I like California Chardonnay. It gets a good deal of bad press owing to its full-bodied, creamy character, often buttery flavors, and heavy use of new toasted oak. Some argue that they are difficult to pair with food. Maybe, but give me some fresh grilled salmon and a California Chardonnay and I'm happy.
The key to an excellent California Chardonnay is balance. There should be a lot of fruit, think white peach, pineapple, mango, pear, apple, some acidity, some well integrated oak (vanilla, toasty smoky aromas) and some have a yeasty, doughy character from their yeast contact. I tend to like Chardonnays with a more crisp, lean style; not too ripe. Ripe Chardonnays develop more of a caramelly, overrripe pineapple element.
Following is a list of six Chardonnays at various price points that are my go-to Chardonnays year-in and year-out. These Chardonnays have an excellent track record of quality over many years and despite their obvious quality relationship to vintage quality, are amazingly consistent.
1. Beringer Private Reserve ($25)
I have been drinking this wine for at least 10 years now. It is an amazing wine of very high quality. This might be the Chardonnay I would recommend as the "quintessential" chardonnay. The 1996 was stuff of legend, and I am really enjoying the 2006 right now, which is a leaner style than the 2005. Very easy to find.
2. Chateau St. Jean Reserve ($28)
Another wine that I have enjoyed since visiting Napa while in college. St. Jean's Chardonnays are exellent across the board. They have a Belle Terre, Durrell and Robert Young vineyard bottling, all of which are great. The reserve is a blend of wine from these vineyards and sees partial malolactic fermentation. This chardonnay has an incredibly complex nose - I can swirl this in the glass forever. I have had the last 4 years and all are excellent. Specialty wine stores only - not common.
3. Newton Unfiltered ($45)
Probably one of the finest, most complex chardonnays I have had. Newton is well known and admired by Robert Parker and he notes that this Chardonnay is particularly know for its ageability. I have not tried holding onto a bottle for more than 2 years or so. They used to carry this at Costco. Fairly common
4. Cambria Bench Break ($30)
Along with Melville, Cambria makes one of my favorite Chardonnays from the Santa Barbara/ Santa Maria area. The Katherine's vineyard bottling is ubiquitous, and good quality, but their specialty bottlings are much more interesting. I have enjoyed the Bench Break vineyard bottling over the Rae's and Single Clone bottlings for the past few vintages. In a more tropical fruit style typical of Santa Barbara Chardonnay, it still has nice acidity and fine balance. Not easy to find.
5. Melville ($20-30)
Melville has a Verna's ($20) bottling as well as a Santa Rita Hills estate bottling ($30) that are both great. Made by the highly talented Greg Brewer (of Brewer-Clifton and the unoaked, non-malolactic Chardonnay Diatom fame) these wines are crisp and full of flavor. Not necessarily as complex as Beringer or St. Jean, but exhuberantly fruity and enjoyable. Fairly easy to find.
6. Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve ($12)
Arguably the best $12 Chardonnay out there. I remember this being one of the first "higher end" Chardonnays that I ever tried. At that time, higher-end meant higher than the $7 Columbia Crest Chardonnay available at Trader Joes. Not as complex as those above, but a high quality, consistent wine and a tremendous value.