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52 Wines in 52 Weeks: Welcome to Planet Chardonnay

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Chardonnay gives lots of people the heebie-jeebies, yet it is one of the most broadly planted and high-priced grapes on the planet. It is the main ingredient in some of the best wines you will find in this world and it is also the main ingredient in some hideous plonk. In other words, it’s a bewildering character you could spend your life trying to understand. A green-skinned grape native to Burgundy, France, it is grown in basically every wine region you can think of and handled in an infinite number of ways: Oak-aged, steel-aged, drunk young, cellared for years, still, sparkling, varietal, blended, dry, sweet, rich and voluptuous, austere and lean… someone, somewhere, is doing everything you can possibly think of to Chardonnay. So where to begin?

Region, probably. A lot of people who claim to hate Chardonnay have only tasted Chardonnay from one place. Let’s go ahead and admit that place is probably Napa Valley, where there’s been a vogue for over-extracted “butter-bomb” Chards that have all the subtlety of a banana cream pie thrown at your face (sometimes they even taste like banana cream pie). Pour one of these poor souls a Chablis Grand Cru or a Montrachet, witness their delight, and then tell them they’re drinking 100% Chardonnay. They won’t believe you. This grape is… multilingual. It will flourish in a wide variety of places and conditions, but it won’t ever make the same wine in New Zealand that it does in Austria. In fact, it won’t make the same wine in Sonoma that it does in Napa. Repatriate it and it will just learn the local language and keep on keepin’ on. It speaks limestone, it speaks sand. It speaks warm climate and windy coastline, high altitude and sea level, boreal and austral and temperate zone. It’s so not-one-thing that saying you hate it is like saying you hate… vegetables. Or weather.

Without further ado, here are 45 Chardonnays. Road rules: This list does not encompass the entire universe of Chardonnay (and sparkling ones are left out entirely, we can deal with that later!). Most are 100% varietal; a few are blends (primarily from Spain). I have not called out vintages unless there is a particular need to; assume I am talking about the current release unless you hear otherwise. If you wanted to find 365 Chards and try one a day for a year you wouldn’t have to try hard. All regions make good and less-good ones. Price is absolutely as likely to reflect trendy postal codes as quality. Sometimes it’s both.

Not every Chardonnay-growing region is represented here. In fact, this list could easily be called “Stuff Amy has personally found interesting in the past year or so.” Mileage always varies. Palates are palates. In very, very broad strokes, cooler-climate Chardonnays tend to be a little more restrained and mineral-forward, warm-climate Chardonnays more creamy and tropical. Oaked ones will be burlier and often have a vanilla and toast thing going on, unoaked versions will be stonier and fruitier. Extreme latitude regions (think Washington or the Italian Alps) where the daylight hours have extreme variability often have a certain crystalline quality and tremendous finesse. Elevation changes the picture, as does average temperature. Exceptions abound. Good? Good.

45 Bottles of Chardonnay You Should Try

Abeja Chardonnay (Columbia Valley, WA $40) A small producer worth keeping an eye out for (and a must-visit if you’re in scenic Walla Walla!). While on the rich side, this Chard’s strikingly graceful and charming, a bit of a gamine. Unctuous mouthfeel but “snappy” acidity. Meyer lemon, vanilla, sagebrush and pastry cream. Really good.

Agoston Viura and Chardonnay (Carinena, Spain $13) This wine is technically under 50% Chard; there’s a Viura majority, but I couldn’t leave it out just because it is so fun and tasty. Chardonnay has a tendency to be a bit on the heavy and serious side but this is a great example of an expression where it’s youthful and cute-also proof that it plays well with others and not just in Champagne. Greenish hue, crystalline minerality, jasmine and lemon nose, lime and melon on the palate. A little residual sugar so if you like them a bit on the sweet side, you’re in luck.

Artner (Neiderosterreich, Austria, $20) Stainless steel aged. Good acid balance. Tropical notes (pineapple, grapefruit) dominant.

Balletto Cider Ridge Chardonnay (Russian River, CA) Floral, lighthearted, but also structured. Apricot, ginger, honeysuckle, orange rind. Kind of intense, in a good way. Very pleasing texture. Long finish.

Bell Hill (Canterbury, New Zealand $75) There is a lot of very inexpensive wine available from New Zealand and this is seriously not an example, but it’s a really good one and worth seeking out for an occasion. Bell Hill is all about limestone, and there is definitely a strong chalky mineral core here. Sturdy, long finish, notes of lime blossom, pastry, caramel, vanilla. Will stand up well to fairly rich food.

Benziger Sonoma County Chardonnay (Sonoma County, CA $16) Bright and vivid cool climate iteration. A bit of a lemon merengue pie in a bottle type thing, though pear and apricot are also present. A seafood wine for sure.

Bodegas San Valero Particular Chardonnay (Carinena, Spain $10) A “centrist” Chard, neither pronouncedly austere nor pronouncedly voluptuous. Modest, moderate, and for this, potentially a crowd-pleaser at parties and less of a specialist’s bevvie. Decent acidity. Array of citrus-peel and green melon aromatics and flavors. Medium finish.

Cantina Terlano Chardonnay (Alto Adige-Trentino, Italy $20) One of my favorite Italian wineries and an under-considered region for this grape. Terlano’s Chard is brilliant and crystalline but still rich and exotic-fruit dominant (banana, passion fruit and mango pop out) with some lemon balm and other resinous aromatic herbs on the finish. Unique minerality. Expressive. Delicious.

Chamisal Stainless Chardonnay (Central Coast, CA $13) Fresh, golden, youthful. Lemon blossom, green apple, peach, tiny bit of baking spice. Fresh. If oak bugs you, you won’t find any on this one.

Charles Krug Chardonnay (Napa Valley, CA $21) Solidity and finesse all the way. Lightly oaky character, with grapefruit, mango and orange blossom on the nose and a lot of peach and pear on the palate. Very sturdy.

Chehalen INOX Chardonnay (Willamette Valley, OR $19) This is a creamy, full-bodied, ripe, unabashed-phenolics type of Chardonnay but it also expresses the lean, cool-customer notes of French Chards; crushed stone, chalk, honeysuckle, peach blossom, lemon zest, tart apple and a little candied ginger. Persistent finish.

Cooper Mountain Chardonnay (Willamette Valley OR $20) These folks helped put Willamette on the wine map, and with reason. This biodynamic Chard is almost a bit savory, with basaltic influences. Apples dominate. There’s also quince and citrus and floral stuff. Balanced, lithe, lovely.

Corona de Aragon Macabeo-Chardonnay (Aragon, Spain $10) Bright lemon-drop tone, great acidity in the “mouthwatering” range. Palate tends toward lemon, lime and pineapple. Don’t age this one. Crack it open with Thai takeout.

Day Wines Belle Pente Chardonnay (Yamhill-Carlton, OR $38) Unfiltered. Greenish reflexes. Stone fruit, nuts, buttered toast. Almonds. Lovely.

Domaine Drouhin “Arthur” Chardonnay (Dundee Hills, OR $35) Acacia. Almond. Linden. Pear. Lemon zest. On the serious side. If you are too, it could be a love match. These folks make exceptionally solid wines and this is no exception.

Dusted Valley Chardonnay (Yakima Valley, WA, $36) Beautiful. A layered, brilliant, delicately balanced wine and a friend to small course tasting menus because it pairs with everything. Bright, with nice florals, citrusy heart, bit of a pear thing. The volcanic soils of Washington wine country are definitely a friend to this grape. Just gorgeous.

Dutcher Crossing Baciagalupi Vineyard Chardonnay (Russian River, CA $40) Not a shy wine! Goes for it, throwing out every note in the Chardonnay playbook, lemons, cream, grasses, apples, limes, white flowers, brown butter, almond pastry… you name it. Lingering, vibrant, elegant.

Erath Willakia Chardonnay (Eola-Amity Hills, OR $35) Erath is awesome. And they will give a chunky discount on this and all their other equally lovely wines if you join their club, by the way. (Worth it if you live in a state that doesn’t prevent them shipping to you, all their wines are rock stars.) There is a lot of exotic spice here; coriander seed and cardamom and nutmeg. There’s lime pith. Even a hint of coconut. The palate is a creamy lemon tart affair. There is a lingering dry finish. Rich but not overdone. Yummy.

Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay (Sonoma, CA $23) Full-figured but not “fat.” White peach, lychee fruit, pastry and quince. Palate: lemons, vanilla, pears. On the buttery side.

Frescobaldi Pomino Chardonnay (Tuscany, Italy $20) Frescobaldi is firmly in Chianti country but be on the lookout for this (mostly) Chardonnay (a little Pinot Bianco in there too). Clear yellow, very floral nose (jasmine and gardenia); dominant palate notes are quince, peach, and cardamom. Unexpected berry note unfolds on the finish. Pretty.

Gard Chardonnay (Washington $28) Gard is a winery from whom I have yet to meet a wine I didn’t love. No exception here. Operative word: Bright. Full-bodied but fleet-footed. Citrus and stone fruit (apricot and nectarine) play with each other on the nose and straight through the finish. There is a bit of a lemon tart note and some spiciness (I mostly get nutmeg, it’s subtle). A beauty.

Giaconda Nantua Chardonnay (Beechworth, Australia $48) There is a funky element to this wine that might make it a “love it or hate it” thing with some Chard-seekers (it’s not my favorite but I respect this wine’s integrity, and if you like funk you’ll love this). Orange zest. Meyer lemon. Toasted nuts (hazel and pecan for me). Texture in the “mouth-coasting” range, excellent acidity.

Hamacher Chardonnay (Willamette Valley, OR $30) Baking spice nose (nutmeg, ginger) with apple, pear, honey and lemon notes. Maybe a bit of a pastry crust element. Soft body. Juicy. Finish is short and sweet (not in the residual sugar sense, it’s just a wine that gets to the point).

Hess Napa Valley Chardonnay (Napa Valley, CA $22) This is an example of a Napa Chard that doesn’t sucker-punch you. Part stainless, a little bit oak-matured, thoughtfully blended. Yellow apple and pear core. Peaches, orange zest and a slight waft of honeysuckle. Extremely balanced.

Imagery Chardonnay (Glen Ellen CA $13) A splash of Chenin Blanc in this wine creates a little extra elegance and a strong floral character. Bright acidity, oaked but not to the rafters. Red apple, honey, lime leaf, pear.

La Chalblisienne “Pas Si Petit” Petit Chablis (Burgundy, France $18) Nearly colorless, but green reflexes in the glass. Young and supple, with pronounced salinity. Honeysuckle nose. Lime and orange, with a hint of bitterness. Bone-dry. Graceful.

Laufener Altenberg (Baden, Germany, $18) Fruity, fresh, vivacious, and a friend to pork dishes. Grapefruit on the finish.

Left Coast Cellars Truffle Hill Chardonnay (Willamette Valley, OR $20) Steel fermented. Flinty minerality but also creamy texture. Spice, fig, pear, light whisper of citrus.

Linguist Estates Chardonnay (Paso Robles CA $15) I tried this award-winner via the Firstleaf wine club. It’s really very tasty. Malolactic silkiness but not overdone. Ripe but not flabby. Bright but not tart. Usual aromatic suspects: Stone fruit, citrus, white florals, a bit of pear. User-friendly. Also friendly to a roast chicken if you like that kind of thing.

Lloyd by Robert Lloyd Carneros Chardonnay (Los Carneros, CA $35) Tropical and pretty virile. In the “Big Bang” school of CA Chards. Pineapple, Asian pear, vanilla, vanilla, vanilla. Maybe a little mango? And a little bit of lemon curd. Clingy. If you like the ones with big personalities, this is a great option.

Long Meadow Ranch Anderson Valley Chardonnay (Anderson Valley CA $40) Quite distinct from a Napa or Sonoma Chardonnay from a more southerly region, this wine shows tension, salinity, and minerality, in addition to concentrated and dense fruit flavors. Citrus, peaches, stone.

Mayacamas Chardonnay (Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley CA, $50) This is a fairly serious wine. It’s muscular. And pretty rich. There’s a lot of vanilla going on here, as well as passion fruit, Meyer lemon, tangerine, honeysuckle, almond blossom and wet stone, not necessarily in that order. Structured. No malolactic fermentation on this one, so if you don’t like that style, c’mon over and try this one.

Mi Sueno Chardonnay (Los Carneros, CA $40) Classic Napa style, though Los Carneros is the portion of Napa with the most marine influence and that is discernable. Pineapple upside-down cake in a bottle sounds reductive and insulting and I don’t mean it that way. It’s delicious wine, but you do get pastry, pineapple, caramelized sugar and vanilla throughout. Also a bit of grapefruit on the finish to keep things from getting out of hand. Rich and decadent.

Noble Vines 446 Chardonnay (Monterey, CA $10) This is a cheese-loving wine that also has an affinity for veggies and poultry. Aromatics favor yellow apples, apricot and a little pineapple. Creamy in texture and exhibits a pronounced vanilla note with an overlay of peach and spice.

Oberkirker Winzer Chardonnay Trocken (Baden, Germany $20) Residual sugar alert! This fella’s a bit on the sweet side, which can genuinely be your friend in a spicy food situation. It’s quite oaky and quite buttery. So if you’re looking for a giggly lightweight this is not your date. If you want substantial and lingering, it might just be.

Ponzi Reserve Chardonnay (Willamette Valley, OR $34) Dense, rich bouquet: fig tree, quince, vanilla custard, a hint of jasmine. Palate is nuanced, with pastry crust, spiced apple, and nectarine. Noticeably silky texture.

Popcorn Chardonnay (California $15) For those of you who love the buttery ones: Badda bing. Unpretentious, unabashedly rich and malolactic and extracted, this does lean toward the rich, creamy, buttery side of the varietal. Vanilla, peach, caramel, apple, pear, shortbread.

Ron Rubin Pam’s Un-Oaked Chardonnay (California, $15) Fruity and light-bodied with a touch of sweetness. Golden Delicious apples, Asian pears, tangerine blossoms. When people refer to “freshness” in a Chard this is what they are talking about. Great pick for a hot afternoon.

Stave and Stone Chardonnay (Columbia Gorge, OR $28) This one’s oaky. Almost caramel-apple-like at heart, with a hint of butter and a trace of smoke. Full-figured. Well-balanced by a strong lemon note on the finish.

Stoller Chardonnay (Dundee Hills OR $25) Unoaked. Delicate flowery nose (a bit of elderflower, acacia, linden type things, powdery spring flowers). Ripe, full-throated palate (mango and Meyer lemon). Strong finish. Really good.

Tall Sage Goose Ridge Vineyards Chardonnay (Columbia Valley, WA, $12) A little malolactic fermentation gives this Chardonnay a round, soft character. Cool primary fermentation in steel keeps it from being over the top. The nose is lime leaf and jasmine, pear and apple. Tropical fruit flavors are present (pineapple and orange mostly) as well as apricot and yellow apple. Voluptuous finish, good minerality.

Tendril (Willamette Valley OR $40) Tendril might be my favorite discovery of the year. These guys just make awesome wine. It’s not necessarily starving-artist price point but if you can get it, what a treat. This wine has a quality I’d almost call “glassy.” It’s smooth, clear, focused, with quartz-ish minerality and great precision. Blood orange, kaffir lime, pastry, orange blossom, tangerine, vanilla, and a bit of butter, but just a bit.

Tremblay Chablis (Burgundy, France $21) Old World, old-school, and a candidate for getting somewhat old in your cellar. Structure and crispness all the way. Steely as hell, absolutely skips the tropical fruit portfolio and focuses on tangerine oil, jasmine, orange blossoms, honeysuckle and gardenias, with a strong mineral finish.

Z. Alexander Brown “Uncaged” Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands, CA $20) Bright acidity, with caramelized pineapple popping out fairly prominently. Peach, apricot, apple, lemon, toast, and nutmeg also present. Slight beeswax quality. “Mouth-coating” type texture.

Ziata (Los Carneros, CA) Layered, full-flavored, warmer-climate characteristics. Tangerine, orange, green melon, honey, caramel, spice.

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