Reviews & Recognition

Five White Lies About Chardonnay

By Ray Isle, Food & Wine, March 2015

Myth: All Chardonnay is big and buttery 
Once upon a time (let’s say the ’90s), it might have been true that the vast majority of California Chardonnay was big and buttery. But there’s been a slow swing back from the most excessive styles. There are still plenty of big, rich wines, but on the whole they’re less oak soaked than before. And each year there are more unoaked Chardonnays. Typically aged in stainless steel rather than wood, they’re crisp, zingy and full of unadorned Chardonnay character.

Myth: All Cheap Chardonnay Is Bad
Often, when I'm searching for terrific bottles among 50 bargain-price wines, I wonder whether playing Powerball might give me better odds. But in hunting for vale Chardonnays, I've found that two or three good ones always turn up. Not all cheap Chardonnay is bad—the variety grows well and easily in wine regions around the world, so a talented winemaker can coax out surprising complexity at low price.

Myth: Big, Oaky Chardonnay Are Passé
When it comes to Chardonnay, oak-aging itself is never going to be passé. The truth is that most of the world’s best Chardonnays—from grand cru Burgundies to California’s greatest bottlings—spend time fermenting and aging in some percentage of new oak barrels. The key is intelligent, nuanced winemaking that uses oak to subtly influence the wine, not warp it; to accentuate the wine’s natural character, not conceal it. That’s how a grand cru white Burgundy might be aged for almost two years in new oak barrels and taste sublime rather than unbalanced.

Myth: Experts Despise Chardonnay
For every trend crazed sommelier or wine writer who dismisses Chardonnay in favor of oxidized Jura Savagnins or funky Friulian Ribollas aged in ancient clay amphorae, there are probably five others who recognize that a disproportionate number of the world’s greatest white wines are Chardonnays, and not only from France. These are wines that deeply express where they’re from (that show terroir), that have the capacity to age in a cellar, and that are truly, inarguably distinctive. Besides, I’m a wine expert, and I like Chardonnay, so that disproves this myth right there.

Wine to try: 2012 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay Napa Valley
There’s no doubt this Napa Chardonnay—which weighs in at 14.9 percent alcohol—is a substantial wine. But it’s also beautifully focused, with layers of stone fruit, lemon, honey and toasted nut flavors.

Myth: French Chardonnay Is Expensive
Great white Burgundy is expensive—no one would deny that. Top grand cru bottlings run in the hundreds or thousands of dollars; even good-quality premier cru wines can set you back $80 or $90. But top Burgundies are a tiny percentage of the Chardonnay grown in France, and there are a surprising number of alternatives available in the $10 to $20 range. The trick is knowing where to look. Skip the prestigious Côte de Beaune. Instead, hunt for bargains in Burgundy’s more affordable southern end, the Mâconnais, and in the extensive vineyards of the vast Languedoc-Roussillon region.

For the full article and list of wines to try, go to