By Gregory Dal Piaz
A glass of Chardonnay reflects reflects light.Chardonnay is the world's most popular white wine, yet finding good value Chardonnay is often a real challenge. For whatever reason, perhaps its popularity, Chardonnay tends to be more expensive than other comparable wines and inexpensive Chardonnay has a tendency to be dreadful stuff. Perhaps I overstate my case there a bit, but the truth is that there is nothing I dread more, or have dreaded more throughout my professional career in wine, than the days I have to taste inexpensive Chardonnay.
Now don't get me wrong, there are delightful examples out there that are well priced and the quality of all these wines is moving in the right direction. Where cheap Chardonnay used to smell and taste of tin cans and tuna fish, today you might find green olive juice instead! Hey, at least it's a fruit instead of Chicken of the Sea.
So, every so often I brace for the worst and start popping bottles. Basically, your choices for inexpensive Chardonnay are limited to sweet, soft wines that are easy to drink but taste an awful lot like some fruit juice concoction. The new genre of unoaked Chardonnay saves vintners money as opposed to using expensive barrels instead. It also saves their wines from the barrel "alternatives" (which are what make many of the other wines taste like concoctions). Finally there are some simple, fresh and attractive wines out there, the trick is finding them!
That's where I come in. You may not have a palate that aligns well with mine, but at least you'll be able to find the style of wine you're interested in, whether it's something fresh and delightful, or richer and sweeter. This doesn't necessarily appeal to my palate, but I can see the appeal of the style. With that, I leave you with my top picks for Chardonnay under $15.
1. 2011 Georges Duboeuf Macon-Villages Domaine Les Chenevieres France, $15
This is rather tight on the nose with green apple peels, a touch of fennel, hints of orange rind and a lovely chalky, floral note. On entry, this shows some of that orange peel flavor along with a nice, chalky edge. This then narrows down and shows impressive focus on the palate, delivering pure apple flavors with a subtle return of light orange Creamsicle notes. There's a nice texture to this, laid back but not relaxed with plenty of just ripe fruit. There is real follow through on the moderately long finish, which shows of a touch of minerality under nice, persistent apple peel notes. Elegantly balanced.
2. 2010 Carmel Road Liberated Chardonnay Monterey California, $14
Rather floral on the nose and quite perfumed. Gentle leesy edges add nuance to the core of peach and almond toned fruit that has a distinctive cherry note to it. Unusual but attractive on the nose. Medium plus-bodied in the mouth with an early rush of lemon candy that settles into a baked apple and lemon groove on the mid-palate. This has a gently creamy edge and some suggestions of sweet nuttiness in the mouth, all supported by bright lemon curd flavors. This is pretty bright and mouth-filling. A good value in a style I can go for.
3. 2011 Apaltagua Unoaked Chardonnay Reserva Casablanca Valley Chile, $12
Bright and intense on the nose with layers of pineapple, passionfruit and guava notes. This is vibrantly acidic, too acidic for many palates, though it has its place like with ceviche. The fruit is quite ripe with a slightly sweet cashew edge to the pineapple and Meyer lemon fruit on the palate. The finish is a touch short but it does leave the palate clean and fresh, with lingering hints of lime peel and a hint of melon fruit. This is zesty with a nice hint of minerality on the finish, but it's not your typical Chardonnay. Might appeal more to Sauvignon Blanc drinkers.
4. 2010 Valley of the Moon Chardonnay California, $15
Marshmallow, lemon oil and grilled pineapple come together on the nose here with a nicely spiced top note. Smells like ginger crisps. This is soft but not heavy on the palate, with a noticeably sweet edge. It's subtle, adding a little marshmallow fluff to the rather fresh and nicely balanced fruits on the mid-palate. The oak plays a fairly supporting role beyond that, adding a nice, spiced note on the palate. On the finish, the sugar and spice does become a bit more dominant, though some acidity also shows up to help cleanse the palate. This is nicely done in the genre, sweet but not cloying, creamy but not shapeless, and with enough acidity to keep things interesting.
5. 2011 Louis Jadot Macon Villages France, $13
Lovely and fresh on the nose with pure aromas of apple blossoms, apples and hints of greengage plums. Light-bodied and very finely balanced with assertive if integrated acidity adding cut to the light and simple apple fruit. This has a nice inner mouth perfume and lively transparency of flavors with suggestions of green herbs and perhaps a whisper of tarragon on the palate. Very clean and a touch mineral on the light and aromatic finish. Nothing is going to bowl you over here, but this is easy, fresh and pure.
6. 2010 Alamos Chardonnay Mendoza Argentina, $12
A lot of oak on the nose here with smoke, butterscotch, vanilla and toasted oak notes over spicy apple and green plum fruit. Smooth and soft on entry, this is creamy and low acid with a lot of sweet oak and vanilla accenting the fruit, which shows some dry orchard fruit notes and remains fairly restrained. The finish shows some heat and more creamy oak. This is easy drinking and full-blown New World Chardonnay. Not my style but fairly well made.
7. 2010 Parducci Small Lot Blend Chardonnay Mendocino Co. California, $11
Light on the nose with a gentle, layered nose of wood spice, leesy floral tones and some bright pear and yellow cherry fruit. Light-bodied, fresh and vibrant with lovely balance between the fruit and the judicious use of oak. This has suggestions of acidity in the mouth but is still in an obviously soft style that showcases the lightly sweet orchard fruit topped with hints of lemon pith. The finish is a touch short but still fairly fresh with sneaky length. Neither intense nor complex but easy to enjoy.
8. 2010 Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay California, $13
A bit low key on the nose with soft apple pie and grilled pineapple fruit under a topping of burnt marshmallow and vanilla cookies. Medium to full in the mouth with some hints of lemony acidity helping to balance out the obvious sweetness here. This is creamy and indistinct in the mouth with a nice balance of grilled pineapple and vanilla flavors on the mid-palate. Gains sweet graham cracker notes on the finish, which shows a bit of heat under the lemon candy sweetness.
9. 2010 Echelon Collection Chardonnay Napa Valley California, $9
Unusual nose here with notes of salty green olives over sweet wood spice tones with an inkling of fruit lurking at the base. A bit sweet though this has enough acidity under the sweetness to be almost balanced. On the palate, this also shows a certain green olive element over lemon meringue fruit. The finish is rather short with a decided sweetness to it, then something a bit harsh and chemical on the finale.
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By Gregory Dal Piaz