toasty oak, mineral and vanilla.

Elk Cove Vineyards 2016 Chardonnay, Goodrich Vineyard - $45

Pioneer Oregon winery Elk Cove purchased the nearby Goodrich Vineyard in 2014 and has had good success crafting this single vineyard Chardonnay for several years. The 2016 vintage offers a complex citrus profile of lemon curd, zest and hints of lime with following tropical notes and hints of toasted almond cookie and vanilla. The finish offers notes of chalky mineral, spice and toasted coconut.

Willamette Valley Vineyards 2016 Chardonnay, Tualatin Estate - $45

California winemaker Bill Fuller came north to the Willamette Valley in the late 1960s and founded Tualatin Vineyards southwest of Portland. He planted his Chardonnay with the same Draper clone that David Lett had brought from California a few years before. This vineyard is now part of Willamette Valley Vineyards and is known as Tualatin Estate. Enjoy this spicy, complex Chardonnay for its ripe apple and pear fruit and balanced acidity.

Youngberg Hill  2016 Chardonnay, Aspen, Willamette Valley - $41

Wayne and Nicolette Bailey are celebrating the 15th anniversary of their purchase of Youngberg Hill Vineyards and Inn near McMinnville, Oregon.  This destination for wine country weddings and other elegant affairs has been theirs to renovate and improve since 2003, and the vineyards and winemaking have kept pace with the posh country inn. The Aspen Block of the estate vineyard produced this lush and complex Chardonnay featuring tropical fruits, peach and vanilla on the nose with baking spice, pear and citrus on the palate – great with lighter foods and even better for savoring alone!

Three Rivers Winery 2017 Steel Chardonnay, Columbia Valley – $15

This lighter shade of Chardonnay is extremely versatile at the table with crisp acidity from early harvesting and cool fermentation.  Aromas of wet stone, green apple, grapefruit and hints of baking spice lead to a crisp palate of citrus, melon and mineral that caresses your seafood selection to perfection.

Los Vascos 2018 Chardonnay, Chile - $13

Wine grapes were planted in the Colchagua Valley of Chile beginning in the 16th century by (among others) the Echenique family of Basque origins in Spain. Over the centuries production increased, and in 1988 Domaines Baron de Rothschild (Lafite) purchased the Los Vascos estate, beginning an era of modernization and improvement. Today’s modern Chardonnay offers aromas and flavors of grapefruit, banana, melon and notes of vanilla and toasted almonds.

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