New Wine Class: Considering California Chardonnay

patz-hall-2013-chardonnay-hyde-vineyard-carneros-napa-valley-2On Monday, August 22nd at 7pm, please join Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton at the Wine School at l’Alliance Française for Considering California Chardonnay. We will discuss some history of Chardonnay in California, America’s on-again-off-again-on-again love affair with Chardonnay, how Chardonnay is made, where it is best grown in California, and pairing Chardonnay with food. Fourteen top quality Chardonnay wines will be tasted. Bread and a selection of fine cheeses will be served.

The line up:
Banshee Chardonnay Sonoma Coast, 2014
Expression 38 Chardonnay Russian Camp Russian River Valley, 2015
Hanzell Chardonnay Sebella Sonoma Valley, 2014
Chalk Hill Chardonnay, Chalk Hill, 2013
Patz & Hall Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, 2014
Lynmar Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 2012
Cakebread Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 2014
Ridge Vineyards Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, 2013
Flowers Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, 2014
Rochioli Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, 2014
Patz & Hall Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard, Carneros, 2013
Dumol Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 2013
Lynmar Quail Hill Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 2012
Mount Eden Chardonnay Estate, Santa Cruz Mountains, 2012
Hanzell Chardonnay, Sonoma Valley, 2013

Considering California Chardonnay will cost $80.00 per person (Cash or Check) or $84.21 regular. The class will meet at 7pm on Monday, August 22nd at l’Alliance Française. To purchase your ticket, please contact Susan at 713-854-7855 or

L’Alliance Française is the French cultural center in Houston. Located at 427 Lovett Blvd., l’Alliance is on the southeast corner of Lovett and Whitney (one block south of Westheimer and two blocks east of Montrose).

Cancellation Policy: If you buy a ticket and will not be able to attend, please cancel at least 24 hours before the class or you may be charged. Later cancellations will not be charged if we can fill the seat. This is often case as we regularly have waiting lists for these classes.

Champagne Friday: BONNAIRE Brut Variance Blanc de Blancs, NV

BONNAIRE is and long has been a favorite estate-bottler of fine Champagne from the Cotes de Blancs, With their production facility in Cramant and most of their vineyards in Cramant Grand Cru, they also have vineyards in Bergeres-les-Vertus (Premier Cru). I think of Bonnaire as a great source for fresh lively elegant Blanc de Blancs Champagnes. But then there is this Variance. Bonnaire Variance is a blanc de blancs but (unlike any of Bonnaire’s other cuvees) it is barrel-fermented and aged and goes through malo-lactic fermentation in barrels before the champenization process. Barrel fermentation and full malo-lactic are very unusual in Champagne and this is an unusual wine in that it has the elegance of chardonnay with the additional richness and depth that comes with the oak barrels as well as some roundness from the malo-lactic fermentation with all of that being enhanced by 68 months spent en tirage (on the lees) before disgorgement and another six months in the cellar before release.

bonnaire-bottle-variance-smallBONNAIRE Brut “Variance” Blanc de Blancs, Champagne, NV ($41.79)
A 100% Chardonnay Champagne with 70% of the grapes coming from Cramant (Grand Cru) and 30% from Bergères-Les-Vertus (Premier Cru), fermented and aged in oak barrels with full malo-lactic fermentation prior to methode champenoise. 68 months on the lees before disgorgement. Finished with a dosage to bring it to a dry brut level of 6 grams of sugar per liter. Sensory: Seems almost a combination of fine bubbly and fine White Burgundy. The fruit is more in the lemony citrus range (typical of Blanc de blancs) but the mineral and oak are there as well. The mineral is Champagne’s chalk (The Cote de Blanc is the heart of Champagne’s chalk) rather than the Cote d’Or’s limestone. The oak is not new but the character of the barrels is there as a complement. The whole is a delicious, fresh but satisfying Champagne with a unique appeal. Delicious. BS: 94+.
Note: Due to its depth and richness, this is a blanc de blancs that transends aperitif status and can be used with food at the dinner table. Recommended serving temperature is 50-53°F.

CHAMPAGNE QUOTE: In success you deserve it and in defeat you need it. – Sir Winston Churchill


CHARDONNAY. Perhaps no other word so divides the world of wine. It is the world’s most popular grape variety and maybe it’s most disdained. Almost 18 percent of ALL the wine Spec’s sells is labeled “Chardonnay.” Add in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Gris/Grigio and that number exceeds 50% of all wine Spec’s sells (figured by units sold). Even though Chardonnay soundly exceeds Cabernet Sauvignon’s slightly less than 14% of sales, that almost 18 percent Chardonnay number does not include all the Chardonnay from greater Burgundy that is sold with “place name” labels such as Pouilly-Fuisse, Macon-Villages, Chablis, Meursault, Rully, or Puligny-Montrachet. On the other hand, what other grape variety has inspired an “anti that variety” movement. Chardonnay has the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement. I guess “Don’t Drink Gruner Veltliner” or “Anything But Trebbiano” just don’t have the same ring. While Merlot took a bit of a bashing in Sideways, there is no active anti-Merlot movement.

Just about two years ago on the night before the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo’s ™ International Wine Competition judging, I asked all the judges and officials attending a pre-competition dinner when the last time each of them had bought, paid for, taken home and drank a bottle of wine labeled Chardonnay (not Pouilly Fuisse or Puligny Montrachet). Not one of them could remember. All of these people are either members of the wine trade or press or the most avid of consumers – and none of them drinks Chardonnay on any kind of a regular basis. These folks are the supposed “tastemakers” and “trend setters” – and they don’t drink Chardonnay. In fact, many of my fellow self-identified “wine geeks” disdain it.

So who is drinking all this Chardonnay? Well, a lot of people. Men and women in a complete spectrum of age ranges all drink Chardonnay. A certain group of women in the forty plus to almost sixty year old age range have self-identified as “Cougars” and have adopted a certain style of Chardonnay (aka “Cougar Juice”) as their drink of choice. La Crema Chardonnay (owned by Chardonnay behemoth Kendall Jackson) qualifies as Cougar Juice. Rombauer Chardonnay is the ultimate.

So what is it about Chardonnay? Chardonnay as made generally in the new world and specifically in California varies widely in style. To understand the range of styles, it helps to understand a bit about the process.

Chardonnay is a grape variety made famous by its use in Burgundy and in Champagne. It is now grown literally all over the world. It makes many of the worlds best white wines and some of its worst. Chardonnay lends itself to huge variety of styles. Winemakers like it because it is a blank canvas. Consumers often stick with it because it is comforting and familiar.

The winemaker’s first decision is when to pick. Does the winemaker want the grapes to be ripe (but with fresh acidity), riper (more alcohol and richness but with some freshness) of ripest, or ripest (lots of flavor development but with softer acidity but with the rick of oxidation and a possible lack of freshness and charm. Of course, later harvesting leads to more ripeness and ultimately higher alcohol in the finished wine.

Since Chardonnay is a white wine, the grapes are picked and then (generally) crushed and always pressed before fermentation. When the grapes come into the winery, they may be dosed with sulfur dioxide to kill any wild (or native) yeasts and bacteria or they may be left un-dosed to encourage a “natural” or “native yeast” fermentation. Most larger scale producers use SO2 so they can more closely control the process. Many artisan producers (including most of the better domaines in Burgundy) use natural fermentations. The producer may decide not to crush and de-stem and so do “whole cluster pressing” which can give a different character to the juice.

Once the juice has been liberated from the grapes, the winemaker must ferment it. Here he has to choose which vessel to use and at what temperature to proceed. Will he ferment in barrels or tanks. If barrels, will he use all new, some used and some older, or all used (aka “seasoned”) barrels? And what size? 225 litters is standard but some prefer larger barrels such as demi-muids (600 liters) for reduced wood effect. If tank, does he use steel, wood, or concrete? With both tanks and barrels, the winemaker must decided whether and how to manage temperature. Cooler temperatures for fermentation retain more fruit and freshness. Warmer temperature develop more flavor and richness but at the cost of some of the fruit. Some winemakers go for complexity by fermenting different lots in different vessels (say 40% barrel and 60% tank) and at different temperatures. If all this works, it is “artful winemaking”; if it doesn’t work, it is “needless manipulation” or winemaking of for the sake of winemaking.

Once the alcoholic fermentation (conversion of sugar converted into alcohol by yeasts) is complete. The winemaker must decide whether to allow malo-lactic (aka “ML”) fermentation (conversion of malic – apple – acid into lactic – milk – acid) to proceed, and if so, how far. Full malo-lactic will add richness and creaminess but a the cost of some fruit. No malo-lactic can yield a wine that is fresher and fruitier but not as rich and complex. Partial malo-lactic can split the difference. Chardonnays that have not undergone a full malo-lactic fermentation must be sterile filtered before bottling or risk completing malo in bottle, thus ruining the wine.

Once ML has been completed or avoided (usually by adding SO2 to the barrels or tanks of wine to kill the ML bacteria), the wine mus then be further aged before bottling. While it seems logical that barrel fermented wines should be aged in Barrels and tank fermented wines should be aged in tanks this is not always the case. Each producer makes his own decisions and takes his own chances. I have had perfectly fine wines that were barrel-fermented and tank-aged and vice versa.

While the wine is aging, the winemaker must decide whether to let the wine age on the lees (sur-lie aging) or deposit or to rack the wine off the lees into clean barrels or tanks. If he decides to leave the wine “on the lees,” he must decide whether and/or how often to “stir the lees” (aka batonage). The combination of sur-lie aging and batonnage can add lots of richness and texture to a Chardonnay but in combination with full barrel fermentation in new oak and full malolactic

Have you ever agonized over just when to take the cookies out of the oven? Some (many?) winemakers likewise agonize over when to take the wine out of barrels and tanks and but it into bottles.

“Winemaker A” may to choose to pick at earlier (just ripe but with lots of freshness), go with a whole cluster pressing, and then allow for a native ferment in temperature-controlled Stainless Steel before sulfuring to prevent ML before racking half the wine off the lees and into French oak barrels (33% new, 67% seasoned) for six months. The other half is left on the lees in tank where the wine is kept cold to retain as much freshness as possible while still picking up a little lees-y richness. The wine is then reintegrated in a large blending tank where it is sulfured for a final time, cold stabilized, and then bottled after a sterile filtration.  “Winemaker A” in following these steps will (best case scenario) make a fruit oriented, elegant, fresh, maybe even vivid wine. In the worst case, the wine could be lean and austere and maybe even green and under ripe.

Winemaker B may choose to pick later (at the ripest but lowest acid level), dose with SO2 to be able to better select yeasts and therefore better control fermentation, crush, de-stem, and press before fermenting and 12 months of aging in all new French oak barrels (225 litter) with full ML in the barrel before extended lees contact and regular batonage before racking, blending and bottling un-fined and un-filtered with no cold stabilization. This set of decisions will (best case scenario) yield a wine that is big and rich with lots of oak and  creamy-buttery character in the Rombauer Cougar Juice style. The worst case scenario is an expensive mess that tastes like everything but fruit. Many new world Chardonnay drinkers are so used to the taste of oak, lees, and ML, the can’t pick out the actual fruit flavor of Chardonnay. Which is too bad because, at least to me, the fruit flavors are the whole point of wine.

From a fruit standpoint, it may seem that our two examples above are not even made form the same grape variety. Obviously, there is a lot of middle ground between these two styles, just as there are even more extreme possibilities in both directions. The harvested grapes are the raw materials; all the rest of it is winemaking. Knowing how much “winemaking” you like is just as important as knowing whether or how much you like Chardonnay. Nevertheless, there are some markers for Chardonnay. Chardonnay may offer tree fruit (apple and sometimes pear), citrus (lemon and lime, rarely grapefruit), and tropical fruit (pineapple in large yields, mango in full ripeness), and often some sort of banana (from green plantains to yellow bananas turned fully brown). This fruit may be marked with (or even obliterated by) all of the winemaking above.

Chardonnay and Food

So lets say you have chosen a good bottle of Chardonnay from the middle ground. With what do you serve it. Many people drink Chardonnay as an aperitif in the same way they would formerly have drunk a cocktail. While I like Chardonnay, I’d rather have Champagne. Chardonnay can go will with chicken either roasted or fried (as long as the chicken is not too spicy). Chardonnay has a natural affinity for crab but crab is the only shell fish where I think Chardonnay first. Pairing Chardonnay with fish can be problematic because most chardonnays aged in oak barrels or in the presence of oak chips have at least some tannins (phenolic content) which can fight on the palate with the oils (fatty acids) found in fish. That’s why Chardonnay is sometimes called a “red wine masquerading as a white wine.” In any case, almost any good new world Chardonnay can be served with crab and especially crab-cakes (which, along with soft-shell, are my favorite). For richer fare try Chardonnay with pork or veal. For pork options, try a bone-in loin roast from the shoulder end (this is the pork equivalent of prime rib) or thick tomahawk rib chops or t-bone loin chops, A pork crown roast is a fancier presentation of that rib roast mentioned earlier. Veal can be presented in the same ways and is equally at home with Chardonnay. Chardonnay also likes mushrooms so the choice of sauce or dressing can be made by the most unlikely ingredients. Just medium Pork (the new USDA recommendation is and internal temperature of 145°F which is down hugely from the recommended 170*F internal temperature. Oakier Chardonnays can work with steaks. Un-oaked (aka “un-wooded”) Chardonnays can go with lighter seafood dishes and can even work with oysters – as does real French Chablis which is, of course, Chardonnay.

Riedel Vinum Pinot Noir Glass

But Wait! There’s More!

Although it often seems unlikely, some new world Chardonnay can age. Please note the qualifying words “some” and “can.” “Most” don’t. Age-worthy new world may be found by its acidity or freshness. Unless there is enough acidity to give Chardonnay (and almost any other wine) a firm backbone. Without that firm backbone, Chardonnay will not develop and/or improve. The highest levels of ripeness and malo-lactic fermentation work against the wines having enough acidity to age. And lees stirring and barrel fermentation can lead to enough oxygen exposure to make the wines early oxidizers which also works against age-worthiness.

I mentioned above that oak aged Chardonnay has been called “a red wine masquerading as a white wine.” This can seem even more true when you realize that some of the best Chardonnays – especially when young – can benefit from decanting. This is not a decanting to get the wine off the sediments but to oxygenate this younger wines to help them open up for drinking. The proper technique is to splash the wine into a carafe or a large surface area decanter to allow it to breath a bit before serving. How long depends on the wine and how young it is. If you taste a young Chardonnay that seems “closed” or too tight, you have a candidate for decanting.

Chardonnay can be served in a variety of glass sizes and shapes. Un-wooded types can be served in any good general white wine glass. I have and Use the Riedel Vinum Glass they call “Grand Cru Riesling.” Wooded versions can need a bigger glass with a larger surface area. At home, I like to use the Riedel Vinum “Red Burgundy” glass for its large surface area, capacity (which helps with swirling), and acute chimney to help concentrate the aromas. Remember to never fill any wine glass more than 1/3 full and ¼ might be a better goal with most larger glasses.

Riedel Vinum Riesling Glass

New World Chardonnay can run from $2.99 per bottle to as much as a couple of hundred dollars. The lower priced versions are the best sellers but there are some good sellers at higher prices. Spec’s (and everyone else’s) best selling Chardonnay is Kendal Jackson Vintner’s Reserve at about $10. By the way, if you like KJVR as it is widely known, you might try KJ Avant Chardonnay as a less-woody alternative. It makes an interesting comparison. Chardonnay under $10 accounts for almost 1.2 million bottle of Spec’s sales. Chardonnay priced at $10 to $15 accounts of another 500,000 plus bottles. Chardonnay $15 to $20 accounts for another 150,000 plus bottles. The $20 – $30 range adds another 76,000 bottles. The over $30 – $40 range adds another 43,000 bottles. Chardonnay over $40 adds another roughly 17,000 bottles. Notice a trend here? Each price point very roughly represents a halving of sales.

I like Chardonnay. I don’t drink as much as I’d like because my lovely wife and most of my wine geek friends (yes, I too am a wine geek) don’t. However, for most simple pork veal, or crab dishes, there is little that works better. Great Chardonnay can be thrilling and complex and completely hold your attention. Yes, there is a lot of plonk out there with Chardonnay on the label. Don’t be fooled. Find and stick to the good stuff and you to will enjoy Chardonnay.

SPEC’s Top Chardonnay Sellers by Price (in descending order)

Over $40.00 per bottle

Far Niente

Newton Unfiltered

Ch. Montelena

Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch

Paul Hobbes Russian River

Kistler Sonoma Mountain

$30 – $40

Rombauer (The Ultimate Cougar Juice)


Grgich Hills


Ramey Russian River

Ferrari Carano Reserve

$20- $30

Ferrari Carano


Mer Soleil




$15 – $20

Sonoma Cutrer Sonoma Coast

Sonoma Cutrer Russian River

Cru Montage

Newton Red Label


Deloach Russian River

$10 – $15

La Crema Sonoma Coast

Mondavi Woodbridge (in Magnums)


Napa Landing

Franzia (5 liter bag in a box)


Kendal Jackson Grand Reserve

Almaden (5 liter bag in a box)

Toad Hollow

Oak Grove

Less than $10.00

Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve (KJVR)


Clos du Bois North Coast

Ste. Genevieve (in Magnums and from Texas)

J. Lohr Riverstone

Hess Select

Yellowtail (in Magnums and from Austrailia)

Lindemans Bin 65 (in Magnums and from Australia)

Ch. Ste. Michelle (from Washington State)

My New World Chardonnay Shopping List

Anything from Patz & Hall

Anything from Ramey

Anything from Ridge

Hanzell (and Hanzell Sebella)

Anything that says “Hyde Vineyard” on the labels

Anything from Dumol

Mount Eden Estate

Talbott Sleepy Hollow

Morgan Santa Lucia

Rodney Strong Chalk Hill

Expression 38 Gap’s Crown

Lymar Russian River


Mer Soleil Silver

Healdsberg Ranches Russian River

Talbott Logan

Byron Santa Barbara

My New World Chardonnay Bucket List

Ridge Montebello

Hyde Vineyard Chardonnays from Patz & Hall, Kistler, Ramey, Auteur, and Hyde de Villaine.

Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay from Ramey or Paul Hobbes

Everything from Hanzell

Alternative Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

WE DRINK a lot of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. By “we”, I mean all of us wine drinkers in Texas. Using Spec’s sales data, wine labeled Chardonnay is the number one selling wine category and Pinot Noir is the number three selling red wine category (number five overall). Even so, a lot of the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Spec’s sells is not included in those numbers as it is not labeled Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Rather, these wines are from Burgundy – which is both the spiritual and oenological home of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – and are named after their places of origin rather than the name of their grape variety. Except for tiny amounts of Aligoté, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris (all white) and Gamay (red), all the wines of Burgundy are either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.

Even though Burgundy is the home of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, I feel the need …

For more, got to Alternative Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from SPEC’s UPDATE.