Thursday, March 14, 2024

Sonoma & Napa Chardonnay

Lately, I've had the feeling that Chardonnay has eased into complacency. Twenty years ago, Chardonnay was a major item of discussion in wine circles (dare I say on everyone's lips). Now, it seems as though Chardonnay has settled in as the self-assured dominant white wine, in most of the world's wine regions. 

There was a time when Chardonnay was synonymous with white wine. This was a  common scenario: Three young women are catching up at a bar in Los Angeles and the bartender asks for their order. "I'll have white wine," they all say.  The wines are set in front of the friends, they clink glasses, take a sip and immediately admonish the bartender for not serving them Chardonnay. 

A cliche, perhaps, but the tale demonstrates the enduring popularity of Chardonnay. 


Which brings me to Sonoma and Napa, two California regions responsible for most of California's Chardonnay.  Sauvignon Blanc may have found a comfortable spot in both places but it's not threatening to dethrone Chardonnay.

Fact is, Chardonnay is not an original New World wine. Chardonnay can trace its roots back to the Middle Ages, to a part of France we know today as Burgundy.  DNA analysis claims that Chardonnay is the offspring of Pinot Noir and an old variety called Gouais Blanc.  Ancient ancestry aside, Chardonnay is a modern global  traveler, the most popular white wine on every continent where wine is made. 

The popularity of Chardonnay in Sonoma and Napa took off in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Hanzell likely made the first Sonoma Chardonnay in 1956 and about 15 years later, Bob Travers was making Chardonnay at Mayacamas on Mt. Veeder.

Tasting the Difference

Is it possible to taste the difference between a Napa and a Sonoma Chardonnay?  Anything is possible, but it would be difficult and here's why.  

There's geography and its connection to terroir. The Napa Valley is a smaller place than Sonoma, with 16 clearly defined areas, or AVAs. Sonoma is much larger and spread out, with 19 AVAs. Each of these AVAs has a different terroir. 

Although it's not easy to clearly define what is the terroir of any area, the simple explanation is such factors as climate, soils, vineyard location, plus a host of other things combine to form a grape growing environment. 

The sum of all those factors means that Chardonnay is happiest when it has lots of time to ripen evenly, in a cooler environment, like that for Pinot Noir. Wherever you find Pinot Noir, you will also likely find Chardonnay: Burgundy, Carneros, Champagne, Russian River.

Consider the growing conditions for Chardonnay in the Napa Valley. They are thought to be ideal at the cool end of the valley in Los Carneros and Wild Horse Valley, but less so in warmer northern Calistoga. 

Thus, the taste of a Carneros Chardonnay is more Granny Smith apple and its  brisk mouth-watering acidity. Move up valley to warmer spots, like Calistoga, and Chardonnay takes on a softer acidity and tropical fruit flavors.


The same differences are present in Sonoma, where a local terroir makes it more suitable to grow Chardonnay in cooler west county, closer to the ocean or the Russian River Valley.  Move further inland to the Alexander Valley and conditions warm a little and get warmer yet near Geyserville. 

Local topography, of course, can make a difference, with cooler pockets where Chardonnay does well.

These generalizations are for Chardonnay that hasn't been fermented in oak, or seen oak during barrel aging. Chardonnay is a malleable grape to work with, allowing a winemaker enough room to ferment in oak or just age in oak and to calculate how much time in barrel is just right. Plus, there's the wine making choice of malolactic conversion or not. 

With Chardonnay, there are many variables for a winemaker to work with, starting in the vineyard, providing an unlimited number of styles. You'll find most of the styles in Napa and Sonoma Chardonnays. 

What follows then is a list of a few select wines with prices. The list does not reflect the highest or lowest prices in either Napa or Sonoma:

Napa Chardonnays range from $17 for Napa Cellars to $929 for Kongsgarrd The Judge. If that's too much strain on your wine budget, there's Mondavi, Duckhorn, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Grgich Hills, all for less than $50.  Far Niente is $70, Ch. Montelena, $75 and Kongsgarrd, $150. 

Sonoma Chardonnays are priced from $19 for La Crema to $684 for Marcassin Estate. Others include Sonoma Cutrer, $25; Jordan Vineyard and Winery, $42; Flowers, $48; Paul Hobbs, $65; Peter Michael "Belle Cote," $138 and Kistler, $146.


Next post: Tokaj & Hungarian Wine 

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