Ask the next person who walks in the room to name a white wine. I'll wager they say chardonnay. Double or nothing, the next "house white" you order will be a chardonnay. Like no other grape variety, chardonnay has become nearly a brand name all by itself. That's good news for an industry known to scare away customers with its confusing vocabulary.
Not so good, though, is that chardonnay's popularity has given it a universal identity in the minds of casual wine drinkers. Truth is, chardonnay wine ranges from thin and sharp to full and rich, depending on a number of factors in the vineyard and in the winemaking process. With the increasing likelihood that consumers will face Virginia chardonnay on wine lists and retail shelves, we thought it was time to take a sample of the field in our own backyard.
Our six-member panel set out to examine 26 Virginia chardonnays, an arduous task. As is our custom, all the wines were bagged to avoid prejudice, a detail we find increasingly important and which, on this tasting, netted some big surprises. We tasted them in two flights of 12, trying desperately to put words with impressions and identify elusive flavors.
Four hours later, we had this to say about Virginia chardonnay: Generally it's a medium- to light-bodied wine variable in its expression from soft and buttery to crisp and fruity. In its best form it carries the subtle, spicy flavors that come from oak aging and from malolactic fermentation (the process of converting tart malic acid into buttery lactic acid) but on a lighter frame than, say, California chardonnay. Equally pleasing to some panelists, however, was chardonnay's sharp, lemony alter ego, perfect for hot summer days. In short, we liked most all of it, but we clearly had a preference for a wine that balances the two flavors.
Looking over our tasting notes it seems we prefer the 1997 vintage to 1998, the one exception being our highest scoring wine, White Hall Vineyards 1998 Reserve Chardonnay
(89 points). This wine won a gold medal in the 1999 Governor's Cup competition and also placed 67th in a national ranking of 469 chardonnays from across the country. We liked it for its smooth, round aroma and its layer of spicy decoration over top a strong foundation of ripe fruit flavors.
Another wine we felt had a lot going on in the tasting experience was the Oasis Barrel Select Chardonnay 1997
(88 points). Though a light-bodied wine, the flavors move from zesty melon to vanilla and round out with buttery notes on the end and a clean finish. All in all, a nice taste, and a wine with style and character.
Three other wines we liked and which we think have broad appeal: Dashiell Chardonnay 1997
(88 points), full-flavored, even and a little zesty up front opening to pineapple flavors through the finish; Prince Michel Virginia Barrel Select Chardonnay 1997
(88 points), lovely, a little minerally on the mid-palate, the flavors of this wine are all in the round smooth finish; and Naked Mountain Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 1997
(88 points), a slight bite upfront opens fast to creamy, floral midpalate and finishes with an earthy kick.
In tasting so many wines, you're bound to hit a dud or two. Our panel hit five that we are unable to recommend. But we won't tell you which ones they are for two reasons. First, there are many variables that can affect wine, and we just may have gotten a bad bottle. Second, and more important, you might like it. More than any other tasting, our review of Virginia chardonnay drove home the point that wine is a matter of personal taste. A wine which I rated highly, for example, a panel colleague described as laundry detergent. In the end, what matters is that you like the wine that's in your glass. Of course, the only way to figure out what that is to keep tasting.Panel Picks
Chardonnay falls into two taste categories: crisp and fruity, or smooth and buttery. In Virginia the distinction can be fine. Figure out which taste you prefer, and pick a wine from our scorecard. Remember that overchilling chardonnay will kill its flavors.Note: All prices were provided by the vineyards.Crisp and Fruity
Barboursville Chardonnay 1998 (82), $11.99Prince Michel de Virginia Chardonnay 1997 (83), $12.95Breaux Madeleine's Virginia Chardonnay 1998 (84), $15Barboursville Chardonnay Reserve 1997 (84), $14.99Stonewall Virginia Chardonnay 1998 (83), $11Dashiell (Rockbridge) Chardonnay 1997 (88), $17Chateau Morisette Chardonnay 1997 (85), $14 Williamsburg Winery John Adlum Chardonnay 1997 (87), $10Williamsburg Winery Vintage Reserve Chardonnay 1997 (88), $21Soft and Buttery
Naked Mountain Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 1993 (84), $16Rockbridge Chardonnay (Table Wine) 1997 (87), $12White Hall Reserve Chardonnay 1997 (85), $18.99Oasis Barrel Select Chardonnay 1997 (88), $18.50Ingleside Special Reserve Chardonnay 1997 (86), $16Ingleside Northern Neck Select 1997 (87), $16Tarara Chardonnay Virginia 1997 (87), $12.99Naked Mountain Barrel Fermented 1997 (88), (this wine is sold out at the vineyard)White Hall Vineyards Chardonnay 1998 (89), $13.99Breaux Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 1998 (82), $18Prince Michel Virginia Barrel Select 1997 (88), $19.95Patrick Getlein is a wine columnist and consultant in Richmond. His monthly column this summer features panel reviews of Virginia wines by variety. Send your comments and suggestions to him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or you may write to him through the office of Style Weekly, 1118 W. Main St., Richmond, Va. 23220.