By Chuck Hill
Wines of the Week Archive
Chardonnay is the queen of white grapes. It makes the famous earthy white Burgundies of France, the crisp and citrusy Northwest versions, and the toasty vanilla cream and oak Chardonnays that began in California and spread throughout the wine world. The best Chardonnay wines have components from all three categories: earthiness and light “forest floor” notes, hints of lemon and grapefruit in the middle and finish, and a complex oak character that shows itself as spice, smoke and caramel. Inexpensive Chardonnays often have a small amount of barrel-fermented wine blended in for smoothness. While light in body, they make excellent everyday sipping wines and are often very nice food wines as well.
My focus on Chardonnay highlights many styles, all of which can be perfect accompaniments for light- to medium-bodied meals or enjoyed as a refreshing sip with friends. Cuisine for my comparative tastings included shellfish, smoked chicken, chicken sausages and medium cheeses.
Most of the wineries listed offer tasting and tours of their facilities. With spring weather just around the corner, why not plan a visit to the wine country? For example, spring barrel tasting weekend in the Yakima Valley is April 27 – 28. (See our up-to-date Calendars for other opportunities.)
As one of Oregon’s pioneer winemakers, David Adelsheim has fulfilled his dream of Oregon wines being recognized around the world, and Adelsheim wines achieving a reputation for quality and consistency. The winery has expanded through 40 years of operation to now include 11 estate vineyard sites totaling 190 acres, a state-of-the-art production facility and a visitor center just west of Newberg, Oregon, off Highway 240. The 2011 Chardonnay offers bright aromas of white peach, grapefruit and mineral with flavors of citrus and pear with a crisp finish. Enjoy with lighter entrees or appetizers.
Chehalem’s INOX Chardonnay is fermented solely in stainless steel tanks (INOX is the French abbreviation for stainless steel) and offers the clean, fresh aromas and flavors of the grape variety, expressing notes of terroir from the Corral Creek and Stoller Vineyards. The wine offers aromas of pear, creamy stone fruits, spice and floral perfume, and the palate is perfectly balanced and complex with flavors of apple, wet slate and white peach. It is superb with any lighter fare.
Longtime Washington winemaker crafts this barrel-fermented Chardonnay from fruit grown at Stillwater Creek Vineyard on the Royal Slope of the Frenchman Hills. Innovative clonal selection at the vineyard adds to the complexity of this richly textured wine. The combination of French oak barrels (50% new), sur lie aging and malolactic fermentation creates a wine with toasty/buttery aromas dancing above a core of spice, apple and pear, and a complex palate of creamy vanilla, peach and mineral.
The NxNW brand was created in 2006 by King Estate Winery of Oregon to add representation of the Walla Walla area with appropriate varietals. The first releases of Merlot and Syrah have expanded to include Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. This barrel-fermented wine was crafted from grapes grown at The Benches Vineyard, located high above the Columbia River at Wallula (where the river turns west downriver from the Tri-Cities). The wine is a food-friendly, medium-bodied style featuring notes of vanilla and toasty oak along with tropical fruits, peaches and a hint of butterscotch – a good sipper or food wine and a good value.
Ron Coleman founded Tamarack Cellars in Walla Walla in 1998 in a renovated firehouse at the old World War II Army Air Base (this area houses almost a dozen Walla Walla wineries). Ron’s right hand man since 1999 has been Danny Gordon who is now the official winemaker. The winery is open Thursday through Sunday for tasting and tours. Tamarack Chardonnay was barrel fermented in French oak and offers aromas and flavors of tropical fruits, apple, pear and spice with notes of toast and butterscotch – great with seafood, fowl or friendly conversation. By the way, many of Tamarack Cellars’ red wines are hidden gems that sometimes don’t get the press coverage they deserve – seek them out, too.
Harbinger Winery is located on Highway 101 near Port Angeles, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula. Owner and winemaker Sara Gagnon makes a wide range of varietals, mostly red. This tasty Chardonnay pairs well with lighter meals and also makes a great aperitif. Look for aromas and flavors of Meyer lemon, spicy mineral, lime leaf, pear candy and hints of vanilla and toasty oak.
The Mercer Canyons label was created in 2012 by Mercer Estates Winery in Prosser, Washington. This brand honors the Mercer family’s creed “Respect the Land” as they have been part of Washington State agriculture since 1886. The 2011 Chardonnay was made from fruit grown at Sagemoor Vineyard near Pasco and Zephyr Ridge Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills. A nose of apple, pear and spice leads to rich flavors of pear, lychee, creamy lemon and notes of honey and mineral on the finish.
Three Rivers Winery
Walla Walla’s Three Rivers Winery selects grapes from throughout the Columbia Valley to craft a wide variety of red and white wines. Winemaker Holly Turner fermented this Chardonnay in French oak barrels (15% new) with 50% malolactic and eight months barrel age on the lees (sur lie) with stirring (batonnage) for additional depth and creaminess. Aromas of apples and pears mingle with notes of spicy oak leading to the palate with flavors of tropical fruit, creamy warm macaroons, honeysuckle and toasty oak – a nice aperitif with smoked seafood.
Selections from the Hogue Cellars continue to be among the best value wines from Washington State. Director of winemaking Co Dinn has been at the helm for 10 years, and he works closely with winemaker Jim Mills to create high quality, value priced wines. The 2011 Chardonnay offers aromas of earthy pear, citrus and ginger and flavors of apple and pear with hints of butterscotch and toasty oak – a good food wine or sipper for the warm days ahead.
Waterbrook has always been known for a tasty Chardonnay, crafted to show a balance of bright Northwest fruit and character imparted from barrel aging and malolactic fermentation. The nose shows a nice blend of apple and tropical fruits, with buttery notes leading to a palate that shows crisp citrus and green apple with toast and hints of stone fruits. The winery suggests pairing this wine with roast chicken, grilled seafood or pasta with cream sauce.
Torii Mor Winery was founded in 1993 by Dr. Donald Olson who, as a long-time connoisseur of French Burgundy wines, saw the potential of Oregon in producing Pinot Noir. The Olson Estate Vineyard was planted in 1972 making it one of the oldest in the state. In 2004, winemaker Jacques Tardy came on board, bringing a Burgundian heritage and five generations of winemaking. This Chardonnay is reminiscent of Chablis with notes of forest floor and wet cement dancing around a core of green apple and spicy barrel toast. The palate resolves to flavors of crisp citrus, tropical fruits and notes of floral perfume – intriguing and a good pairing for lighter cuisine.
Bergström Winery was founded by Dr. John and Karen Bergström who planted the Bergström Vineyard in the Dundee Hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1999. That same year, son Josh Bergström returned from a post-graduate program in viticulture and enology in the Burgundy region of France. Josh is now manager, winemaker and vineyard manager for the winery. The Old Stones bottling utilizes grapes from five established vineyard sites in the northern Willamette Valley, including the estate vineyard. This wine shows elements of classic Burgundian white wine with aromas of earth and mineral mingling with pear and tropical fruits. The palate is distinctly mineral driven with flavors of slate, citrus and baking spice finishing with notes of vanilla and toasty oak.
“Cristom Winery is built on a collaboration of three men - an engineer, a biochemist and a farmer – who are, first and foremost, stewards of the land.” Founder Paul Gerrie, winemaker Steve Doerner and vineyard manager Mark Feltz have worked together since 1992, honing a winemaking style that is “both visionary and old fashioned.” The Cristom Chardonnay is crafted from the Germaine Vineyard block at the estate and produces only 50 to 75 cases per year. Look for apple, melon and tropical fruits with notes of caramel and wet stone minerality.
Brothers Ryan and Mike Seal founded Sigillo Cellars in 2009 in the town of Snoqualmie on the way to the foothills of Washington’s Cascade Mountain range. The brothers had been making wine at home with friend Steve Bailey since 2005 and were pleased with the quality of the wines. In 2009 they created Sigillo Cellars and produced their first commercial vintage. Current releases include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Viognier and Chardonnay. The 2010 Chardonnay offers pear and spice with earthy notes and hints of vanilla and barrel toast.
Wines from other areas
Matanzas Creek Winery was founded in 1977 crafting wines that represent the classical style of Sonoma County. The unique location of Matanzas Creek is the Bennett Valley where cooling winds through the Petaluma Gap moderate the heat in the vineyard. The winery also includes lavender gardens which visitors enjoy each June. The 2010 Chardonnay is very much in the barrel-fermented California style – complex and rich in aromas and flavors of ripe fruit, toasty oak and butterscotch. On the nose one finds citrus, honeysuckle, tropical fruits and buttery vanilla. The palate yields complex flavors of mineral, pineapple and caramel with moderate tannins that invite pairing with richer foods to balance.
The Hess Collection Su’skol Vineyard in the southern Napa Valley experiences distinctive marine influences with cooling morning fog and stiff afternoon breezes. The 175-acre vineyard is planted exclusively to Chardonnay with nine unique clones, allowing the winemaker to creatively blend his perfect wine. Soft aromas of spicy pear and citrus are complemented by notes of vanilla bean and brioche. The palate offers flavors of stone fruits, apple and pear with finishing notes of orchard blossom and soft barrel toast.
From the high altitude vineyards of Mendoza – in the foothills of the Andes – Alamos crafts unique wines that offer both quality and good value. Winemaker Felipe Stahlschmidt crafted the 2010 Chardonnay utilizing partial barrel fermentation and sur lie aging. Look for aromas and flavors of lemon zest, apricot, white peach and notes of smoky cedar and vanilla.
The Hawkes Bay winegrowing region is on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. The area is beautiful for general tourism and offers a similar maritime climate to Bordeaux for winegrowing. Esk Valley winery was built in 1933 as the Glenvale Winery. Stainless steel tanks have been added to complement the concrete vats of the original winery, now used for red wine production. This rich and fruity Chardonnay offers aromas and flavors of peach, apricot and tropical citrus mingling with vanilla cookie and toasty oak notes.
The Penfold’s winery was founded in South Australia in 1844 by Dr. Christopher Rawson Penfold and his wife Mary. The original vineyard at the Mackgill estate was the source of grapes for the earliest wines. For more than 160 years, the winery has grown both in size and reputation, with the Grange bottling (begun in the 1950s) often referred to as one of the world’s finest red wines. Penfold’s Hyland Chardonnay now sees less new oak aging than in previous vintages to bring forth the fruit character of the Adelaide vineyards. Look for aromas and flavors of ripe pear, tropical fruits, vanilla and toasty oak with hints of butter and caramel.
MacMurray Ranch winery is located in the heart of the Russian River Valley AVA approximately 50 miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma County. Warm days and cool nights make the location perfect for growing high-quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The 2011 Chardonnay was fermented partially in tank and partially in barrel. All lots were aged in barrel sur lie with stirring every three weeks. Aromas of fresh apple and peach mingle with notes of vanilla and earthy mineral. The palate is creamy with flavors of lemon curd, tropical fruits and mineral with a finish of vanilla and caramel.
The Santa Maria Valley is located in Santa Barbara County and is one of California’s coolest AVAs, with fog and cool winds coming in from the Pacific Ocean. The long growing season and sandy soils are perfect for allowing Chardonnay to develop intense flavors. Byron’s Chardonnay is 100% barrel fermented, offering initial aromas of citrus and spice that yield to notes of mineral and light vanilla. On the palate, flavors of stone fruits, fig and honey are followed by a finish of vanilla and sur lie character.
© 2013 Chuck Hill