7 sassy chardonnays to brighten your summer

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

We all know that summer and chilled white wines go together. And few whites are more reliable than chardonnay, one of the country’s top white choices.

The adaptable chardonnay grape has flourished in cooler as well as warmer places, such as its native southern France. When other countries discovered chardonnay, an unintended hybrid of the Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc grapes, its status and availability grew.

Once chardonnay crossed the Atlantic, the market exploded. Growers began to clear their slopes of many lesser-known varietals to plant chardonnay. Acres of historic vines and entire enological legacies were lost to make way for the upstart. The result was an eventual market glut that made chardonnay somewhat passé.

Fortunately, the varietal is regaining popularity. Consider the following seven sassy chardonnays produced by U.S. vineyards.

Winemaker Philippe Coquard does not produce his Wollersheim Chardonnay ($17) from grapes grown on his estate just south of the Wisconsin River. Instead, he contracts for a custom-grown grape from Washington State, which he uses to create a fine example of chardonnay in his winery near Prairie du Sac. 

Two-thirds of Wollersheim Chardonnay is matured in French oak barrels and one-third in stainless steel containers. The wine captures the vanilla-and-spice essence of the oak while tempering it with the cleanliness of the stainless steel. The result is a dry, crisp, clean wine with a pleasant fruitiness and subtle acidity.

California wine country has no shortage of chardonnay producers. In Sonoma County, Joseph Carr 2012 Chardonnay ($18) was made according to a method known as the Dijon clone. The grapes were cold-pressed and then the juice was aged sur lie — in new French oak barrels along with the sediment that settles to the bottom during fermentation. The result is a wine with more complex character. Carr’s chardonnay offers a nose hinting at apricot, vanilla and peach, as well as a palate with overtones of apricot, strawberries and citrus.

The Ferrari-Carano 2012 Chardonnay ($21) was made with fruit from 60 different chardonnay lots. These were cold pressed and aged sur lie in two ways — 30 percent in new French oak, 60 percent in older cooperage. The result is similar in character to the Carr wine, featuring a slightly different flavor profile of peach, lemon and a hazelnut. In neither case does the wine disappoint.

The Flowers 2011 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($41) was produced using a similar sourcing pattern, including cold pressing and a variety of oak cooperage, but with slightly different effect. The wine exhibits a slight flintiness thanks to its terroir, providing an interesting edge to its flavor profile that’s reminiscent of Honeycrisp apples. Flowers’ chardonnay also has an abundant mouthfeel and a fine acidity.

The Laguna Vineyard Ranch in the Russian River Valley has been producing chardonnay for some 40 years, and the Laguna 2012 Chardonnay ($28) was made using the same approach as the Sonoma vineyards. The wine, once again cold-pressed and oak-aged, opens with delicate notes of apple, pear and tangerine. The wine is well balanced, with supple mouthfeel and a fine lingering finish.

The winemakers at Frog’s Leap, located in Napa Valley, take a different approach, placing emphasis on the soil in which the grapes were grown. The Frog’s Leap 2012 Chardonnay ($26) was made with fruit from the Carneros district, whose soil often yields chardonnays with a more vibrant acidity. Ninety-five present of Frog’s Leap 2012 Chardonnay was aged sur lie in concrete vats, and only 5 percent of the developing wine was exposed to wood.

The Frog’s Leap profile is crisp and very clean. The acidity blends nicely with the flavors of fruit. Slate and hints of lemongrass on the nose give way to a palate of peach and citrus with an underscoring mineral quality that make this wine stand out.

Much further south, the winemakers at Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard in California’s Santa Barbara County follow similar a technique, but one that leads to yet another unique result. The Fess Parker 2012 Ashley’s Chardonnay ($28), produced from grapes harvested in Ashley’s Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, was also barrel-aged in French oak. The wine offers aromas of pear, peach and honey that give way to a palate featuring pear, green apple and pastry crust, along with a hint of vanilla courtesy of the French oak.

Chill any of these and serve and you will quickly see the chardonnay, sassy or not, is no longer passé.

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