I'm tired of writing it and you're tired of reading it, but I'll say it one more time:
Oak is the crucial issue in winemaking today, especially in California and especially with the chardonnay grape. Where did winemakers get the notion that 100 percent barrel fermentation, 100 percent malolactic fermentation and, say, eight to 10 months' oak aging (or some combination thereof) would produce a chardonnay that one could actually drink with pleasure?
Of the 18 California chardonnays under review today, four are so exaggerated that they are, as far as I'm concerned, a waste of money. Or else they're permeated with wood to such a degree that fruit flees, exhausted before the onslaught. Several others teeter on the edge.
Thank goodness there are exceptions that don't mistake extravagant ripeness, soaring alcohol and melodramatic oak for purity and integrity.
- The Rombauer Chardonnay 2000, Carneros, opened with such a burst of toasted coconut and almonds that I thought, "Uh-oh, really overdone." But it gathered flint and steel, became dense and muscular yet plush with honeysuckle, orange and orange blossom, pineapple and grapefruit, vibrant with spicy oak leading to a long elegant finish. It's a chardonnay of rare beauty. About $28.
The Merryvale Dutton Ranch Chardonnay 1999, Russian River Valley, is beautifully balanced, elegant and seamless and exhibits wonderful purity and intensity without the slightest flamboyance or heaviness. About $35.
I don't rate wines above "exceptional," but the Talbott Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay 1998, Monterey, exhibits such extraordinary purity, depth and resonance, such beguiling tangerine, nectarine and pear flavors (blossoming into honeysuckle and jasmine) and such powerful limestone and flint qualities for a texture that's seductively lush yet resolutely stony that we were stunned. It's a remarkable achievement. About $42.
Apple, pear and orange blossom with baking spice and earthy, minerally qualities leaps from a glass of the Lambert Bridge Chardonnay 1999, Sonoma County. Excellent balance among smoky, toasty elements, a limestone base and pineapple-grapefruit flavors characterizes this pleasing Chablis-like wine. About $20.
Seven months in barrel imparted just the right amount of oak to this masterpiece of delicacy and nuance. The Cuvaison Chardonnay 1999, Carneros, Napa Valley, offers pear and melon scents with touches of jasmine and honeysuckle; rich and almost luscious, it's deftly restrained by crisp acid and a mineral quality that leads to a big, dry, striking finish. About $21.
Well-balanced and modulated but not modest, the clean and fresh Charles Krug Reserve Chardonnay 1999, Carneros, Napa Valley, offers green apple and citrus scents over limestone and flint; it's firm but ripe and juicy and features well-developed pineapple-grapefruit flavors touched with honeysuckle and cloaked in spicy oak. (It contains 13 percent sauvignon blanc.) About $21.
It's a pleasure to write about two such shapely expressions of grape and vineyard as these. The Chateau St. Jean Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay 1999, Alexander Valley, offers tremendous tension, resonance and balance. Lemon-lime, orange rind and blossom with a touch of almond and a powerful limestone and flint element segue into a spectacularly delicious chardonnay; it's ripe and luscious but kept in line by crisp acid and a vibrant grapefruit finish. About $24. Chateau St. Jean Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay 1999, Alexander Valley, is rich and resonant, bright, ripe and juicy; though it offers elements of cream and butterscotch under classic pineapple-grapefruit flavors, deft oak and a chalky-limestone element keep it honest. About $25.
The Morgan Reserve Chardonnay 1999, Monterey, throbs with oak carried just to the sensible side of exaggeration. It's a huge, vibrant, resonant chardonnay whose intensely rich pear, nectarine and grapefruit flavors and tide of spicy oak almost sweep away the earthy, minerally qualities necessary for balance. About $30.
I never thought I would accuse winemaker Chuck Ortman of using too much wood, but the clean, fresh apple and peat bouquet and the ripe, juicy citrus-grapefruit flavors of his Meridian Chardonnay 2000, Santa Barbara County, stay just ahead of the oak. It's touch and go. About $11.
The Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay 1999, Alexander Valley, is typically rich and buttery, smoky, spicy and viscous, bursting with minerals and honeysuckle, its baked pineapple and creme brulee qualities were, I thought, fairly well-balanced by acid until it turned just too ripe, too brown-sugary. You have to like the style. About $25.
The Atlas Peak Chardonnay 2000, Atlas Peak, Napa Valley, starts out nicely with fresh, clean apple and floral scents and a pleasing texture but all fails before a tide of stiff oak. About $16.
I was disappointed with both of these efforts from Rodney Strong. The Chardonnay 2000, Sonoma County, was pleasant and seemed to include all the elements one wants in a chardonnay but timidly and without dimension. About $14. The Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay 1998, Northern Sonoma, is lush, creamy and exotic but the fruit disappears under the bastions of oak. About $30.
What Were They Thinking?
Tastes of brown sugar, caramel and butterscotch - who could think that such a wine, the Sebastiani Chardonnay 1999, Sonoma County, in this case, actually offered anything pleasurable? (The '98 was much better balanced.) About $13.
The Hess Collection Chardonnay 1999, Napa Valley, is way overripe and oaky. If you want a chardonnay that tastes like candied pineapple, you'll like this one, but it's too sugary and caramelly for me. About $19.
Very rich, very smoky, very toasty, screaming with butterscotch, toffee 'n' cream and baked pineapple, the Chateau Souverain Winemaker's Reserve Chardonnay 1999, Russian River Valley, by my lights, is undrinkable. About $25.
The restraint Ed Sbragia shows on his classically proportioned red wines flies out the window on the pedal-to-the-metal, 15.1 percent alcohol Beringer Sbragia Limited Release Chardonnay 1999, Napa Valley. The spicy lemon curd-pear-nectarine nose is big enough, but the momentum of oak, baking spice, cream and creme brulee that comes roaring down the pike and then screeches to a halt in a strident and austere finish is overwhelming and then a letdown. About $40.
- KOEPPEL'S PICK OF THE WEEK: Worth twice the price, the fresh, clean Salmon Harbor Chardonnay 2000, Washington, offers spicy apple and pear scents, ripe and juicy citrus-grapefruit flavors, sprightly acid and a firm layer of minerals and a dense, chewy texture. You can't beat it for about $8.