Finding the nuance in bargain California chardonnay 

click to enlarge chardonnay
  • More growers are moving away from the buttery, oak-heavy style of chardonnay wine that has conquered California’s vineyards, choosing instead to produce varietals that showcase different shades of the grape.
In this column I try to stick to wines that retail close to the $20 range. Of course less is always good, but as wine prices continue to rise, the selection gets more limited. This is especially true for what remains one of the hottest tickets in town, California chardonnay.

Many of the wines that occupy this category seem way overpriced. However, there are some that fetch a few more bucks that are arguably worth it. How do you know which ones are the real deal? As wine is subjective, ultimately we are all our own judges, but for me it is about balance, meaning there is enough acidity, complexity, integration — neither the oak nor fruit dominates the wine — and the wine is expressive and pleasant from the nose to the finish.

There is definitely a movement in this direction, or shall I say, away from the buttery, oaky style of chardonnay that has come to define the category in many consumers’ eyes. This is not to say that everyone is doing a stylistic 180-degree turn, but even producers who have made wines in a heavier-handed manner are starting to realize that chardonnay can have nuance. Here are three to check out:

Lioco Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, 2012 (Sonoma Coast): Matt Licklider and Kevin O’Connor started Lioco in 2005, and with each vintage, the wines have become a little bit more distinct. The 2012 is a noteworthy effort with floral tones, crisp citrus fruit, hazelnuts and a long, focused finish. Suggested retail: $22

The Ojai Vineyard Chardonnay, Solomon Hills, 2011 (Santa Maria Valley): With all the new kids on the block it is easy to overlook The Ojai Vineyard, but owner-winemaker Adam Tolmach, who set up shop in 1983, is making wines that are just as good as those of the next guy, or girl. The Solomon Hills are located in one of the cooler parts of the Santa Maria Valley and this wine has the acidity to prove it. With a salinelike mineral tone in the nose, white flowers, citrus and a hint of almonds in the finish, this wine is reminiscent of a high-quality Chablis. Suggested retail: $30

Chanin Chardonnay, Los Alamos Vineyard, 2012 (Santa Barbara County): Gavin Chanin cut his teeth interning at Au Bon Climate and Qupe. In 2007 he started Chanin and over time it has garnered more attention. Made from a high-elevation vineyard, the fruit benefits from cooling influences that help promote acidity. Barrel fermented, the wood is just one part of the wine, giving it an almond oil note. With custard, citrus and a richly textured palate that also has a good core of acidity, die-hard California chardonnay drinkers will find plenty to love in this bottle. Suggested retail: $35

These wines can be found at K&L.

Pamela S. Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched

About The Author

Pamela S. Busch

Pamela Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched
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