What a chameleon Chardonnay is—so easily influenced! I mean, jeez, winemakers, climate … does this grape have core values? A central identity? Well, of course it does, but I tasted 13 midpriced Monterey County Chardonnays at once the other day: lined ’em all up in my kitchen, popped all the corks, set a glass in front of each bottle, and got to work—at 10 a.m. no less!
Tom Rinaldi, winemaker at Provenance in Napa, once told me he does all his tasting before lunch, when his palate is fresh and his mind is clear. If you’re tasting after lunch, he told me, and especially if you’re tasting around dinnertime with some food, you’re not tasting. “You’re just partying,” is the way Rinaldi put it.
The remark stuck with me, so whenever I want to get serious, I eat a simple breakfast and get right to the drinking. And the spitting.
I offer up my tasting notes below. If I had to give a global view it would go like this: Yes, cool climate does make a difference, because every one of these 100 percent Chardonnays had much brighter acidity and a notably different flavor palate than Napa Chardonnay. Lemon zest was probably the single most common flavor I noted. Beyond that? The wines were as different as they were alike, suggesting a whole lot of winemakers trying a whole lot of different things, and getting some very interesting results.
2006 Scheid Vineyards Estate Grown Monterey Chardonnay
Smelled of bright lemon, a hint of grass, and maybe some tropical fruits; tasted lean and racy, celery and mineral. Not what you’d call a “plush” Chardonnay at all. Probably just right with seafood.
2006 Carmel Road Monterey Chardonnay
Completely different aromatics than the one above: Imagine the smell of nutmeg, white pepper, vanilla, and cardamom. In the mouth, it was less exotic: citrus, and a hint of butter and oak.
2006 Pessagno Chardonnay Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands
The lemon scent in this wine leaned toward lemon curd–buttery, and the flavors were very focused and well integrated. I liked this wine for sure.
2005 Pessagno Intrinity Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands
More restrained than the others, with notable oak and pear flavors, and less acidity. But lovely.
2006 Pessagno Chardonnay Lucia Highland Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands
Very honeyed nose, almost caramel; lower in acid than the others, mellower, more integrated, more oaky-vanilla, though in a subdued, good way.
2006 McIntyre Estate Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands
This one smelled like a hot toddy to me, lemon and honey, with butterscotch flavor, balanced by more lemon acidity.
2006 Jekel Vineyards Monterey County Chardonnay, Gravelstone Vineyard
The name is no mistake: clear smells of rocks, minerals, celery, nectarine. I thought this one was a solid A-minus, a terrific choice for an inexpensive, simple, cool-climate chardonnay.
2006 Lockwood Vineyard Chardonnay
Very clear vanilla and oak notes in the nose; not wildly complex in the mouth: vanilla bean, subtle oak, good acid. Bam. A fine wine.
2005 Ventana Vineyards Monterey Arroyo Seco Chardonnay “Gold Stripe”
Very warm, vanilla-honey aromatics; similar in the mouth, warm and integrated, though still not a huge wine, à la Napa style.
2006 J. Lohr Arroyo Vista Vineyard Chardonnay
Mineral and a hint of honeysuckle in the nose, a pretty aroma; stone fruit, apricot. Very nice wine!
2006 Bocage Unoaked Chardonnay
Very distinctive nose of pear syrup, or poached pears, or that Kern’s Pear Nectar on a hot summer day, sucked from a frozen can by a swimming hole. Mouth: pear and lemon.
2006 Estancia Chardonnay Monterey County Pinnacles Ranches
Paler than most, backed off toward cool lemon; in the mouth, not complex but not bad, a fine little wine for a fine little time.
2006 Hahn Estates Monterey Chardonnay
A little darker than the others, and a more apricotlike program in the nose, with lemon and peaches. Nice wine, mellow.