With more than 40,000 tons harvested each fall, chardonnay is entrenched as Washington’s No. 1 white wine and No. 3 grape, trailing only cabernet sauvignon and merlot — and well ahead of riesling.
In fact, chardonnay has ranked as the No. 1 wine sold in the United States for many years, so while the slogan of “anything but chardonnay” may resonate with some, this cherished grape of Burgundy in France obviously remains immensely popular. Just look at all the options available at a supermarket.
However, the style of oaky and buttery chardonnay made fashionable by California producers, sometimes labeled as “reserve,” is not one that’s often chased by Washington winemakers. These wines are not particularly as food-friendly, and a new French oak barrel often costs more than $1,000.
Master sommelier Tim Gaiser said there’s a movement toward balance within the U.S. chardonnay market. That means a brighter profile with less influence from new oak and wines that pair easily with Northwest seafood dishes.
“If anything, the pendulum is going right back into the middle,” Gaiser said. “My frame of reference is California, so I think what’s really the target now is balance as they try to find the equilibrium between ripeness and all the cosmetic surgery that goes into it.
“It’s not as often where someone is going to buy a bottle of chardonnay and it tastes like a two-by-four.”
Fortunately, vibrant examples of Washington chardonnay often can be found at an approachable price.
Here are several delicious examples we’ve tasted recently, all of which retail for $15 or less. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or order directly from the winery.
Columbia Winery 2016 Chardonnay, Columbia Valley, $14: During this current string of warm vintages, Sean Hails and his team seek more chardonnay from the cooler Yakima Valley, and they continue to keep much of the focus on the fruit rather than oak. Aromas of apple, starfruit and lemon are met by a faint hint of tropical. On the attack, the structure of starfruit, lemon and green apple surround the crushed bosc pear.
Washington Hills Winery 2016 Chardonnay, Washington, $10: Precept’s director of winemaking, Hal Landvoigt, continues to show some flair in his work with this consumer-focused brand, which now is 30 years old. He sources his grapes from four distinct growing regions — high-elevation Frenchman Hills in the proposed Royal Slope, Goose Ridge in the proposed Goose Gap, Wallula in the Horse Heaven Hills and Willow Crest in the Yakima Valley. It’s lightly oaked as Asian pear, lemon and golden delicious apple aromas lead to flavors of bosc pear, pineapple, vanilla and lemon oil. Pleasing weight and enjoyable acidity make this an easy drink.
Charles Smith Wines 2015 Eve Chardonnay, Washington, $13: The Eve Chardonnay starts with Evergreen Vineyard, Jerry Milbrandt’s unique site in the Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley, which provides the remarkable hints of caliche and natural acidity found in the vast majority of the white wines it gives birth to. Enticing aromas and flavors of pineapple and golden delicious apple include touches of creme brulee, roasted filberts and dried apricot. Pleasing viscosity receives an appropriate sweep of lemon-lime acidity.
Vino la Monarcha Winery 2015 Chardonnay, Columbia Valley, $15: One of the Northwest’s wizards with white wines, Victor Palencia goes 100 percent stainless steel for this dazzling chardonnay. Its big and gorgeous profile of passionfruit, orange and cotton candy comes with charming acidity and is capped by pink grapefruit pith to check the roundness on the midpalate.
Desert Wind Winery 2016 Estate Chardonnay, Wahluke Slope, $15: The Fries family began to plant Desert Wind Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope in 1993, and today it’s grown to span more than 420 acres. Second-generation vintner Greg Fries creates a delicious, tropical and balanced example. The theme spans gala apple, butterscotch, lemon curd, hazelnuts and Juicy Fruit gum. This wine was awarded a double gold medal at the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
Canoe Ridge Vineyard 2016 The Expedition Chardonnay, Horse Heaven Hills, $15: This Walla Walla winery relies on estate plantings along the Columbia River — its namesake vineyard and Wallula Vineyard near McNary Dam — for this easily obtained bargain. It offers a rich amber color and fun aromas of Pixy Stix grape candy and jasmine backed by lemon curd on toast.
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.