Winemakers assess Napa’s ‘affordable’ Chardonnay

A panel of Napa Valley winemakers and other trade gathered at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone in St. Helena recently to discuss Chardonnay wines priced $30 and under.

Napa ValleyFor Napa Valley, with its high cost of land and grapes, and a general philosophy of producing premium, no-cost-spared wines, this price category is at the lower end for the varietal. The wines submitted for review ranged from $16 to $30.

Most telling about the category was the number of wines that were available to taste. For an earlier session on red wines priced at $25 and under, the panel received several cases of wine. Not so with Chardonnay—just 14 wines were presented for review and from three vintages: 2010, 2011 and 2012.

In discussions following a tasting of the wines, Chris Phelps, winemaker at Swanson Vineyards, noted the difficult 2010 and 2011 vintages and their reduced yields. Some wineries, the panelists speculated, may have decided not to make a Chardonnay in these vintages, or limit their offerings to a higher-end bottling only.

The issue of fruit availability was also highlighted. Very little Chardonnay, it was noted, exists north of Carneros today, having a direct effect on the number of different Chardonnay labels a winery can produce.

Christie Dufault, instructor at the CIA, spoke of the inherent characteristics of the grape, saying that Chardonnay is a cool climate grape. Napa’s temperature climate, she said, lends itself more to Bordeaux varietals. Savvy consumers, she noted, are looking for cooler appellation Chardonnay – the coast and Carneros. Of the Napa Valley Carneros fruit, a good deal of that Chardonnay is going into the region’s sparkling wines.

For the fruit that does make it into this price category, the issue of production methods and associated costs are important. Paula Moschetti, winemaker at Rutherford’s Frog’s Leap Winery, says that her winery does not use estate fruit but purchases Chardonnay from Truchard Vineyards in Carneros.

Their Chardonnay has a suggested retail price of $26 – a wine that is not at the high end of the price range for a Napa Valley Chardonnay. Moschetti explained that the wine’s production methods help reduce costs. While the winery ferments its Chardonnay in barrels, there is not the cost of expensive new oak for aging the wines. The Chardonnay matures in stainless steel or concrete vats to preserve its freshness, and the wine’s richness comes instead from the use of lees.

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