By “classic,” I mean, first, Napa Valley wineries founded before 1980 and, second, chardonnays modeled along principles of restraint, elegance and devotion to the grape itself, not to heavy-handed processing in the winery. Most of these chardonnays see a sensible, if not discreet use of oak aging, and most of them did not go through so-called malolactic fermentation, not a part of the fermentation process but a naturally occurring chemical transformation (in barrel) of crisp malic (“apple-like”) acid into creamy, buttery lactic (“milk-like”) acid. When this process is prevented, the result can be chardonnays that retain freshness and liveliness and that avoid the sometimes overwhelming lushness and richness that interfere with the actual character of the grapes.
Image of chardonnay grapes from cuveecorner.

Far Niente Chardonnay 2007 & 2009, Napa Valley. (I’m not sure how I missed the 2008 version of this wine, but that’s what happened.)

The grapes for Far Niente’s chardonnays come from Coombsville, a cool region east of the city of Napa. The wines are barrel-fermented but see no malolactic fermentation. The 2007 aged nine months in French oak, 65 percent new barrels, 35 percent once;used; the 2008 aged 10 months in French oak, 61 percent new barrels, 39 percent once-used. Far Niente was founded in 1979 by Gil Nickel, a former Navy guided missile analyst who had made a fortune as a nurseryman in Oklahoma. The property, west of Highway 29 in Oakville, was the site of a stone winery built in 1885, since extensively restored. Nickel died of cancer in 2003, at the age of 64. He also founded Dolce, which makes only one product, a dessert wine, and Nickel & Nickel, dedicated to single-variety, single vineyard wines, primarily chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, from Napa and Sonoma.

The Far Niente Chardonnay 2007 offers a real mouthful of wine that manifests itself in plain old wonderful presence and tone and grace; yeah, it’s plenty dense and chewy but also ineffably elegant and supple. Aromas of pineapple and grapefruit are imbued with cloves, a touch of jasmine, and backnotes of ripe peach and pear. The balance among elegant body and texture, permeated by lace-like limestone minerality; rich, slightly smoky pineapple and grapefruit flavors; and scintillating acidity is awe-inspiring. Both profound and delightful. Drink through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $56.

My first note on the Far Niente Chardonnay 2009 is “god… how lovely!” I suppose I could stop there, but I’ll add that the bouquet on this wine is a heady amalgam of crushed gravel and damp stones, honeysuckle, pineapple and grapefruit with white peach and nectarine; the wine is long and deep, expansive and generous yet highlighted by pinpoint acidity of tingling proportions and a stirring limestone element that seems to fill the wine out to every edge and corner. Tremendous presence, with a texture that’s like a cloud-like embodiment of subtlety and nuance — orange blossom and cloves. The wine is quite dry, especially through the extended finish, and you feel there a bit of woody hauteur. Nevertheless, this is a great achievement in chardonnay winemaking. This should age beautifully through 2018 or ’20. Exceptional. About $58.

Director of winemaking for Far Niente is Dirk Hampson.
2007 was a sample for review; 2009 was tasted at a wholesaler’s trade event.

Freemark Abbey Chardonnay 2008 & 2009, Napa Valley. Freemark Abbey was launched in 1967 by Chuck Carpy, winemaker Brad Webb and other investors. Carpy’s heritage in the Napa Valley went back to his grandfather, who immigrated from Bordeaux to California at the end of the Civil War and eventually founded Christian Brothers winery. Carpy was also a co-founder, in 1976, of Rutherford Hill. He died in 1996, of a heart attack, aged 68. For several decades, Freemark Abbey produced some of Napa Valley’s best cabernet sauvignon-based wines, including the iconic Bosche Cabernet. Since 2006, the winery has been owned by Jackson Family Wines, which acquired the property, along with Arrowood and Byron, from the Legacy Estate Group, which filed for Chapter 11 late in 2005. The history of Napa Valley and its wineries and the webs and tendrils of ownership is tangled indeed. Ted Edwards has been winemaker for Freemark Abbey since 1985.

The Freemark Abbey Chardonnay 2008 is, as my first note says, “absolutely lovely” with “great tone and balance.” The wine is bright with spiced pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors accented by touches of apple and mango and crystallized ginger. This chardonnay does not go through malolactic “fermentation,” retaining enviable restraint and subtlety, litheness and grace. A distinct limestone-like minerality permeates the long, vibrant finish. Now through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $22.

The Freemark Abbey Chardonnay 2009 takes all the character and characteristics of the 2008 version and ramps them up several degrees; does that make the 09 a better chardonnay than the 08? Yes and no. A bouquet of apples and pineapple, grapefruit and cloves leads to a wine that’s definitely a little juicier and riper, more boldly spicy that its cousin from 2008. The Freemark Abbey Chardonnay 09 is lush, sapid, savory, bursting with flavors of roasted lemon, spiced pear and the requisite pineapple and grapefruit, while never straying into tropical fruit territory. As the wine warms slightly in the glass, it begins to emphasize a sort of clean, limestone-inflected earthiness (as well as a floral contingent from the jasmine side), and it becomes more savory, more spicy, and you feel the oak as a force of gravity drawing the wine back through the finish. The oak regimen is interesting and thoughtful; the wine is 60 percent barrel-fermented and 40 percent fermented in stainless steel, then 87.5 percent of the wine ages four months in French oak, but only 25 percent of the barrels are new, and it does nit go through malolactic fermentation, so there’s no overbearing toastiness or creaminess here. While I find the spareness and elegance of the 08 rendition very appealing, I have to admit that this 09 offers greater generosity and presence, more sophisticated tone than its cousin from the previous year. 14.1 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 to ’15. Excellent. About $25.

The 2008 was a sample for review; I paid $26 for the 2009.
Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay 2008, Napa Valley. Grgich Hills Estate is run on biodynamic principles, and while I have no truck with the more extreme practices of the movement — I mean, how about everybody just being really really really careful and thoughtful and humble in the vineyard — the truth is that the wines from this producer, founded in 1977, are certainly as good as, if not better, than ever; there is an incredible sense of focus and concentration. Winemaker is Ivo Jeramaz, nephew of co-owner and winemaker emeritus Mike Grgich.

The Grgich Hills estate Chardonnay 2008 ages 10 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels, 60 percent neutral barrels; the wine does not go through malolactic fermentation. The purity and intensity of the chardonnay grape here are awe-inspiring; this is just a freakin’ beautiful chardonnay. The wine is rich and ripe but enlivened by scintillating acidity and a vibrant element of limestone-like minerality. The bouquet is distinguished by notes of pineapple and grapefruit, quince and ginger and a touch of spiced pear and yellow plum; hints of jasmine and honeysuckle emerge while the wine gains complexity, filling out its aura of dimension and detail. After a few minutes — spend an hour with this wine, please — you begin to feel the agility, the svelteness of the spicy oak at the circumference of the tasting range, and the wine pulls up wild aspects of earthiness, autumn meadows, salt marsh and sea rocks; it’s that authoritative and elemental, yet so deft, so balletic and elevated. A masterpiece. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 to ’16. Exceptional. About $42.

A sample for review.
Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 2008, Napa Valley. As I mentioned in this post on about “Old-School Cabernet Sauvignons,” the connection between Grgich Hills Estate and Chateau Montelena is Mike Grgich, who was hired as winemaker at Chateau Montelena in 1972 and produced the Montelena Chardonnay 1973 that won the chardonnay part of the legendary Paris Tasting of 1976. Ancient history indeed, yet a significant chapter in legitimizing California wine on the world stage. Much water (or wine) under the bridge in the ensuing almost 40 years, yet Grgich Hills, which Mike Grgich founded in 1977 with coffee scion Austin Hills, and Chateau Montelena continue to offer some of the very best wines of the Napa Valley. Winemaker at Montelena is Cameron Parry.

The Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 2008 is a model of what a Napa Valley chardonnay ought to be, elegant, subtle and perfectly balanced but also juicy, bright, boldly delineated in its pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors woven with hints of lemon curd, jasmine and cloves. The wine ages 10 months in French oak, of which only 11 percent of the barrels were new, while a small portion stayed in stainless steel tanks, so this chardonnay is notably crisp and vibrant yet sleek, suave and supple, an absolute joy to drink with its fine equilibrium and slightly lush heft and presence. 13.7 percent alcohol. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $50.
A sample for review.

Tudal Winery Maldonado Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, Napa Valley. Arnold and Alma Tudal established the winery, on Big Tree Road north of St. Helena, in 1974.

This is the first wine made for Tudal by new winemaker Kirk Venge — son of legendary winemaker Nils Venge — and what a great one it is. The color is pale gold; aromas of pineapple and grapefruit, quince and yellow plum segue into spiced peach with hints of jasmine and honeysuckle, all very subtly expressed, because the hallmark of this chardonnay is elegance, spareness and reticence, though these qualities, in turn, take a back seat (or at least ride shotgun) to an aura of remarkable intensity and concentration and to weight and texture that balance suppleness with heft. Nothing out of place here, nothing that does not contribute to impeccable integrity, authority and poise. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 to ’16. Production was 108 cases. Excellent. About $45.

A sample for review.

Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2008, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. I was amazed that this chardonnay, which exhibits so much of the grape’s purity and intensity, went through full barrel-fermentation and aged 11 months in oak, amazed because you sense the oak, in the wine’s proportion and firmness, much more than you actually smell or taste it. Made from 37-year-old vines grown at 1,900-foot elevation, the Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2008 (which sports a medium pale straw-gold color) offers resonant pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors deeply imbued with quince and ginger and hints of cloves and lime peel. The wine is taut, almost demanding, with tremendous acidity and limestone-like minerality, yet its suppleness and yielding nature are frankly irresistible; it’s a mountain-side powerhouse of vital and vibrant dimension married to the utmost delicacy of detail. Not to be overlooked by devotees of expressive and individually crafted chardonnay. Production was 790 cases. 14.4 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $30.
Grown and made by brothers Charles Smith (winemaker) and Stuart Smith (managing partner and enologist), who started their winery in 1971. A sample for review.