Chardonnay's Comeback

Chardonnay, perhaps more than any other wine from California, has seen a continued subtle shift in style over the past decade or so. Interestingly the shift parallels to a certain extent developments with Australian shiraz that put the breaks on the growth of those wines. Simply put, the most popular, and critically acclaimed style was one that favored power, richness, fruit, and oak over other attributes. Producers fairly quickly realised that it doesn't take that much to make a sweetly fruited, vanilla, and butter-laced chardonnay and poof, in just a few years it became increasingly difficult to distinguish the $50 butter bombs for the $20 butter bombs.

Fortunately for consumers, the $20 butter bombs seem to have, for the most part won that battle but at the same time producers of fine chardonnay in California, of which there are many, continued to improve their wines, trading in some of the in your face unctuosity for complexity, detail, and balance. Now of course there had been wines of this caliber produced in California for decades, but what we are seeing today is growth in this market segment. Growth as producers respond to market forces that seem to indicate that this style of wine is continuing to become increasing popular with consumers, and growth based on an improved and increasingly specific understanding of the various terroirs that chardonnay is best suited to.

The fact that the past several vintages have provided fruit that has in many cases shown a cooler climate profile has undoubtedly added to the success of these wines, but it certainly seems that the industry on the whole is riding a pendulum swing away from the peak of intensity. For me this is a surprising and revealing turn of events. Truth be told,  back in 2006 or 2007 the California chardonnay tasting days when I was in retail were the least popular tasting days of the year among my co-workers. In many ways the wines really weren't all that consistantly good, and some were downright painful to taste for folks with more old world palates. There remain both these wines and these palates out there but for the most part California chardonnay, and particularly those in the $25 to $50 range have become decidedly more a story of terroir than winemaking, which for me, and those palates, is a positive development.

These are expensive wines, there's no doubt about that and as such they need to deliver on the promise of their price tags. There are of course hits and misses but as a whole the misses are becoming fewer and the hits, well they just keep on coming. Over the past few months I've tasted a handful of top chardonnay at this price point, and I was really struck by the wonderful Gary Farrell Russian River Selection which was superb with sauteed asparagus topped with a little feta, and priced very well indeed. The 2011 Stuhlmuller proved once again to be a remarkable wine at it's $20 price point and one to seek out, and Topel also flies much under the radar but their two Mendocino chardonnays should be better known.

So there it is, plenty of chardonnay to really enjoy, which for me is saying something. At this time of year lobster is on the menu in the northeast and some of these wines would be just the ticket for a lobster dinner. Consider ones that are a bit buttery and fruity for your simple steamed lobster served with drawn butter but my preference runs toward grilled lobsters seasoned with ginger/basil/chile oil and for that preparation a bright, zesty example imbued with the gingery spice of oak works remarkably well. If lobster is not in your future, chardonnay works as a great foil for crayfish, shrimp, scallops, or prawns as well!

Click here to find some of the best chardonnays to drink before the end summer.

— Gregory Dal Piaz, Snooth