A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal’s now-defunct Tastings column summed it up for us.
“U.S. Chardonnay, especially under $20, has been lousy for a long time now,” wrote Dorthy J. Gaiter and John Brecher in June of 2009. “In broad blind tastings for this column over the past several years, we have been outraged—that’s not too strong a word—at the junk that’s selling for up to $20. It has little real fruit, far too much oak flavor and harsh tastes. Too often, it has reminded us of fingernail polish that has been mixed with oak chips while it aged in the tank truck along the highway.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Let’s start with a few of the winners from that last Wall Street Journal broad tasting, which remain consistently good, widely available. (Alas, the Journal killed the weekly Tastings column in December 2009, and replaced it with a pair of columnists who are nowhere near as utilitarian as Gaiter and Brecher.) We’ll revisit the topic a few more times over the next week or so to round out our recommendations.
Two of the five domestic chardonnays that the Journal columnists rated as “good enough to recommend” were listed at $12 a bottle or less, which is about what we found them selling for locally. The third cost nearly $15 a bottle and the other two were closer to $20, well out of what we considered the “value” price range in recessionary 2009.
Times have changed. Though the $20 Heller Estate Carmel Valley Chardonnay the Journal recommended is still unavailable locally, the $15 Simi Sonoma County Chardonnay that the columnists rated “Good/Very Good” is now widely available for between $11 and $13 dollars a bottle. And the “Best of tasting” Newton ‘Red Label’ Chardonnay, which they listed at $19 a bottle (though they found it for $17) can be had for as little at $13 to $15 a bottle.
The Simi Chardonnay, which is priced at just $10.97 a bottle at Total Wine stores in Virginia, and is on sale in DC for only $1 more at Calvert Woodley (regularly $14.99). In Maryland it’s priced at $11.97 at Total’s sister stores, Corridor Wine & Spirits in Laurel and Beltway Fine Wine in Towson, and on sale for $12.99 (regularly $18.99) at The Wine Source in Baltimore. (See slideshow for representative prices at wine shops throughout the area.)
“Nicely lemony and crisp, with a touch of cream,” is how Gaiter and Brecher described the 2007 vintage they tasted. “Lacks intensity, but very pleasant. Plenty of fruit—shows that you can have big oak if you have good fruit, too.”
“Wow, what a pleasant surprise,” wrote a CellarTracker.com member who posts tasting notes under the name Decanthor, of the current 2009 Simi Chardonnay. “I was expecting a solid value wine, but this is excellent. … Excellent nose, tropical fruits, and that creamy buttery texture I look for. Not overly oaked at all. This is a steal at $12 and I will be buying a case. I have found my weekday chardonnay.”
The Newton ‘Red Label’ Chardonnay, which comes from a winery better known for its Unfiltered Chardonnay that costs $40 a bottle and up, was the Journal columnists’ favorite.
“Our best of tasting is an old friend, … which proves that it is possible to make a Chardonnay that tastes like real wine for less than $20. It has the kinds of tastes we like in a Chardonnay—ripe fruit, some oak, good acidity, nice mouthfeel—all balanced and real. Wine is made from grapes; it should taste like fruit. That shouldn’t be too much to ask.”
And Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar (IWC), agrees, scoring the 2009 vintage of Newton Red Label 88 points in the May/June 2011 issue.
“Yellow-gold. Spiced apple and pear on the nose, lifted by lemon zest and flowers,” Tanzer wrote. “Supple, sweet and easygoing, with moderately concentrated flavors of apricot, pear and vanillin oak. Nicely fresh and intense, with ripe acidity and a slight warmth on the back end.”
Average retail for Newton is nearly $19 a bottle according to IWC, and because of its noble pedigree you can find it at lots of local wine shops for $20 or more. But again, Total Wine in Virginia has it for an unheard-of $12.97 a bottle, and its sister stores in Maryland have it for just $1 more. It’s also well priced at The Wine Source at $14.99. (See slideshow for representative prices at wine shops throughout the area.)
Even at $20 a bottle chardonnay lovers may appreciate the balance and elegance of Newton. But at $13, bargain hunters will love it too.
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