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Chardonnay might be one of the world's great white wine grapes, but that hasn't stopped it from becoming a whipping boy for many cognoscenti, a reputation that is almost entirely deserved.
You see, while the chardonnay grape is responsible for the sublime white wines of Burgundy, all too often the new world versions are over-oaked and cloying—and as such are looked down on by us critics, who pride ourselves on tastes far superior to such prosaic oak juice.
It is true that this trend to over-oak chardonnay has ameliorated somewhat in recent years, but it is still the dominant characteristic of the American wine. Not all new world chardonnay conforms to this unfortunately well-justified stereotype, and over the next few months I will be featuring occasional versions other American appellations that set themselves apart from this unfortunate focus-group-driven trend. These are great, elegant, refined American chardonnays—chardonnays that are made to be drunk with food and are wines deserving of wider attention.
The Chappellet family was among the earliest of the modern-era wine pioneers in Napa, settling on the steep elevations of Pritchard Hill on the eastern slopes of the valley in 1969. The family has long been known for its cabernet sauvignon, but I have often found it disappointing, a bit over-extracted for my taste.
Far less noticed has been the family's chardonnay, and so it was only with limited expectations that I pulled the cork on the Chappellet Chardonnay 2007 ($32). My subsequent surprise at what a wonderful wine it was made my enjoyment of it even greater. What distinguishes the Chappellet is a delicate, woody—not oak, but more bark—complexity with notes of real slatey minerality on the citrus-tinged finish.
It has what I look for in a great white wine—that mysterious combination of power and finesse. Here, the judicious use of oak seamlessly integrates with pure, fresh chardonnay acidity and results in a wine that's all lemon-and-honey harmony. Winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus has coaxed out of the lush California fruit an almost Burgundian elegance and finesse.
The angels are singing in this wine—now where's my sole? Dover, of course.
When to Drink: Now and for the next 3â5 years
Breathing/Decanting: Half an hour breathing helpful but not essential
Food Pairing: The best fish—Dover sole—cream sauces, hard cheeses
Grapes: 100% chardonnay
Appellation: Napa Valley
Web Site: www.chappellet.com