I asked several of Honolulu’s top wine professionals for recommendations that would help readers select California chardonnays for home use. Here’s what they shared:
» Mark Shishido, wine director, Alan Wong’s Restaurants: Varner, "Home Block" 2007, $40 (Santa Cruz Mountains); Forman, Napa Valley, 2007, $35 (Napa Valley); and Costa D Oro, "Gold Coast Vineyard" 2007, $28 (Santa Maria Valley)
» Ivy Nagayama, managing partner, Sansei Waikiki/DK Steakhouse: Scherrer, "Scherrer Vineyard" 2007, $34 (Alexander Valley); Au Bon Climat "Bien Nacido Vineyard" 2008, $32 (Santa Maria Valley); and Alta Maria "Santa Maria Valley" 2008, $26
» Patrick Okubo, managing partner, Formaggio-Kailua: Kistler, "Hyde Vineyard," $80 (Carneros); Trefethen, Chardonnay, $35 (Napa Valley); Lynmar, "Russian River," $30 (Russian River)
» Chuck Furuya, DK Restaurants: Au Bon Climat "Sanford & Benedict Vineyard" 2008, $34 (Santa Rita Hills); and Ojai, "Bien Nacido Vineyard" 2008, $31 (Santa Maria Valley) are among my favorites.
» Shishido: Au Bon Climat, "Sanford & Benedict Vineyard," Chardonnay, 2008, $35.
When it comes to understanding why certain selections taste so good, the first two details I consider are grape source and winemaker.
In listing the top vineyards of California, Sanford & Benedict would be near the top. The grapes in this cuvee are from the oldest plantings (1970s), which translates into layer upon layer of flavor and nuance. Jim Clendenen is always on my list of the top winemakers. His wines have displayed great balance, complexity and finesse. More important, they offer terrific flavor and are delicious with food.
The 2008 "SB" has got to be one of Clendenen’s finest. This chardonnay displays incredible power and restraint. It bears lemon-lime and Granny Smith apple aromas and flavors, along with seamless texture and balance. The wine displays a "sense of place" with marked minerality that reflects the ancient marine soil of the vineyard.
This is an ideal wine for a range of seafood dishes. It represents what is fine and elegant from California — truly a worldly wine — worthy of aging. And though "worldly" and "world class" descriptors often come with a hefty price tag, this chardonnay overdelivers at about $35 a bottle.
» Nagayama: Ojai, "Bien Nacido Vineyard" 2007, $28 (Santa Maria Valley).
This is without a doubt one of the top chardonnays produced in California year in and year out. I am continually amazed at its consistency, especially at this price point.
Owner/winemaker Adam Tolmach was a co-founder/co-winemaker at Au Bon Climat. Upon his departure he founded Ojai, which uses the same Old World sensibility and approach to grape growing and winemaking.
This wine comes from I Block, planted in 1973. Tolmach now uses NO new oak in its production. I love the purity and "sea shell"-like minerality, reminiscent of French white burgundy, plus a seamless texture and impeccable balance.
"Divine" is an apt descriptor here.
» Okubo: Trefethen, Chardonnay, $35.
When I mentioned this as one of my top California chardonnays, other wine fanatics snickered in disbelief. There is a double standard in comparing California chardonnays with the French. Chardonnays from California tend to be judged upon release, while a high-end white burgundy from France is judged on how well it tastes 10 years later.
I’ve tasted Trefethen Chardonnays from ’94, ’95, and ’97, and they are still amazing more than 10 years later. This improvement with age reveals the quality of this wine. In it, I taste pineapple, lush red apple, caramel and wet stone.
» Furuya: Au Bon Climat, "Sanford & Benedict Vineyard," Chardonnay, 2008, $35.
This is California’s perennial "King of the Hill," featuring a great vineyard and truly worldly winemaker.
I have been fortunate to taste older bottlings frequently and can vouch for how special this wine is, young or old. The craziest thing about it is price: For the past 20 or so years, this chardonnay has consistently cost about $35 a bottle. What a steal!
In selfish moments, I’ve told myself to keep quiet about this one — don’t let the secret out. But that’s no fun. Wine really is about sharing, isn’t it?
Chuck Furuya is a master sommelier and a partner in the DK Restaurant chain.