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Thomas Cox Vintner » Gort Vintners

Napa Valley Chardonnay

Chardonnay has emerged as the premier white wine in California. Originating from Burgundy, France, the Chardonnay grape has enabled vintners from the Golden State to produce opulent white wines with crisp, bold flavors. A well made Chardonnay can be enjoyed in a wide array of situations; from celebrations to a quiet night in front of the fire.

Although the best known Napa wine is Cabernet Sauvignon, the Chardonnay is nipping at its heels. White wine has long been thought of as the boring counterpart of the strong, awe-inspiring red, but premium Chardonnay producers have put this stereotype to sleep.

Thankfully, the preferences of the individual wine consumer have progressed to encompass a larger range of styles and flavors. This change can be attributed to the progression of winemaking and innovative farming techniques. The use of malolactic fermentation has enabled vintners to give their wines buttery, creamy flavors.

The importance of the winemaker cannot be understated, but great wines are made in the vineyard. Because of the complexity of viticulture, there are an enormous number of variables that influence the vine, and consequently the grape. When these conditions are right, grapes can be grown with unmatched flavor.

Understanding which regions are best suited to produce the different varietals is the first step in choosing a great wine. In general, the best Chardonnay wines are produced from regions with long moderate days and cool nights. They prefer rich alluvial soils and access to a consistent water source.

Just as Oakville and Rutherford are synonymous with premium quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Carneros is unmatched in the Napa Valley as far as Chardonnay production goes. Carneros is the southernmost AVA of the Napa Valley. Its day time temperature is moderated by fog from the nearby San Pablo Bay. Additionally, because Carneros is not protected by the Mayacamas mountain range, their vineyards are heavily affected by the winds that sweep through the valley.

These winds cause the vines to shut down metabolically, keeping the acid high and sugar low. These two qualities are a trademark of premium Chardonnay grapes, and is one of the main reasons why Carneros is famous for producing the grape. Choosing a Chardonnay from this region increases your chances of getting a great wine, but it does not ensure that you will get what you want. The following are some of my favorite producers of the grape in the Napa Valley.

Acacia Winery may be best known for its Pinot Noir, but their Carneros Chardonnay is gaining recognition as one of the best white wines in the Napa Valley. Their full bodied, crisp Chardonnays pair beautifully with citrus flavored seafood, but are also enjoyable on their own.

Ramey Wine Cellars recently received the award of the “Best Chardonnay Over $20,” by the American Wine Awards. Their Hyde Vineyard in Carneros produced the fruit for this wine. Its sensationally complex flavors are strongly influenced by their innovative oak aging process.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is best known for making the Cabernet Sauvignon that put the Napa Valley on the map at the 1976 Paris Tasting. They are also a leader in producing Chardonnay. The fruit they use is grown in their Carneros vineyard, and is the main reason for the overwhelming success of this wine.

Additionally, many great Chardonnays come from Mount Veeder, which is in the hills north of Carneros. The climate is a bit warmer and the soils deeper and more austere than their southern, low-lying neighbor. Mount Veeder Chardonnays are usually more full bodied than their Carneros counterparts. Some excellent wineries that produce Chardonnay in the Mount Veeder AVA include Chateau Potelle and Mayacamas Vineyards.

Choosing the right wine from a restaurants wine list or a Grocery store can be a daunting task. But following a few basic principles can narrow your choices and increase your chances of finding a great wine. When looking for a great California Chardonnay from the Napa Valley, start with the AVA. Then look at the winery and vintage; if you do not recognize any of the wineries, cross your fingers and choose a wine that fits into your budget. Good Luck and enjoy Chardonnay from the Napa Valley.

Ben Bicais has written many other articles about Napa Valley Wineries.

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