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Chuck Hill, wine reviewer and columnist

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Wines of the Week Archive
Archived April 25, 2013
Published March 15, 2013

Versatile Chardonnay – The Dawning of a New Era
By Chuck Hill
Part 2 of a 3-Part Series (Part 1)
 (Part 3)

Perhaps it is the combination of recent vintages, or maybe a coincidental shift of attitude by winemakers and winery owners.  Somehow the quality of Chardonnay wines I have tasted for these articles has taken a giant leap forward, and the character of the wines has become more sophisticated and food friendly.  Reflecting on my past as a wine judge in the 1990s, I recall the “chore” of being assigned the Chardonnay panel where dozens of insipid Chardonnay samples were presented, each with the same “apple, pear, light toast” descriptor.  No longer... and it’s about time! 

A new era of Chardonnay offers the consumer some vast improvements conjured by changes in grape-growing techniques and winemaking strategies.  The wines have more – and more balanced – acidities.  The wines are more complex, showing earthy mineral, bright and various fruit, hints of oak and ample sur lie character from barrel aging. 

My premise of Versatile Chardonnay has been fulfilled with wines complementing everything from seafood to smoked chicken to mu shu pork and beyond.  A few wines hint at the complexities and character of French white Burgundies, but all give better value and validate the New World wine experience that Mike Grgich began at the Judgement of Paris tasting in 1976. 

Sinclair Estate Vineyards
2011 Chardonnay
Columbia Valley

Winemaker Amy Alvarez-Wampfler grew up as part of a hard-working agricultural family in Yakima and knew her passion was rooted in the land.  She worked as part of the winemaking team at Ste. Michelle Wines Estates from 2003 until 2009 and in 2010 partnered with the owner of Sinclair Estate Vineyard as the head winemaker.  Her 2011 Chardonnay is a rich and mouth-filling wine bursting with aromas of pear, pineapple and butterscotch.  The palate is a basket of tropical fruit flavors with notes of mineral and butterscotch on the finish.  It is a tasty standalone sipper and pairs well with lighter grilled meats and rich pasta dishes. 

Bergström Winery
2011 Chardonnay “Sigrid”
Willamette Valley

I told the story of the Bergström Winery in last week’s column, featuring their “Old Stones” Chardonnay from the 2010 vintage.  This week it is the reserve-styled “Sigrid” Chardonnay from the 2011 vintage (named after the Swedish grandmother of winemaker Josh Bergström).  Vintages in Oregon are rarely the same.  The 2011 was a cooler year with harvest dragging out for weeks while winemakers waited for grapes to attain higher sugars.  This wine is excellent, but leaner than those from 2010.  Look for complex aromas and flavors of orange blossom, lemon, butter and spice, Asian pear and vanilla. 

Crumbled Rock Winery
2010 Kayam Chardonnay, Marsh Estate Vineyard
Yamhill-Carlton AVA

In 1987 Julia Staigers and Gerard Koschal were living in Albuquerque, New Mexico and were bored with their careers and jobs.  They were ready for the next big adventure!  They purchased a property in the Dundee Hills with nearly five acres of vineyard and began the life of part-time grape growers.  Eventually, their grapes were sold each year to Erath Winery.  In 2007, Julia retired from her job and encouraged Gerard to join her in a winery venture.  Crumbled Rock Winery 2010 Kayam Chardonnay offers aromas of earthy mineral, fresh apple and orchard blossom leading to a palate of white peach, wet stone and crisp citrus flavors. 

Stoller Family Estate
2010 Chardonnay, Reserve
Dundee Hills

Bill Stoller was born on the family property at the site of the current winery near Dayton, Oregon, and was raised at the family’s second turkey farm just two miles away.  His success in business led him to becoming the co-owner of Chehalem Winery in 1993 and at the same time purchasing the 373-acre family farm to create Stoller Family Estate winery and vineyards.  Winemaker Melissa Burr crafts wines from 185 acres of estate vineyards, creating three tiers of wines as well as estate-exclusive selections.  The 2010 Reserve Chardonnay offers delicate aromas of pear, melon and floral perfume.  On the palate, flavors of citrus and earthy mineral finish with light vanilla and hints of toasty oak. 

Forgeron Cellars
2011 Chardonnay
Columbia Valley

French born and educated Marie-Eve Gilla has been the winemaker at Forgeron Cellars since its 2001 founding in downtown Walla Walla at the site of a former blacksmith shop.  In the 12 years of its history, Forgeron Cellars has expanded its offerings to include bottlings of different varietals and blends and the value-priced Blacksmith label wines. Forgeron Chardonnay is crafted from vineyard sources on both the warm Wahluke Slope and the cooler Yakima Valley AVA.  Aromas of crisp apple and pear mingle with notes of orange blossom and earthy mineral.  The palate offers flavors of pear and citrus with notes of vanilla and toasty oak leading to a crisp finish of bright acidity.  The winery opened a Woodinville-area tasting room in July of 2012. 

Hawks View Cellars
2011 Chardonnay
Yamhill-Carlton AVA

Hawks View Cellars was founded by Willie Kemp and her late husband Jack in 2007 after they purchased the Hawks View Vineyard in 2002.  The 50-acre vineyard was planted in 1991 to Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.  Winemaker Ryan Harms crafted this Chardonnay from grapes grown at Gran Moraine Vineyard west of Carlton.  Grapes were whole-cluster pressed and fermented in both stainless steel and French oak barrels.  Look for aromas of pear, citrus and honey with flavors of spicy pear and stone fruits on the palate mingling with floral geranium and notes of toasty oak. 

Apex Cellars
2011 Chardonnay
Columbia Valley

Apex Cellars was founded in 1988 with its original production facility in Sunnyside in Washington’s Yakima Valley.  The winery is now part of Precept Wines sourcing fruit from vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills and Yakima Valley.  The Apex tasting room is located in Woodinville near Hollywood Corner.  This barrel-fermented Chardonnay offers aromas of white peach, citrus and vanilla with notes of light butterscotch.  The palate follows with flavors of stone fruits and pear, earthy mineral and caramel. 

Chateau Ste. Michelle
2011 Chardonnay, Indian Wells
Columbia Valley

The Indian Wells brand from Chateau Ste. Michelle is a step up the tier ladder from the Columbia Valley bottlings, featuring fruit from some of the best Columbia Valley vineyard sources and more barrel treatment for added complexity.  This Chardonnay from the 2011 vintage features great balance between tropical fruits like pineapple and mango and buttery caramel and earthy notes from sur lie aging.  Winemaker Bob Bertheau suggests pairing his Chardonnay with your favorite Northwest seafood dish. 


Woodward Canyon
2011 Chardonnay

Those familiar with Woodward Canyon Chardonnay will be surprised at the new direction this wine is taking.  Once an unctuous, buttery celebration of barrel-fermented hedonism, the wine now offers the lean mineral and citrus profile of the new Chardonnay making it a more food-friendly choice.  In the description, the winery offers “…Finally, the oak is understated by our choice and is in wonderful proportion with the fruit and acidity.”  Look for aromas of apple, pear and honey leading to flavors of creamy stone fruits and hazelnut with hints of butter and tropical fruits – indeed a tasty food wine. 


Cathedral Ridge Winery
2009 Chardonnay, Reserve
Columbia Valley

Winemaker Michael Sebastiani crafted this Reserve Chardonnay in the hedonistic style of yore with barrel fermentation and sur lie aging in American oak barrels.  Apple and pear are evident in the nose and palate, and the winery describes the experience this way, “a light golden hue with a warm nose that hints at vanilla.  A luscious mouthfeel with nutty notes and butterscotch that lead through strong, complex layers lingering throughout the finish.”  Good acidity and tropical fruit notes complete the picture and promise a food-friendly encounter. 

Troon Vineyard
2011 Chardonnay, Layne Vineyard
Applegate Valley

One of the pioneer’s of the Applegate Valley wine region, Dick Troon planted the first vines in this vineyard in 1972.  The vineyard has been expanded to 40 acres and the winery produces a range of wines with the primary focus on reds, Zinfandel especially.  This Chardonnay was sourced from nearby Layne Vineyard and offers aromas of lemon bar, tropical fruits and toasty puff pastry with a background of traditional pear and apple flavors and notes of butterscotch and earthy mineral.  It is a nice blend of the lean food-friendly style and the rich, buttery offerings. 

Coeur d’Alene Cellars
 2010 Chardonnay
Washington, Stillwater Creek/Lonesome Spring

Coeur d’Alene Cellars was founded in 2002 with a focus on producing the finest Rhone varietal wines from the best Washington vineyards.  The Rhone varietal wines have been joined by other selections including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay.  The 2010 Chardonnay came from grapes grown at Stillwater Creek and Lonesome Springs Vineyards and shows aromas and flavors of pear and peach complemented by notes of vanilla, butterscotch and spice.  When in downtown Coeur d’Alene, visit their Barrel Room 6 tasting room and restaurant featuring light fare, wine tasting and live music. 

Wines from other areas

Grgich Hills Estate
2010 Chardonnay, Estate
Napa Valley

In 1976 British wine merchant Steven Spurrier organized a Paris blind tasting of famous French wines against some of his favorite California bottlings.  Mike Grgich’ Chateau Montelena Chardonnay came out on top of some of Burgundy’s best white wines.  Grgich founded his own winery in 1978, and his Chardonnays have become the standard for that varietal in California and around the world.  You can enjoy the 2010 bottling featuring aromas and flavors of rich tropical fruits, earthy mineral, peaches and hints of vanilla and toasty oak. 

La Rochelle
2010 Chardonnay, Ferrington Vineyard
Anderson Valley

Steven Kent Mirassou’s La Rochelle winery has the stated goal of making California’s best, most interesting and collectable Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  This 2010 selection for his Grand Cru Collection was crafted from grapes grown at Ferrington Vineyard in the Anderson Valley and was aged in French oak barrels, 40% new.  It is an outstanding wine that offers aromas of orange peel, green apple and butterscotch leading to a perfectly balanced palate of tropical citrus, stone fruits and an elegant creamy character of sur lie and malolactic notes – great acid balance for food pairing. 

Cakebread Cellars
2011 Chardonnay
Napa Valley

The Cakebread family is celebrating 40 years of making wine in the Napa Valley with some news about wine made in Washington.  Dennis Cakebread spoke with The Wine Enthusiast about their new Mullan Road project in the Walla Walla Valley indicating that grapes were harvested and vinified for a Bordeaux-style blend from the 2012 vintage at the Artifex custom crush winery in Walla Walla – stay tuned.  In the meantime, you can enjoy the 2011 Napa Valley Chardonnay with delicate aromas of creamy stone fruits, earthy mineral and vanilla leading to flavors of green apple, pear, mineral and light toasty oak. 

Gallo Signature Series
2010 Chardonnay
Russian River Valley

The Gallo Signature Series honors the journey the Gallo family started in 1933 and celebrates how far the family has come.  Third-generation winemaker Gino Gallo created three distinct wines that could only be crafted from the Gallo family’s unique combination of vineyard sources.  The Signature Series Chardonnay hails from the esteemed Russian River Valley AVA in the heart of Sonoma County with most of the fruit coming from the historic Laguna Ranch Vineyard.  Look for complex aromas and flavors of ripe melon, lemon curd, sweet vanilla and freshly-baked bread with soft texture on the finish. 

Freemark Abbey
2011 Chardonnay
Napa Valley

At the same 1976 Paris tasting mentioned above, the Freemark Abbey Chardonnay placed 6th of 10 in the scoring, not earning a place in history except as a footnote in later wine-review columns.  The wine, of course, had to be darned good to be considered for the honor of participating (for the whole story of the tasting, look for the 2008 movie “Bottle Shock”).  The 2011 Napa Valley Chardonnay offers notes of tropical fruits, apple and pear with flavors that echo the nose and add coconut, smoky oak and citrus.

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