Chardonnay: There’s basic and not so basic

By Celia Strong

With wines, it’s easy to wander down so many paths. Sometimes, though, we wander away from the basics and forget where we started. 

For sure, it’s always fun to find new wines. But, after years of looking and learning, a new wine that’s a basic can be just as good and rewarding. Which is what we’re going to do this week.

A Napa Chardonnay is pretty basic; certainly there is a specific style of this grape, but it’s truly basic. 

Chardonnay for years was the most popular and most planted white variety. Napa Chardonnays were favorites (and still are) for many wine lovers because of their intense flavors. 

Including oak, Chardonnay aromas and flavors are numerous and include lemon, citrus, apples, pears, tropical fruits, baking spices, vanilla, butter and toast, just to list just a few.

With barrel aging, and the secondary malolactic fermentation that takes place while the wine ages, a richer wine with a creamier texture is achieved along with vanilla, butter, butterscotch, baking spice and nut notes in the finished wine. 

Exact vineyard soils and exact winery treatments make each Chardonnay what it is. But growers and winemakers have a great basic ingredient to start with.

Oaked Chardonnays come from many wine regions around the world, not just Napa. In Napa, producers use both or either American and French oak barrels. Stronger flavors come from American wood. Quality barrels, of either wood, cost hundreds of dollars. (And, yes, there are cheaper woods and barrels, for less expensive wines.) In California, in addition to fermenting a wine in oak barrels and/or aging it in oak barrels, producers are allowed to toss oak chips into wine or add liquid “essence of oak.” It’s like “liquid smoke” for cooking. Obviously, the better barrels produce better wines. From better grapes. For higher prices. 

We deserve better, though, so our two Chardonnays this week are good Napa wines. Franciscan Estate Vineyards produces both.

Franciscan is located in Oakville, right in the heart of Napa Valley. They own 240 acres of prime vineyards. They were the first Napa winery to produce “Oakville” appellation wines, followed by Opus, Swanson, Silver Oak and Groth. 

But, their Chardonnay comes from further south in the valley: the Carneros AVA. There, they own 17 acres where cool breezes from the bay and clay and gravel soils yield Chardonnay grapes with outstanding structure and minerality.

The Franciscan Cuvée Sauvage Chardonnay is named for the wild yeasts that live on the grapes’ skins in the vineyards.

Traditionally, white French Burgundy wines always used the wild, savage, yeasts for their fermentation. In, 1987, Franciscan was the first Napa winery to do the same. 

This wine is 100 percent Chardonnay, 100 percent barrel fermented, and aged for 14 months in 94 percent new, French oak barrels. 

It is a light yellow color, with lemon, crême brulée, roasted hazelnuts and vanilla aromas and flavors along with pears and apples. 

It is a really rich wine with significant weight to it. It’s absolutely one of the icons of Napa. For $36.99.

Franciscan’s other Chardonnay is their Napa appellation. Also, 100 percent Chard and 100 percent barrel aged for seven months with its lies. Its barrels are both French and American, with 27 percent new. (Remember, new oak has stronger essences that transfer into the wines.) 

With its pale yellow color, this wine, too, shows honeyed pears and apples with a richness and creamy minerality. For $15.99. Or, while it lasts, $125 for a whole case of 12!

So, we have two expressions of Napa Chardonnay, both very typical and excellent, but just not necessarily for the same reasons. The treat is to be able to try them both. Enjoy.

Celia Strong works at Bill’s Liquor & Fine Wines on Lady’s Island.

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