Dreaming of California Chardonnay

Col-head-ZalkinLast week, we touched on the history of California wines, particularly cabernet sauvignon. But you cannot talk about California without talking about chardonnay.

California chardonnay (especially from Napa and Sonoma) is arguably the most famous wine made in America, and, with a little help from cabernet sauvignon, was instrumental in elevating the American wine industry to success and profitability.

Wine has been grown in California since the region was settled by Europeans, but the industry has suffered several major setbacks. The most damaging of these was Prohibition, which outlawed the sale or manufacture of wine for 13 years (ironically excepting fortified wines, which were still allowed for “medicinal purposes”) and nipped the U.S. industry in the bud.

When Prohibition was repealed, the famously lousy fortified wines had left wine with a questionable reputation amongst American drinkers. Meanwhile, Americans had gotten used to drinking beer and liquor, which were made from more readily available ingredients, and therefore more easily bootlegged. Consequently, the American wine industry languished in jug-wine purgatory for decades.

But even during this nationwide slump, there were still small family vineyards which strived towards greatness. By the late 1960s and early 70s, these vineyards were ready to take on international competition, but they needed better labeling. For years American mass market wineries had been making wines patterned after traditional European regional styles, then used the names of those regions as generic brand names, briefly creating a market where you could buy American “Burgundy.”

More international trade led to Europeans crying foul about the use of their closely guarded regional appellations as generic names on jug wines and wanting an end put to this questionable practice. Eventually, U.S. producers settled on identifying the wines by varietal, or type of grape, a habit which has been picked up and continued by other new world wineries.

Wine, and chardonnay in particular, is hugely important in California with an economic impact that eclipses the film industry. It made use of land that was otherwise inhospitable to agriculture, and vineyards, with their accompanying chateaus and wine cellars, make for a fantastic tourist destination.

California wines are known for oak, which manifests in flavors of toast, vanilla, crème brûlée, or even marshmallow. They tend to be bolder in fruit and less mineral than their French counterparts, but not as sweet or fruity as chardonnay from warmer southern climates. Chardonnay from California is usually ready to drink as soon as it hits the shelves, but many of the finer ones are built to age five years or so.

California chardonnay is a natural match for poultry, soft cheese and late summer vegetables. It shines alongside strong seafood like lobster and shellfish, or anything in a creamy, fatty sauce. The boldest and oakiest chardonnays are even able to stand up to red meats, and are a great choice when serving red meat to dedicated white wine drinkers.

So pick up a bottle of all-American California chardonnay, and raise a glass to those dedicated winemakers who shrugged off the last vestiges of Prohibition and helped us remember how fine American wines can be.

Here are a few featured California Chardonnay wines for your enjoyment:

• Rombauer Chardonnay. A soft yellow wine that will darken beautifully with age. Tropical fruit flavors of pineapple and grapefruit create a bold foundation for more subtle aromas of vanilla, fig and apricot. Lingering notes of poached pear and melon round out this creamy wine.

• Flowers Chardonnay. Delicate flavors of lime blossom, pear and Honeycrisp apple. Rich texture, vibrant acidity, and a long, elegant, finish in this fine example of the Sonoma coast style.

• Domaine Eden Chardonnay. Bright fruit sits forward on the palate in this estate-grown gem. A blend of chardonnay grapes from two distinctly different patches of land promotes excellent balance of flavor and acidity.

• Duckhorn Migration Chardonnay. Lush, delightful flavors of peach and nectarine are followed by bright acidity in this cooler-climate chardonnay. Hints of white flowers, lemon custard and sweet vanilla oak round out this rich, luscious wine.

• Stags Leap Chardonnay. Deliciously aromatic, with core flavors of stone fruit and citrus. Light and crisp, with warm toasty undertones, which round out this beautifully balanced wine. Long, refreshing, floral finish.

You can find all these delightful chardonnay wines for purchase at our store, Old Greenwich Fine Wines, located at 195 Sound Beach Avenue, Old Greenwich, or visit our website, Ogfinewines.com, or call 203-990-3030 to place an order. When you stop in, we invite you to taste a number of our favorite wines while we help you find the right bottle for your palate.

Robert Zalkin is the owner of Old Greenwich Fine Wines at 195 Sound Beach Avenue. His column will be available weekly at Greenwich-post.com.

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