Spring is here – at least officially – and thoughts begin to turn toward wines well suited to warm days and outdoor settings.
It’s fun to look ahead to the newest releases of springtime stalwarts such as rieslings and rosés, and I will feature them in upcoming columns. But a good seasonal transition wine is chardonnay, and Washington chardonnays have gone from boring to OK to brilliant in recent years.
Part of the story is a rather dramatic shift in consumer preferences. Yes, there are still plenty of folks who like the fat, buttery, oaked-up style that first made California famous. And those wines can be absolutely delicious, loaded with butter, caramel, vanilla and sweet, tropical fruit flavors.
But more in keeping with the freshness and lightness of spring are chardonnays that use little or no new oak – that are left with their natural acidity rather than put through a secondary fermentation that can turn them flabby. Many fine examples are made here in the Northwest – look for labels that say “unoaked” or “naked” or “Inox” or “unwooded.” If you want the softer, more buttery style, stick with examples from Washington rather than elsewhere, as they are more likely to have the strong underlying acidity that can provide adequate support.
Looking back over my tasting notes from the last six months or so, I find more than a dozen Washington chardonnays that I’ve rated at 90 points or higher, including a $13 gem from Boomtown (Dusted Valley’s second label) and a few others selling for under $20 (two from Rulo, one from L’Ecole, and another from Goose Ridge).
For sheer opulence and world-class winemaking, three recent releases have gone directly to the top of the heap. The Abeja 2009 Chardonnay ($36, 1,130 cases produced) blends fruit from four exceptional vineyards: Celilo, Conner Lee, Smasne and French Creek. Winemaker John Abbott explains that he has been backing off on the percentage of new oak (down to 40 percent) and this luscious wine reaps the reward. It’s loaded with scents and flavors of juicy tropical and stone fruits – a riot of papaya, peach, pineapple, candied lemon and more. The fruit is so lush and generous that the butterscotch barrel flavors complement without concealing.
Another chardonnay that I absolutely love is the Woodward Canyon 2009 Chardonnay ($39, 616 cases produced). Coincidentally, it too includes a significant portion of fruit from Celilo – the same block that Abeja sources (Ken Wright is the only other winemaker getting that fruit). Here the Celilo grapes are blended with estate-grown fruit from the Woodward Canyon vineyard, planted 34 years ago. Rick Small advises that he, too, has been backing off on the use of new oak, calling it “a more restrained and respectful way of making wine.”
Then, there is the Efesté 2009 Lola Chardonnay ($30, 195 cases produced).
The fruit was sourced from the Evergreen vineyard, and shows that winemaker Brennon Leighton is as good as anyone making white wines in Washington. This wine rivals the best from California costing three times as much. It’s textural, creamy, and richly endowed with a delicious mix of lemon custard, meringue, caramel, papaya and toasted coconut flavors.
These are my top three, but right behind them are many others. Look for Dunham Cellars 2009 Lewis Estate Shirley Mays Chardonnay ($24) – a satiny smooth mix of papaya, banana, pineapple and apricot, with lightly applied notes of barrel spice, caramel and toast. In the bargain bin you’ll find Apex Ascent 2009 Chardonnay ($11) – a spicy, soft, lightly toasty wine with flavors of banana and peach, cream and vanilla.
The Columbia Crest Grand Estates 2009 Chardonnay ($12) is a popular by-the-glass restaurant pour, with appealing flavors of buttered apples, pastry, and a finishing smack of green apple acidity. Columbia Winery’s 2008 Chardonnay ($11) is another good choice – fresh and creamy, with stone fruits and a streak of vanilla running through the finish.
Waterbrook has a 2008 chardonnay ($11) that is complex and well-crafted. Two-thirds barrel fermented, one-third fermented in tank; and about one quarter of the wine was aged in new oak barrels. The result is an affordable chardonnay with real style and complexity. Last but not least, Snoqualmie’s 2009 Chardonnay ($10) may be the best bargain of all. Soft and buttery upon entry, it shows good balance in the mid-palate, with fruit flavors of fresh apple and lime, set against enough juicy acidity to give it definition.
Want more? Look for current releases from JM Cellars, Gorman ‘Big Sissy’, Mark Ryan, Ste. Michelle ‘Ethos’, Tranche, and àMaurice. With any or all, let’s raise a glass to spring.