California's newest crop of Chardonnay hits store shelves

Dear wine drinkers, I hope you are enjoying California's new crop of Chardonnay as much as I am.

The 2018 vintage currently on our retail shelves was a winemaker's dream, with cool spring, moderate summer and warm autumn extending into October two weeks longer than previous years, fully maturing grapes. In addition, winegrowers are working with their plant and planet, pushing the "Go West" axiom, with vineyards planted ever-closer to the cold ocean, to balance juicy ripeness with bright acidity.

While many producers employ new barrels, the wines below are no "oaky monsters" of yore, but richly satisfying drinks, with plush fruit, exotic spice accents, satin texture and luscious finish.

Mushroom risotto is my Chardonnay go-to, coaxing earthiness from the grape while amplifying its buttery characteristics. Good news that mushrooms are high in vitamin D to offset our SAD (seasonal affective disorder) in the gloomy months to come; so too are Chardonnay-magnets swordfish and salmon.

Can we talk eggs? Also high in vitamin D, even a simple scramble is elevated into a gourmet experience with a glass of well-balanced Chardonnay, breakfast, lunch or dinner.

To color-code your drinking, think orange when you think Chardonnay: baked acorn squash, pumpkin ravioli, even microwaved sweet potatoes, all with a dab of butter.

Look for these California-grown Chardonnays from the 2018 vintage (in alphabetical order):

Baileyana (Edna Valley): Plump flavors of baked apples generously accented by brown spices, balanced by bright acidity, make this a rich drink but one that doesn't bludgeon the palate. As a pioneer of cold climate Edna Valley, these folks are running out of West, with vineyards planted within six miles of the Pacific. About $28.

Dutton-Goldfield "Walker Hill" (Green Valley of Russian River Valley): Readers of "Good Wine" know I'm a Dutton-Goldfield fan. This vineyard selection was fermented low and slow with a variety of yeasts - including indigenous strains - then rested with lees (spent yeast cells) and aged 18 months in Seguin Moreau and Taransaud barrels for an alluring, complex and lively wine. The winery recommends pairing with Chicken Dijon. I enjoyed mine with Truffled Mac 'n Cheese. $50 from the DF Wine Club.

Jordan (Russian River Valley): The 2018 is luscious, round and inviting, the epitome of California Chardonnay, with golden apple and pear flavor accented by exotic spices, with balanced acidity enough to add excitement to a range of dishes from my fridge: garlic roasted chicken, pears and Vermont Cheddar, salad of sun-dried tomatoes and apples, and grilled sausages. From Jordan's website and "Wine Country Table" (available to wine club members) enjoy with wild mushroom bisque, Dungeness crab and grilled pork. About $35.

Reata (Sonoma Coast): A shining example of California, with a creamy texture, ripe red and yellow apple flavor and integrated, toasty oak. Day Three after opening (stored in the fridge) revealed white pepper accents. Even with spicy dishes such as Sesame Ginger Baked Tofu, I found 14.2% alcohol not excessive. About $19. (Look also for their good-value label, Light Horse, about $12.)

Wente Vineyards (Livermore Valley): Founded in 1883, Wente is our country's longest, continuously family-owned winery. Among their contributions is the Wente Clone, developed by second-generation Ernest in 1912 and once the basis of 80% of California's Chardonnay vineyards. While not tasted by this palate recently, their "Riva Ranch" (about $18) and "Morning Fog" (about $14) consistently represent the tops in widely available, quality value.

For a red wine companion, each of these properties also offers well-crafted pinot noirs.

And if you missed the 2018's, opt for 2019, another chance to taste a near-perfect California vintage.

• Mary Ross is an Advanced Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Wine Educator (Society of Wine Educators) and recipient of the Wine Spectator's "Grand Award of Excellence." Write to her at

Ross' choice

Wine: Chardonnay

Producer: Stags' Leap

Region: Napa Valley

Vintage: 2018

Availability: About $32 at major wine and spirits outlets and boutiques

Distributed by: Breakthru Beverage of IL, Cicero

Tasting Notes: California's golden sunshine once attracted winegrowers from throughout the world, but many early Chardonnays succumbed to overripeness, burning alcohol and little refreshment, unsuccessfully masked by heavy-handed oak. Stags' Leap epitomizes the new Chardonnay, planted in cool climate (primarily Carneros) to mollify alcohol and to balance luscious complexity with bright acid. A rest in stainless steel and barrels (primarily neutral in flavor from pre-use), protects fresh flavors and adds generous texture. The result: delicious complexity, elegant drinkability and an exciting partner to food, exactly what world winegrowers have wished for all along.

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