It's not true that all California Chardonnay tastes the same. In fact, I'm going to suggest several white wines from different appellations to prove that vineyard locations do matter..
While I prefer unoaked Chardonnay (Chablis from France), my all-time favorite Chadonnays are from California. I can always count on Chateau Montelena ($40) and Rombauer ($36.99) to put me in a good mood on the special-occasion wines when I drink these premium wines.
But for everyday patio sipping with friends, California offers great value in the $12 to $25 range. I've written previously about Michael David's Chardonnay from Lodi ($15.99), Au Contraire ($16.99), True Myth ($13.99), Hess Select ($13.99), Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Chardonnay ($10.
I'm adding two more to my go-to list -- Robert Mondavi Winery's 2015 Chardonnay from Napa Valley ($21.99) and Hahn SLH Chardonnay 2016 ($24) from the Santa Lucia Highlands in the Monterrey Bay area. As a bonus, I've sampled Robert Mondavi's superb Fumé Blanc and included it in this column.
Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Chardonnay 2015, $21.99: The price-point says this is the winery's entry-level Chardonnay, yet from a quality standpoint, there's nothing missing. It's excellent. The fruit comes from Napa Valley vineyards, including the cool-climate Carneros district -- which builds acidity levels -- and Stag's Leap and Yountville, where grapes develop lush texture and flavors.
Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc, Napa Valley, $24.99: This gem is selling in New Hampshire for $18.99, a good reason to snap up a bottle. I can always count on Mondavi wines to be consistently well-crafted, and this blend of Sauvignon Blanc (92 percent) and Semillon (8 percent) is simply delightful and delicious. Sometimes, Sauvignon Blanc can be overly acidic for my taste. But here we have a clean, complex wine that holds the center of attention
with enhanced South Seas flavors of grapefruit, lemon and tangerine. The mouthfeel is round and creamy, with no sharp edges. There are mineral traits that add to the appealing finish. Grapes from Stag's Leap district and the prestigious To Kalon vineyard in Oakville are used. It seems old hat, but this is still considered an innovative Robert Mondavi wine produced under the capable purview of winemaker Genevieve Janssens.
Hahn SLH Chardonnay 2016, $24.99: There's a Hahn Chardonnay Monterey selling for $11.99, which is a good buy for the budget-conscious. However, the estate grown Hahn SLH Chardonnay is a huge step up in class and quality. "SLH" stands for Santa Lucia Highlands, which is located south of Napa and features mountainside vineyards that sit slightly inland off the Monterey Bay coastline. Changing elevations and cool sea breezes create warm days and cool nights -- diurnal temperature swings that slow the ripening process. The fruit develops at a steady, uniform pace resulting in balanced acidity and wholesome structure and freshness. Nicky Hahn, the winery's owner, was a leading advocate for advancing this unique wine-growing area into a formally recognized appellation (1991). As Hahn winemaker Paul Clifton explains in his 2016 vintage notes, the growing season was "challenging" because of the fear of smoke taint from the Soberanes fire near Big Sur. Fortunately, he writes, the northwest winds redirected the smoke out of the valley, keeping the Lone Oak, Smith, Doctor's and Hook vineyards clear of contamination. The fruit turned out fine. The juice was aged in
small French oak barrels for 12 months, and the wine stirred on its lees every three weeks. The process helped to enhance the wine's golden color and rich flavors. In my sampling, the Chardonnay is absolutely charming, and fit for a relaxing night out on the deck or for a dinner party. What set this apart were the baking spice and subtle vanilla flavors that surfaced mid-palate and led to a velvety finish. Apple, peach and lemon also made their presence known in bright, intertwined waves of fresh fruit.