It is ironic that Chardonnay is an extremely popular wine while it is also among the most scorned. In California, more acres of Chardonnay are planted than any other varietal. Paradoxically, a large number of consumers subscribe to the "ABC" theory of wine selection: "Anything But Chardonnay."
Chardonnay's appeal appears to have been its undoing. The surge in consumer demand during the 1980s led to increased production, often without adequate attention to quality. Many producers ascribed to a cookbook approach, twisting the wine to fit biochemical specifications instead of allowing the natural flavors to develop. Others believed that grapes grown in warmer California should be treated in the same fashion as grapes grown in the cooler Burgundy region of France.
In Burgundy, the wines benefit from malolactic fermentation, which converts tart malic acid into softer lactic acid. Oak barrel fermentation is a minor part of production and is not used at all in some areas. In California, Chardonnay produces wines with higher alcohol content and lower acidity. Malolactic fermentation and extensive use of oak barrels make these wines woody and buttery at the expense of fruit flavors. These approaches led to flabby, over-oaked and generally uninspired California Chardonnays.
Thankfully, a number of California winemakers are reclaiming this grape and creating wines that reflect Chardonnay's essence while minimizing the oak flavors. This is more consistent with Burgundian winemaking, which uses oak as an accent to enhance the texture and taste of the wine rather than as the primary source of flavor. At a recent tasting, a number of California Chardonnays exhibited the benefits of this approach.
Known for its excellent Pinot Noir, Patz & Hall also produces some of California's best Chardonnays. The Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay 2003 ($50) is a wonderfully rich yet nicely balanced wine with pear, fig and vanilla flavors and a nice mouth-filling finish. Also very good is the Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch Chardonnay 2003 ($39), with lush nutmeg and pear flavors and a touch of buttery oak.
The Flora Springs Select Cuvee Chardonnay 2002 ($35) is another high quality California Chardonnay with bright pear and spicy apricot flavors, mild oak notes, medium body and good acidity. The Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Reserve Chardonnay 2003 ($30) has passion fruit and pineapple flavors on a vanilla-oak background. Produced in a building constructed in 1884, the Frank Family Napa Valley Chardonnay 2003 ($30) is a full-bodied, mouth filling wine with apricot and fig flavors, fine balance and a nice long finish. From the Russian River Valley, the Frei Brothers Reserve Chardonnay 2003 ($20) has a racy style, with sharp citrus and vanilla flavors and a touch of mineral notes at the end. The Dry Creek Russian River Chardonnay 2003 ($16), produced in a similar style, has lemon and pineapple notes with a hint of cedar on the finish.
The Kunde family has been growing grapes since 1904. For many years, they sold their grapes to other wineries; they began producing their own wines in 1990. Their first-rate wines include Viognier, Zinfandel, Syrah and a late harvest Canelli Muscat dessert wine. The Kunde Estate Sonoma Valley Chardonnay 2003 ($16) is a great value that has pear and apple flavors with good balance and nice vanilla notes. Other good values include the apple and vanilla flavored Rutherford Ranch Chardonnay 2003 ($13) and the very good St. Clement Carneros Napa Valley Chardonnay 2003 ($16) that has floral aromas, pear and apple flavors and a creamy long finish.