Each issue Wine & Spirits focuses on one variety or group of related wines and selects the eleven best wines in that category for the year.

April 2003

Over the last twelve months, Wine & Spirits tasted 528 chardonnays.

The following 11 wines received the strongest praise from our critics. A list of all chardonnays tasted, with the recommended wines highlighted, is included with subscription copies.

95 I Ridge $50
2000 Santa Cruz Mountains Monte Bello Chardonnay

Grown on a limestone ridge high above the Pacific, this great California chardonnay doesn't make itself immediately available. There's the fresh scent of the sea, an integration that implies the brown spices of oak and the brighter peach of ripe fruit, a smooth, fresh balance, but little more. Tasted a day later, the scent has evolved to subtle mineral and green tea, the fruit has developed to orange blossom and orange pith. And the length has increased to draw the flavors off in an ever-receding tide, perceptible for minutes, implying that the wine will need ten years or more to fully develop. Here is a chardonnay of extraordinary stature, proof of what this noble vine can achieve in the New World, given the right vineyard conditions, minimal handling, maximum thought and care. (400 cases) (W&S 4/03) Ridge Vineyards, Cupertino, CA

94 I Cambria $20
2001 Santa Maria Valley Katherine's Chardonnay

It's not the first time that Cambria's Katherine's has performed at the top of our chardonnay tasting — the past two vintages have both scored 90 or above. This may be a big, buttery wine, with lots of corn-silk richness, but it is also remarkably fresh, continuing to express a lively, honeyed, ocean-cast minerality the day after it's first opened. The firm, compact structure is all seashells, layered in white. That contrasts the earthier elements of mushrooms, ferns and dried honeycomb. In balance, it stays cool for all its size and alcohol, a zesty, substantial white for pork or turkey long-brined then roasted. (W&S 4/03) Cambria Winery & Vineyard, Santa Maria, CA

94 I Signorello $38
2001 Napa Valley Vielle Vignes Chardonnay

This lusty white, grown from 23-year-old vines in the Oak Knoll section of Napa, balances its citrus energy with a more delicate floral aspect. There's a quiet rose perfume, as if opening a book of pressed flowers, that builds into the layers of flavor as this wine takes on air. It adds detail to the burst of lemon fruit, the citrus flavors juicy as a freshly squeezed wedge of lime, compressed and checked by mineral scents and the dried honeycomb savor of oak. It's a refined wine for all its heady power, and it's balanced to develop for years. (W&S 4/03) Signorello Vineyards, Napa, CA

93 I Crichton Hall $26
1999 Napa Valley Chardonnay

Exotic fruits, ripened to the extreme, fill this rich and golden wine with musky intensity. But there's restraint, too, the texture fine, the oak structure tightening and lengthening the mango and papaya fruit rather than weighing it down. Chill it for poached halibut. (750 cases) (W&S 6/02) Crichton Hall Vineyard, Rutherford, CA

93 I Gary Farrell $29
2000 Russian River Valley Chardonnay

Intriguing white fruit flavors lend a heady complexity to this wine. They fill the aroma with white berry and raspberry scents, cool the palate with white cherry meat, as if from the rain-quenched warmth of autumn. Then it blooms in the finish with the scent of a white rose opening, the fruit and almond bark of the oak expansive and long. A beautiful evocation of the Valley, this chardonnay grows at the Allen, Westside, Aquarius and Stylene ranches. (W&S 8/02) Gary Farrell, Healdsburg, CA

93 I Keller Estate $25
2000 Sonoma Coast La Cruz Vineyard Chardonnay

This is the first vintage from Keller Estate, an 18-acre vineyard located between Sears Point and Petaluma where Ted Lemon makes the wine (planted in 1989, it has often contributed to the Landmark Overlook Chardonnay). Deep golden in color, oceanographic in scope, this is a massive chardonnay that carries its weight with grace. A chunk of yellow plum in the middle gives a lasting richness, leaving a trail edged with flowers, fossilized limestone, golden pear. Age this to gain the full complexity it should offer as it matures, then pour it with seared scallops and truffled mashed potatoes. (1,200 cases) (W&S 6/02) Keller Estate, Petaluma, CA

93 I Navarro $18
2001 Anderson Valley Premiere Reserve Chardonnay

Navarro has a trick of growing wines in the Anderson Valley that mirror the whites of Alsace. It's a character most apparent in their pinot gris, but it turns up in their other whites as well, like this chardonnay, for which my notes read: ‘Smells Alsace.' Is it the autumnal feel of the wine, with scents of pale mushroom flesh and roasted apples? Is it the relatively light weight (for California), yet fulsome flavor? The wine is sturdy, broad and rich, with oak playing a background role to structure it, letting the earth and lemon zest flavors take precedence in the finish. Age it to let the complexities evolve, or enjoy it now with halibut in parchment with preserved lemon. (3,435 cases) (W&S 4/03) Navarro Vineyards, Philo, CA

93 I Patz & Hall $36
2000 Russian River Valley Dutton Ranch Chardonnay

From the plumpness of the aroma through a smooth exposition of flavors, this delivers its riches with refinement rather than warmth. It layers the sweet, ripe scent of apples and pineapple with high tones of cider softened by oak, balanced by lees, lasting into the finish of spice, dry honey and beeswax. It's clean and well defined, as suited to a few years of aging as it is to drinking now with a crown roast of pork. (W&S 6/02) Patz & Hall Wine Co., Rutherford, CA

93 I Stag's Leap Wine Cellars $45
2001 Napa Valley Arcadia Vineyard Chardonnay

Following the exceptional 2000 vintage of this wine, this new release takes a similar citrus and floral direction. It's filled with fresh scents of tangerine and lime, an elegant expression of the variety. The fruit complexity develops without heavy oak ornamentation, sweet yet clean, bright and satisfying. The wine should develop well with bottle age, though it is readily enjoyable now, especially if decanted. Serve with grilled snapper. (572 cases) (W&S 4/03) Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Napa, CA

93 I Von Strasser $40
2000 Diamond Mountain Napa Valley Aurora Vineyard Chardonnay

If it weren't for the earthiness, the taste of the soil, this chardonnay's lime and tangerine fruit character could pass for Chassagne. Instead, it's Napa, not in overt ripeness, but in the lasting impression of the earth. More complexities grow out of the savor of that alluvial earth: edges of tobacco and of heirloom pear, wrapped in an intriguing richness that will suit roasted sweetbreads. (359 cases) (W&S 2/03) Von Strasser Wine Co., St. Helena, CA

93 I Whitford $20
1999 Napa Valley Haynes Vineyard Chardonnay

Ken Bernards makes this wine from a vineyard in Coombsville, planted in 1967. It's super rich yet mild mannered, all seamlessly integrated. The grape flavors are mellowed into chamomile, tangerine and toasted wheat, while retaining their freshness and firm feel. It's clean rather than wooden, and it finishes quietly, soft and warm. King salmon roasted with wild mushrooms will bring out the savory aspects of the wine. (W&S 8/02) Whitford Cellars, Napa, CA