While chardonnay grown in certain areas produces better wine, it also thrives in many grape-growing regions.
Chardonnay’s adaptability helped it spread from a small region of France to every corner of the world. Still, northern California regions — Sonoma, Napa and Lake County — include some prime locations for growing the grape that for many is synonymous with “white wine.”
On the shelf, chardonnay shows so much variation that it’s hard to recommend without knowing a person’s taste. Does he like the creaminess and butteriness that come from the acid-softening process of malo-lactic fermentation? Does she like the nuttiness and texture from sur-lie aging, where the wine is kept in contact with yeast cells, or the spiciness and warmth of oak aging?
At the same time, no-frills steel tank-fermented chardonnay juice offers a nice reminder of how the often-meddled with grape tastes on its own.
There’s a lot going on — or not going on — in a bottle of chardonnay. Most producers lay it all out on the back label, boasting of their efforts.
Within Napa, the sub-region Carneros sits closer to the bay and cooling ocean breezes. Chardonnay and its cousin, pinot noir, do better in cooler temperatures, and Carneros has claimed those Burgundian varieties.
Frank Family Vineyards 2017 Carneros Chardonnay smells spicy with green apple and ginger notes with rich texture and a limey, crisp finish. You may find past vintages of this or more recent vintages of Frank’s Napa Valley Chardonnay, made in a similar style. $30 to $35. ★★★★
Frank Family Vineyards produces excellent examples of particular wine styles, creating archetypal wines.
Just north of Napa, Lake County offers northern California-quality grapes at a much lower price, because you aren’t paying for the prestige or scarcity of the big names of Napa or Sonoma.
For all the chardonnay frills with no sacrifice of flavor, try Shannon Ridge 2017 Red Hills Ranch Reserve Chardonnay Lake County, a toasty wine with character of baked apple, spice, vanilla, sweet cream and peach with food-friendly acids. $14. ★★★★ 1/2
Chardonnay excels in parts of southern California as well, including Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Barbara. Paso Robles, where everything grows well, also is worth a mention and a try.
GRADE: Exceptional ★★★★★, Above average ★★★★, Good ★★★, Below average ★★, Poor ★.