I've taken more a few swipes at California wines over the years.
I've called them over-oaked. I've deemed them "wines without elegance”. And I've panned their high levels of alcohol. One of the most-frequent targets for my detestation is California chardonnay—which is often guilty of all three infractions.
I'm the first to admit it—I can be judgmental. Sometimes fairly. Sometimes unfairly. And, I think that a lot of wine writers are guilty of making broad generalizations more often than they should. I'm certainly guilty of it.
I don't loathe every wine made on the West Coast—far from it. After Long Island wines, my favorites are German Rieslings and California zinfandel—which rarely, if ever, display elegance and are almost always high alcohol.
But what about those oaky chardonnays that I bash incessantly? Am I being unfair in bashing them? Yes, but just how unfair?
To find out, I decided to taste three different chardonnays from Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards in Sonoma. Sonoma-Cutrer is a well-known producer and one with wide distribution, so it's a good choice for this little investigation.
I started with Sonoma-Cutrer's 2005 Russian River Ranches Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast AVA. This is perhaps S-C's most popular wine—it's targeted at restaurants and works its way onto many wine lists. It's 100% chardonnay and was fermented and aged in French oak and clocks in at 14.2% ABV. A medium yellow-gold, the nose is somewhat fresh and shows nice aromas of pear, pineapple, roasted nut and vanilla. The palate is medium-bodied and shows similar flavors, with the vanilla really stepping forward and expanding on tongue. There is nice acidity here and a medium-length finish that has a nice minerally note. While not heavy or flabby—as many California chards can be—this wine is a little hollow on the mid-palate. It's like there's a whole in the middle. Overall, I'd call this wine average, but very versatile with food because of the nice acidity. Rating: (2 out of 5 | Average)
Next, I tasted Sonoma-Cutrer's 2005 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, a wine targeted at the retail wine market. It's just a little darker gold in the glass and there is a lot more oak apparent on the nose—buttered nuts and toasty coconut aromas dominate. There's very little fruit character there. Fuller bodied, this wine is heavier across the palate, but still has plenty of acidity. It’s not flabby at all. The flavors are fairly simple—butter-roasted pears, caramel and lemon—but the fruit flavors aren't strong enough to stand up to the heavy-handed oak. The finish is also slightly marred by just a little alcohol heat. I didn't like this wine at all and wouldn't recommend it. Rating: (1.5 out of 5 | Not Recommended-to-Average)
After these first two, I was feeling pretty good about my historical comments about Cali chardonnay. Sure, both avoided being flabby, but neither stood out either. Then I tasted Sonoma-Cutrer's 2003 Les Pierres Chardonnay, a vineyard designate wine that impressed me. The color is most similar to the Russian River Ranches bottling but, despite being two years older, the nose is much fresher and more focused. Lemon and lime zest, fresh flowers and subtle spice join attractive Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apple aromas. Medium-bodied, balanced and lively, apple and citrus flavors are accented by just a little vanilla and minerality. The balance and elegance are terrific here and this is absolutely a wine I'd buy and drink again. Rating: (3 out of 5 | Recommended)
See? You can't make generalizations.
Not all California Chardonnay is bad…just most of it.