You don’t have to pay a lot for superior Chardonnay

January 28, 2023

This week we’re looking into good QPR, top-quality Chardonnay. I don’t write much about Chardonnay anymore because my preferred style – big, buttery, new oak, sur lie, malolactic, laid down for several years – has fallen out of favor or been priced off the McD value scale. This is especially true of the U.S. production in Napa and Sonoma when production/aging costs came into play. A lot of this change was also driven by wild escalation in land prices, same reason Sussex County is no longer a top pea or tomato producer. Some producers who were wise to marketing observed the cold-fermentation, quick-release, bottle-and-ship Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc (Fumé Blanc) successes and said, “Let’s move the public into a style of Chardonnay much cheaper to produce.” Willing scribblers joined in and started extolling the virtues of crisp, dry, lower-alcohol (less ripe), ready-to-drink-this-evening, inexpensive, modern-style Chardonnay. Happily, the best of the Napa and Sonoma Cab and Chard producers did not fall into this pit, although many of those looked at the Burgundian model and leaned toward breaking up their vineyards’ production and selling the scarcity and specific terroir model. To date this has been a successful, different, higher-price substantiator. And that, dear reader, is my take, a brief primer on why the best of these cost so much. Hand work, careful vinification, time of production, storage before sales and time value for money are expensive. They are also selling to willing buyers. Before you send nastygrams, I’m fully in favor of business folks choosing the best options to increase their financial well-being. That is their job. It is the consumers' job to find value where possible and support those who provide it.

This is about value, not price. My choice, based on quality/price ratio, has been Louis Latour Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru forever. It spikes and declines with each auction and reviews. However, the quality increase over time resembles the pricier white Burgundy chardonnay. The 2010 is in the middle of its window. It opened at $108 in 2014 and spiked twice, reaching $890 in September 2019, then declined to $234. Rose to $1,100, 12/20, declined to $220 and last sales at $380, or a triple in nine years. 2020 looks to be the best vintage in years. Folks with cash and storage will beat the pants off most investments with these. Lucky I don’t need a license for this advice, isn’t it? 

Let us compare now some examples of my style of domestic. Ramey Rochioli Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 and ‘19 ,which just entered their window, get 94 McD. Unfortunately, Parker’s guys and Virginia Boone love this label and rated it higher. A confluence of factors, including the use of multiple single-vineyard designations to limit quantity and writers waxing eloquent with comments such as, “testament to outstanding site and producer” and, “should be rated 100” has driven these lovelies to $70-$100 plus, OK value, but wonderful quality wine. These are findable. See what I did there. At $70 it is a poorer QPR than the Corton, although both are rated 94 or better. Why? The oldest available, 2015, came in at $63, currently $71, with 747 cases produced. Corton had 1,200 of 2,702 cases imported to U.S. However, when you aggregate all of Ramey’s five chardonnay labels, which are desirable wines, the numbers get quite large.

For those who enjoy lean, food-friendly Chardonnay, Schug Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2021 is a fine buy. Think Chablis profile, low oak, sur lie, creamy, cool-climate Chardonnay. You can find some under $20, 90 McD. Opens to a mixed bouquet of lemon/grapefruit with nectarine and very slight herbal hints. On the juicy palate, citrus and stone fruit follow through with some tart green apple framed by bright acidity. Wonderful with local, white-fleshed seafood and scampi; hold the lemon.

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