How are California chardonnays doing these days? Despite the sluggish sales of many California wines that resulted from the current flood of high-quality imports with remarkably low prices, California chardonnays have always been one of that state's most popular wines -- as well as best made.
To take a look at the current state of the art for California chardonnay, I purchased 12 wines from respected producers and assembled a group of knowledgeable California wine aficionados to taste them "blind." This meant that none of us knew the identity of the wines other than the fact that they were chardonnays.
Such a blind tasting is done to guarantee objectivity of all the participants. As the tasting notes demonstrate, the quality of this popular wine variety remains high although two of the most expensive wines finished at the bottom. The wines are listed in order of the group's preference and I have included my ranking along with a summary of our tasting notes:
(1) 1982 Shafer Napa Valley ($10.99-$11.99): My ranking -- 1. Both the group and I adored this wine, which seems to have such a wonderful rich intensity of fruit complemented by a toasty vanillin oakiness that is in complete harmony with the wine's power and balance. Gorgeously fruity, crisp, fresh and cleanly made, this is a rather big and full-bodied wine, but beautifully put together. A real winner.
(2) 1983 Kendall Jackson Vintner's Reserve ($9.99): My ranking -- 3. This up-and-coming winery has been getting rave reviews for many of its wines, which offer a high price/quality rapport. The 1983 chardonnay got edged out in the overall group score by the Shafer, but many tasters ranked it first because of its effusive appley, buttery fruitiness, medium to full body, and round, generous taste.
(3) 1983 Simi Sonoma ($10.99): My ranking -- 4. Simi's fourth-consecutive top-notch chardonnay won plaudits from the group for its restrained richness, full-bodied depth, judicious use of toasty new oak, and excellent balance. I would also add that the price makes this wine a very attractive value.
(4) 1983 Acacia Carneros ($14.95): My ranking -- 2. Acacia's chardonnays have consistently been well made, and the newly released 1983s (of which there are four different bottlings) are quite delicious. In this tasting, the Carneros bottling was thrown in and I obviously liked it better than the group did. Elegant and restrained, the lemony and buttery flavor showed good concentration and the wine had excellent underlying acidity, which should preserve its freshness for at least two to three more years. Some members of the group complained that the wine was too light.
(5) 1983 Deloach Sonoma ($12.50): My ranking -- 5. This wine did well in the overall group ranking, but a few tasters thought it was too sweet and a trifle overblown and heavy. I loved its lush, rich, silky personality and plentiful buttery fruit with just the right touch of oak.
(6) 1982 Jeckel Home Vineyard Private Reserve Monterey ($12.99): My ranking -- 7. The Jeckel was a big, forceful, full-blast powerful wine with the most viscosity and concentration of any wine in the tasting. Some tasters called it well made but an old-style California chardonnay with high alcohol and an overtly oaky personality. Others, admiring such characteristics, adored its intensity and unctuosity. I thought it was unique and distinctive and enjoyed it thoroughly, although it might become tiring to drink after one glass.
(7) 1983 Conn Creek Chateau Maja Napa ($6.99): My ranking -- 6. The least expensive wine in the tasting received good marks from all but one taster. Clean, buttery, appley, fruity flavors showed surprising concentration. On the palate, the wine was very fresh, lively, and well balanced. One would guess that California winemakers would call this a perfect food wine. I would agree that this is a very pleasant charming chardonnay that is certainly worth the price.
(8) 1982 Hacienda Selected Reserve Sonoma ($12.99): My ranking -- 9. A straight-forward sort of wine, most tasters found it bland, dull, but fruity and full bodied. However, given the system of averaging group scores, this one-dimensional wine came in a respectable eighth.
(9) 1982 Freemark Abbey Napa ($12.99): My ranking -- 11. Most tasters found this wine to be big, oaky, fruity and quite well made, but just outdistanced by the other chardonnays. I disliked it intensely, finding it to have an unusual aroma not at all reminiscent of chardonnay.
(10) 1983 Chalone California ($18): My ranking -- 8. Chalone, long famous for its buttery, oily, hugely proportioned chardonnays, has been slowly backing away from this intense, high-alcohol style in an effort to achieve a wine with more finesse. This wine did poorly in the tasting because it was full bodied and alcoholic, but it lacked the rich, glossy fatness that would have given it balance. Given the price, no one in the group was interested in rushing out to to purchase it.
(11) 1982 Robert Mondavi Reserve Napa ($19.95): My ranking -- 10. A very controversial wine, the 1982 Mondavi chardonnay was thought by some tasters to be French because of its earthy, somewhat dirty aroma. Other tasters, including this writer, liked its buttery, oaky, rich flavors and full body. Given the extraordinary reserve chardonnays produced by Mondavi in 1980 and 1981, I would agree with the group that this wine is somewhat of a disappointment.
(12) 1982 Heitz Napa ($13.95): My ranking -- 12. Unanimously last, the 1982 Heitz chardonnay stuck out in the tasting for its tart, citric, herbaceous character that resembled a sauvignon blanc rather than chardonnay. The wine was also terribly flawed by a very hot alcoholic finish. Certainly the poorest chardonnay in this grouping, it is also a notoriously bad value.