Chardonnay is the most widely planted wine grape in the Golden State. According to the Wine Institute, it accounted for 46 percent of all table wines made in 2007. It is grown in nearly every region from Temecula to Potter Valley.
DNA tests revealed that internationally ubiquitous chardonnay is none other than a cross of pinot noir and gouais blanc. The Romans probably brought gouais, originally from Croatia, to France. The French liked it so much that they stopped planting it. However, some busy little bees at some point cross-pollinated pinot noir with gouais and the rest is history.
While chardonnay has a very noticeable flavor, there is variation. Vintners usually look for cooler spots to plant chardonnay so that it retains acidity, but they also need to make sure there is enough heat for ripening. A whole host of clones are used to offer different nuances as well. Extra hang time will give more fruit, but it will also add more sugar, resulting in higher alcohol.
Chardonnay that undergoes malolactic fermentation (the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid) is usually richer than those that do not, in part because of the loss of acid that results from this process. Some chardonnays go through partial malolactic fermentation, so while they might have a creaminess, they also show apple and pear fruit. Wild or indigenous yeasts contribute a pronounced spice and often make the wine feel more vibrant on the palate. Barrel fermenting and aging adds caramel, vanilla, toast and nuttiness. The length of aging and degree to which the barrel is toasted also affects the outcome.
While there seems to be a popular recipe for chardonnay production in California that results in buttery wines oozing with tropical fruit, there are definitely some standouts. Here are three:
Trefethen chardonnay, 2006 (Napa Valley): It had been years since I tasted a Trefethen wine and, admittedly, I was a bit skeptical given the size (about 100,000 cases) of its production, but I’ve got to say, this is a well-made wine. Crisp but full-bodied, it is extremely balanced and offers a tasty mélange of buttered corn, butterscotch and pears. Suggested retail: $36
The 5ive Russian chardonnay, “Stanislaus,” 2006 (Russian River Valley): Appropriately, the five Bordinski siblings chose a vineyard in the Russian River Valley to carry on the family name. With the region’s cool microclimate, chardonnay was a no-brainer when deciding what to make. Also crisp, with tart red and green apple fruit, “Stanislaus” is for those who like ’em lean. Suggested retail: $18
Au Bon Climat chardonnay, Nuits Blanche au Bouge, 2004 (Santa Maria Valley): This chardonnay is owner and winemaker Jim Clendenen’s tribute to Burgundy, as it combines the powerful fruit character of California chardonnay with the minerally nuances found in Burgundy. Full-bodied and rich, it has a noticeable amount of wood at first, so give it time to breathe — it turns into a multilayered beauty. Suggested retail: $35
Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.