Chardonnay reviews by request; more to come

May 27, 2023

Please be careful when dealing with companies that claim to buy and store expensive, rare or fine wine. Three failures and a few Ponzi-like schemers were uncovered recently. Most of the cash was long gone. Due diligence saves tears.

In the past few weeks, several readers requested Chardonnay reviews; some were focused on Napa stalwarts. These prompted me to bite the bullet at a recent tasting and give several a swirl. Those looking for top-quality, highly rated and favorably priced Chardonnay in the Napa or Oregon sections are in the wrong aisle; Sonoma is the place to look. Two names that are winners even when the experts say “bad year” are Ramey and Martinelli. That is not to say many others aren’t terrific, but with the consolidation and non-wine, ESG/environmental, social and governance focus of many big businesses, it is critical to follow the longtime farmers/winemakers these days. I promise to review Napa Chardonnay next week.

Some of my former bellwethers are in the hands of the philistines, who are all about lowering costs, marketing, catchphrases and acronyms of the latest trends. If they are cheaper, grapes from the local supermarket may be blended in (exaggeration for effect). I choose the following because both Ramey and Martinelli produce Chardonnay from a broad spectrum of terroir, from cold, high-elevation rocky coastal, to riverbed, to lush bottom land, to former orchards where Gravenstein apples and stone fruit grew. This happy choice results in a wide range of aroma, flavor and structure profiles. Here’s a brief, broad-brush terroir primer: grapes from cold climes at high elevations or near ocean bring brighter acidity and rocky, gravelly, mineral components; bottom land develops riper, higher-alcohol fruit aromas. Generally, if the vines were planted in a former fruit orchard or next to an existing grove, e.g., lots of eucalyptus or redwoods nearby, the grapes will show what the breezes blow.

Be careful when buying Ramey Chards; critics’ scores can cause prices to escalate in the short term. Careful shoppers are alert to the aging value of well-made Chardonnay. Current examples are 2020, recently released, compared to 2018, in its window, from their top four vineyards. Hyde Carneros 2020, 93 McD at $76, and 2018, 93/under $40; Ritchie RRV 2020, 92/$72, and 2018, 94/$75; Rochioli RRV 2020, 93/$78, and 2018, 93/under $70; Woolsey Road RRV 2020, 94/$80+, and 2018, 93/under $65. Woolsey Road grapes are farmed by Martinelli. All four 2020s are being heavily advertised at $99.99 by trades. Shop carefully, or better, develop a relationship with your local shop. Ramey Fort Ross-Seaview Chard, 2020/$40, 2018/$42. The 2018 is readily available for active shoppers. 2020 shows aromas of lemon, melon, movie popcorn and warm gravel; evolves to stone fruit, roast almond flavors. Cool climate and lean soils provide low-yield, bright-acid juice for support and a long, clean finish. A great exercise for curious folks might be to purchase Ramey’s generic RRV Chard 2020, 91 McD/under $37, showing floral, earth, fruit aromas on a bright acidity frame; and Woolsey Road 2020, 94 McD/under $90, with Gravenstein apple, pear, lemon hints and barrel notes plus some ginger, and on the palate, apple, toasted herbs and a pleasing minerally acidity. Then compare them side by side with friends. Adding a bottle of their generic Chardonnay 2016 or ‘17, both 91 McD/under $45, would be a true revelation for less-experienced wine bibbers. I'm guessing most will choose the ‘16 or ‘17 if you mask the labels. Those who choose the stoop, any brown bag will do. 

Longtimers may remember my love affair with Martinelli Zins and Chards. Family run for several generations, they still have dirt under their fingernails and are hands-on with production. Like Ramey, their reach covers the gamut of micro-climates in Sonoma. The 2018 Martinelli Road Chard RRV, 94 McD, has lovely pineapple, pear and hazelnut aromas. Continues to tropical fruit and jasmine riding an exceptionally smooth, balanced frame through a long, clean finish, 91 or better since 2012 and you can find older vintages in the $60s. Another fav, Three Sisters Vineyard 2018, $65/95 McD, is ready now through 2028. 2017 was an ugly year in Sonoma, with a lot of rain and heat spikes; I say avoid. However, Tony Galloni writing in Vinous gave a 96 for it, and the wise money had already snapped it up. If you see any 2017, trust Galloni. 

A reminder! Please don't say Happy Memorial Day. Have fun, but pause to remember all those who served and paid the ultimate price.

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