On Thursday, May 22nd, the 5th Annual Chardonnay Day will be here and the burning question is… what will be in your glass? If one wants to get maudlin, it was only four decades ago when Chardonnay was not on the menu. If you asked any retailer in the early to mid-1970s, “what is your best-selling white wine?,” you can be sure the answer would not be Chardonnay. No, the most sold white wine of that era was California Chablis (which in fact, was not Chardonnay at all). We have come a long way!
To some folks (perhaps those in the ABC – Anything But Chardonnay – crowd) Chardonnays taste entirely too similar, and to some extent I would agree. Wineries have become so adept at producing well-made wines that it can be hard to distinguish one from another. Yet differences do exist and the hallmark of the finer producers is high quality and consistency. Over the last half-dozen years, three successful California Chardonnays that have exhibited these traits include MacRostie Sonoma Coast, William Hill Estate Winery Napa Valley and Mer Soleil Reserve. What makes them the darlings of the industry is that they have found a place in the market and stayed true to producing wines of high quality and consistent character.
The William Hill Estate Winery Napa Valley is rock solid in its makeup. Drawing from Napa’s cool Carneros and warmer St. Helena regions, the wine exhibits fine core fruit notes and a warm and balanced palate. When I am looking to feed my friends lightly grilled prawns, I often reach for a Sonoma Coast chardonnay and no one does it better than MacRostie. A bit subtler than the aforementioned William Hill, MacRostie deftly defines the crisp nature that this AVA is apt to show. On the bold and powerful side, I recommend the Mer Soleil Reserve. Creamy and layered, one could easily pair this wine with organic roast chicken (I am a big fan of organic chicken because the flavors are sweeter and more distinctive). This trio ranks among my best choices in the marketplace, and may make one wonder: was Chardonnay always this good? Let’s dial back to the early 1970’s and take a look at the varietal’s place in the market.
One of California’s greatest wine books, The Fine Wines of California by Hurst Hannum and Robert S. Blumberg, published in 1973, listed 32 Chablis (from California) and only 20 California Chardonnays, including, Buena Vista, Chalone, Cuvaison, Hanzell, Charles Krug, Llords & Elwood, Robert Mondavi, Parducci, Simi and Stony Hill. Yet the real story in this era was that Americans were still drinking California Chablis. From 750 ml (called fifths at the time) to 4.0 liter bottles, California Chablis was the show. But Chardonnay’s time was about to come.
As a retailer in the 1970’s, I started moving away from Chablis, instead offering our customers the likes of Beaulieu Vineyard, Simi and Kenwood Vineyards. Over time I moved the clientele to Cuvaison, Chalone and Spring Mountain, among others. The “everyday” group consisted of fresh, frisky and fruit forward wines and the upper tier brought wines into the French Burgundy tier. Chardonnay enjoyed such a great launch pad at this time; it eventually became the white wine that ran the business. As the industry grew up, wineries such as Sonoma-Cutrer and Kistler Vineyards took a bold step and modeled their works after the Old World epicenter of Chardonnay, France’s Burgundy region. Yep, those high-priced vineyards that only the French and American wine aristocracy could pronounce. Puligny-Montrachet was not in the common vernacular at that time.
Chardonnay, the most important white wine in the world, is ready to party. What will be in your glass on Thursday, May 22nd, The 5th Annual Chardonnay Day? I already have a few bottles in the fridge ready for action. Look forward to sharing some tasting notes with you then!