Part of the reason why California became known for their oaked, buttery chardonnays is because chardonnay is a grape that's very receptive to winemaking expertise because it tends to be somewhat of a bland, neutrally-flavored grape unless rigorously grown. Mass produced chardonnay tends to produce poor juice that turns into poor wine, high in alcohol and harshly acidic and without much defined fruit. To cover those deficiencies, winemakers can introduce a secondary malo-lactic fermentation that processes the malic acid in the wine into lactic acid (the acid in milk and cream) or they can saturate the wine with the vanillin flavors of oak using a variety of techniques, including dumping wood shavings or chips into the wine. Often, grapes like Columbard that grow even faster and provide higher yields (and hence are cheaper) are blended into wines for filler.
At some point though, it's unfair to castigate that entire segment of the industry. Wine--like any other food--is an agricultural product. And the mega-wineries in California were the companies that got large enough to invest serious money into research, spurring many of the technological and intellectual advances in our understanding of how to make wine.
In any case, Eric Asimov, head wine critic for the New York Times, headed a tasting panel trying chardonnays from Santa Barbara Country that's in today's NYT. Santa Barbara is a region to keep an eye on; at tastings in the last year I've noted that the chardonnays and pinot noirs from the region are not only fairly diverse but generally of a high quality. An excerpt:
While Santa Barbara can trace its winemaking history to the days of the Spanish missions, it is relatively new to the modern age of winemaking. Much of the region’s growth, in fact, has come in the last 15 years, which makes its accomplishments fairly remarkable given the decades spent seeking out the best places to plant vineyards in Northern California, not to mention the centuries of trial and error in Europe.
Still, the wines offer a palpable sense of experimentation. Sometimes they work well, occasionally they do not, and sometimes, well, the jury is still out.
Regardless of the style of the wine, what separated the bottles we liked best from those we rejected can be summed up in one word: balance.
As is often the case in California, the biggest struggle for growers is to get the grapes to ripen slowly and evenly. The sugar, which is fermented into alcohol; the acidity, which offers liveliness, and the other grape components all must be in balance, otherwise the wines can be thin and acidic, or, more likely, overblown, hot and fatiguing.
All of our top wines achieved this precarious balance. Our No. 1, the 2006 Ashley’s from Fess Parker, was rich and full-bodied. Yet it was lively as well, giving shape and focus to the voluptuous flavors and keeping it refreshing.
Some of the other wines on the list, including the wines from Brewer-Clifton, are wines I've tried before; I'll concur here that the Brewer-Clifton wines I've tasted are beastly and massive and hugely concentrated and probably not for the faint of heart.
If you're interested in these wines, we do carry Brewer-Clifton as well as the 2006 Fess Parker 'Ashley's Vineyard' (3.5 cases).