Thirty-four years after the “tasting heard 'round the world" -- a comparative sampling in Paris in which the American Chateau Montelena's 1973 chardonnay beat France's top burgundies -- California chardonnay continues to evolve. And improve.
It stands to reason. We've been making chardonnay seriously on a large scale for less than 50 years; the French have been at it since 1041.
It's been an uphill battle. In the 1990s, California winemakers were movie stars, believing it was their role to manipulate their wines with too much oak aging, too much fancy secondary fermentation that turned them into flabby, fruit bombs that smelled like sawmills.
Then reason began to prevail. Winemakers adopted the French philosophy that great wine comes from great grapes, and the winemaker's role is to stand aside and let it happen.
Vineyard managers are paying attention to selection of the right clones of grapes, the shapes of trellises, the density of vines, pruning methods and even the direction in which they plant their rows.
After 20 years of growing its chardonnay in the Napa Valley, Patz & Hall has switched to the cooler Sonoma coast, seeking crisper acids and more minerality. MacRostie Winery is also introducing a new chardonnay with grapes from Sonoma's Carneros region, which is cooled by the fogs from San Pablo Bay.
Still, Napa remains a popular source for chardonnay grapes. Groth Vineyards gets grapes from the cooler Oak Knoll district for citrus and mineral flavors and from warmer Oakville for apple flavors. Winemakers are using less -- even no -- oak aging. Dancing Bull Winery, for example, ferments chardonnay cool in computerized, temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks to preserve its crisp acids and intense fruit flavors.
There's no resting on laurels here. And we're benefiting from it.
Ø 2008 Chateau Montelena Winery Chardonnay, Napa Valley: aromas and flavors of oak and nuts, intense pears, vanilla and grapefruit, creamy and complex, with endless finish; an age-worthy wine; $50.
Ø 2008 Patz & Hall Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast: aromas of camellias with hints of oak, flavors of white peaches, mangoes and minerals, crisp and silky; $35.
Ø 2008 Beringer Vineyards Chardonnay Private Reserve, Napa Valley: aromas and flavors of vanilla, hazelnuts and apricots, complex and creamy; $35.
Ø 2008 MacRostie Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast: aromas and flavors of lemons, limes and golden apples, crisp acids, smooth body; $25.
Ø 2008 Cupcake Vineyards Chardonnay, Central Coast: toasty oak aromas, flavors of vanilla and ripe pineapples, soft; $14.
Ø 2008 Groth Vineyards Chardonnay, Napa Valley: golden apple and ripe citrus aromas and flavors, with mineral hints and crisp fruit; $29.
Ø 2008 Dancing Bull Winery Chardonnay, Lodi/Central Valley: crisp, with flavors of ripe peaches and apricots; $12.
Ø 2008 Beringer Vineyards Chardonnay, Napa Valley: aromas and flavors of golden apples, with crisp citrus undertones and long finish; $16.