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Well-made Chardonnays from Napa Valley first hit the wine world’s collective conscious in 1976 when Chateau Montelena Chardonnay won the “Judgement of Paris.” Aficionados everywhere were shocked when a California wine beat France’s time-honored Chardonnays. The varietal became immensely popular in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s until wine drinkers began their love-hate relationship with Chardonnay and joked about the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement. This most likely occurred because winemakers responded to demand, increased production and began making lower quality wines using techniques such as wood chips and “sawdust teabags” to make heavily oak-flavored wine. These unfortunate tricks were not just a California phenomenon and extended to mass produced Chardonnays made in other countries including Australia and South America. People began associating California Chardonnay with heavy amounts of oak and in fact, one French winemaker we had dinner with in the late 1990s referred to California Chardonnay having flavors “like a piece of wood slathered in butter.”
We should all be grateful that California winemakers listened to their consumers, began scaling back their use of oak and instead let the beautiful flavors of Napa Valley grown grapes shine through. Today some Napa Valley winemakers still use oak to accent their wines, but we like to think the current use is more like a wood frame to highlight the beautiful characteristics of valley grown fruit rather than an oppressive one. Some winemakers ferment Chardonnay in stainless steel, while others ferment in barrels. Some choose to age in oak for a few months and some choose to not age in oak at all, so wine lovers today have a variety of California Chardonnays to choose from.
We are big fans of California Chardonnay and enjoy a non-oaked version as much as a well-oaked version. It all depends upon what we’re pairing it with. Non-oaked (or lightly oaked) versions are great to drink on their own as an aperitif or pair with crudité platters, charcuterie and briny seafood. Well-oaked versions pair nicely with grilled fish and meat in cream sauces, vegetables with Hollandaise or Béarnaise sauces or a simple steamed lobster dipped in clarified butter. In the summer we prefer to drink less oaked styles while in the winter our heavier food choices lean towards more oaked versions.
If you’ve stayed away from Chardonnay for a while it’s time to come back home to Napa Valley. We have picked nine food friendly wines to enjoy with your family and friends; many of them are a few years old and we think that they are drinking perfectly right now. Most are made with a judicious use of oak that accents Napa Valley grapes letting the heady fruit aromas and flavors shine through rather than overpowered by oak. Some have more oak derived characteristics, some have less, but with the variety to choose from you won’t be disappointed.
Our Best Napa Valley Chardonnay Picks
- HDV 2018 Hyde Vineyard Carneros Napa Valley
- Pahlmeyer 2018 Chardonnay Napa Valley
- Cuvaison 2020 Small Lot Hedon Chardonnay Napa Valley
- Kongsgaard 2020 Chardonnay Napa Valley
- Mira Hyde 2017 Vineyard Chardonnay Napa Valley
- Mayacamas 2018 Mount Veeder Chardonnay Napa Valley
- Newton 2017 Chardonnay Unfiltered Napa Valley
- Frank Family 2020 Lewis Vineyard Chardonnay Napa Valley
- JCB 2019 No. 76 Chardonnay Napa Valley
HDV 2018 Hyde Vineyard Carneros Napa Valley
The prestigious Hyde Vineyard is co-owned by Aubert de Villaine who also co-owns Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy. This wine is proudly Napa made but most definitely Burgundian in style. It has aromas of honeysuckle, jasmine and lime pith with hints of freshly ground nutmeg in the enticing bouquet. Upon entry into the mouth there is vibrant acidity and a strong backbone of minerality with flavors of Granny Smith apple and lemon curd. The finish is long with a delightful splash of acidity on the post palate.
Pahlmeyer 2018 Chardonnay Napa Valley
This is a classic Napa Chardonnay with notes of citrus, green apple, white peach, buttered brioche and white flowers all found in the complex bouquet. In the mouth there is an initial citrus splash followed by full bodied flavors of butter, lemon meringue, and warm pastry crust. The finish is rich and elegant. It is drinking beautifully right now, but feel free to cellar for two to four years.
Cuvaison 2020 Small Lot Hedon Chardonnay Napa Valley
This voluptuous Carneros Chardonnay is barrel fermented and spends 18 months on the lees. It has aromas of lemon blossom, white peach and a whiff of acacia honey in the elegant bouquet. In the mouth it is full bodied with flavors of ripe fruit and lemon preserves with a splash of bright acidity on the finish.
Kongsgaard 2020 Chardonnay Napa Valley
In the glass this delightful California Chardonnay is brilliant straw colored with gold reflections at the rim. It has aromas of mandarin orange peel, almond paste and yellow peach. In the mouth it has a sturdy backbone of minerality with flavors of apricot, nectarine and homemade flan. It has great heft on the palate with a long, long, finish.
Mira Hyde 2017 Vineyard Chardonnay Napa Valley
The current release of Mira Hyde Chardonnay is from 2017, so it is now more than five years old. It is drinking beautifully right now and presumably the producers of this fine wine wanted to show its ageing potential. On the nose there are aromas of yellow peach, Bartlett pear and creamy vanilla custard. In the mouth it is creamy and full bodied with flavors of apricot, nectarine and lemon curd. The finish is persistent with a splash of bright acidity at the very end.
Mayacamas 2018 Mount Veeder Chardonnay Napa Valley
Grapes for this delicious Chardonnay are sourced from Wente Clone vines grown in volcanic soils at high altitude on Mount Veeder. It has aromas of honeysuckle, jasmine and lime zest. In the mouth there are flavors of almond paste, green apple and Bartlett pear. It has great minerality in the mid palate and bracing acidity in the post palate. Drink now or over the next five to seven years.
Newton 2017 Chardonnay Unfiltered Napa Valley
Straw colored in the glass with vivid freshness on first sniff. This delightful unfiltered Chardonnay has aromas of lemon pith, freshly baked bread and marzipan. In the mouth there are flavors of almond paste, lemon curd and sweet baking spices before the long and zesty finish.
Frank Family 2020 Lewis Vineyard Chardonnay Napa Valley
Straw colored in the glass with golden highlights at the rim, this gorgeous wine has aromas of buttered brioche, apple tart and white stone fruits. On the palate there are flavors of toasted hazelnut, candied orange peel and yellow peach. It has great acidity in the back of the throat with a nice long finish.
JCB 2019 No. 76 Chardonnay Napa Valley
Jean Charles Boisset assigned this luxurious Napa Chardonnay the number 76 in homage to the year of the Judgement of Paris and to commemorate his first experience with amazing wines. JCB No. 76 is aged in French barrels and allowed to go through complete malolactic fermentation, giving the wine a very creamy feeling in the mouth. It has aromas and flavors of lemon blossom, lemon curd, white peach and mandarin orange with an elegant and persistent finish. Drink now or hold for a few years, you won’t be disappointed either way.