I keep reading that there has been a general toning down of oak in chardonnay wines produced in California, but you wouldn’t know it from the wines I taste, of which I offer today a selection of 16. I’ve uttered these sentences before, and I’ll probably utter them many more times before I close the computer a final time and drag my weary fingers to the catacombs, and I don’t care if you’re tired of reading them; to wit: If a wine smells like oak and tastes like oak, it has too much oak. AND: Oak should be like the Holy Spirit, everywhere present but nowhere visible. Oak barrels are instruments, and they should not define a wine or establish its character; definition and character derive from the vineyard and the grape. It traduces every aspect of common sense that winemakers would want to send out into the world and into the grasp of innocent consumers chardonnays that taste as if they were made from liquid sawdust, yet many chardonnay wines feel exactly like that … and they’re not cheap. To those who say, “But, FK, plenty of people like their chardonnays to smell and taste like oak,” my reply is “Fine, start your own blog. Call it ILoveToastyOak.com.” This, however, is my blog, and on this blog we abhor wines that obliterate the purity and intensity of the grape and the authority of the vineyard through the heavy-handed agency of oak barrels.

Anyway, the scorecard today reads Excellent, 4; Very Good+, 5; Very Good, 1; Good, 1; Not Recommended 5. Among the Not Recommended chardonnay’s but also earning an Excellent rating are three from La Rochelle, a winery I admire for its individuality and willingness to take risks, though that’s a stance that to my palate doesn’t always work, as you can see. Still, I would rather a winery extend itself and skate sometimes over the edge than produce more bland innocuous “me-too” wines.

As usual in these Weekend Wine Notes (previously Weekend Wine Sips and before that Friday Wine Sips), I eschew reams of technical, geographical, geological, climatic and historical data for quick incisive reviews designed to pique your interest, if not, in some cases, whet your palate. Enjoy! (Or not.)

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Artesa Chardonnay 2011, Carneros. 13.8% alc. Pale gold color; clean and fresh, touches of apple and pear, hint of pineapple; quite spicy, smooth and supple, not creamy or viscous, “just right” as Goldilocks said; almost savory in its slightly roasted fruit qualities and modulated spicy aspects; bright acidity, and the limestone and flint elements and sense of oak expand through the finish. Nicely-made. Very Good+. About $20.
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Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay Reserve 2010, Carneros Napa Valley. 14.9% alc. A bold and powerful expression of the grape but balanced and integrated; bright medium gold color; pineapple and grapefruit, ginger and quince, hint of cloves; wet stones and flint mineral element that grows as the moments pass; no doubt about the oak but it contributes creaminess to the mid-palate, a supple texture and spice; long spice-and-mineral-packed finish; tremendous tone and presence. 14.9% alc. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $55.
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Cuvaison Estate Grown Chardonnay 2011, Carneros Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. The last Carneros Chardonnay I reviewed from Cuvaison was the 2007; I rated it “Excellent.” Not this example. Pale to medium gold color; bright, bold, ripe, spicy; you feel the oak from the moment you take a sip; grapefruit and pineapple, notes of lemon and lemon curd; plays a subtle floral card; plenty of acid and limestone minerality; supple texture at first but it feels as if the wine stiffens and becomes slightly unyielding with oak, which coats the palate and leave an astringent sensation in the mouth. Perhaps a year or two will help. Good only. About $25.
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Davis Bynum River West Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. First note: “Man, that’s a lot of wood.” & it goes on from there. Medium gold color; insistently spicy and cloying; austere and astringent oak dries the palate unpleasantly; like drinking liquid sawdust. Not recommended and consistent with my reviews of Davis Bynum chardonnay (and pinot noir) from previous vintages. About $30.
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Dry Creek Vineyard Foggy Oaks Chardonnay 2010, Russian River valley. 13.5% alc. Medium gold color; apples, pears and grapefruit, undercurrent of pineapple, moderately spicy, firm foundation of gunflint and limestone; lovely balance and poise, shaped by vibrant acidity and a burgeoning oak element that provides a modulating quality to the wine’s richness. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $20, signifying Great Value.
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Ferrari-Carano Tre Terre Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. “Vineyard Select Limited Production.” Bright medium gold color; banana and mango, baked grapefruit and pineapple, cloves and smoke; big, deep, rich and savory; bacon fat, ginger, lemon balm, have mercy; feels like multiple layers of limestone and flint-like minerality; a bit daunting and needs a little nuance and elegance, but not over-oaked, not cloying. Perhaps it needs a year of age. Very Good+. About $32.
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Gallo Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. 87% Laguna Vineyard, 13% Del Rio Vineyard. I always thought the winemaker’s thumbprint — in this case Gina Gallo, whose name is on the front label twice — was too heavy on this wine; bright medium gold color; rich, warm, spicy, almost dense and chewy for a chardonnay; very ripe citrus and tropical scents and flavors; butterscotch, vanilla, cloves — what is this, a dessert cart? the oak and spice elements are overwhelming; so unbalanced. Not Recommended. About $30.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Pale gold color; fresh, clean, bright; pungent with cloves, slightly roasted peaches and yellow plums melded with pineapple and grapefruit with a whiff of white pepper; smoky oak, smoky caramel around the edges, quite dry yet feels innately balanced. Now through 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $35.
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Heller Estate Chardonnay 2011, Carmel Valley. 14.1% alc. Made from organically farmed vineyards. Mild gold color; classic pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors highlighted by pert green apple and hints of cloves and allspice; pert, too, is the bright acidity encompassing a soft burr of oak that supports the whole delicate structure. Engaging and drinkable. Very Good+. About $24.
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La Follette Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast. 13.3% alc. 510 cases. Medium gold color; oak, caramel, cloves, brown sugar and butterscotch; harsh, almost hard in its spiciness; monumentally oaky; actually felt unpleasant on my palate. Que pasa? Not Recommended. About $38. Interestingly, I rated the 2010 rendition of this wine “Excellent.”
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch-Morelli Lane Chardonnay 2010, Green Valley of Russian River Valley. 14.8% alc. Fewer than 120 cases. Medium gold color; rich, warm and spicy; pear, ginger and quince, candied lime peel and grapefruit rind, baked pineapple, toasted hazelnuts; very spicy, dense, almost viscous, creamy and cloying; dense with oak; the unpleasant sensations that feel like cloying, honeyed ripeness, austere dryness and Bananas Foster gone to the dark side. Not Recommended. About $65.
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La Rochelle Ferrington Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 14.6% alc. Fewer than 120 cases. On the other hand: Light straw-gold color; pear, jasmine, fig; pineapple and grapefruit; lovely body and structure, close to ineffable except that there’s also a seductive talc-like powderiness to the texture, all enlivened and checked by brisk acidity and a huge limestone element; quite Chablis like though with a subtle, supple oak background. Beautifully made. Now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $65.
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La Rochelle Rosella’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands. Monterey County. 14.9% alc. Fewer than 100 cases. On the other hand, again: Medium straw-gold color; very ripe, very spicy, dense and cloying, bastions of oak; mango, passionfruit, orange zest, lemon balm and lemon drop; the wood saps the vitality from your palate. Not recommended. About $65.
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Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. Pale gold-yellow; pineapple-grapefruit, lime peel, quince and ginger, notes of lilac and crushed gravel; vibrant and resonant, quite spicy, quite lemony and bright with clean acidity; oak begins to dominant but manages to stay balanced with the rest of the package, not pitch-perfect perhaps but close to target; could use more of the “chalk” element for which it is named. Very Good+. About $22.
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Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. Maybe this just needs a year but I feel the oak more powerfully in this 2010 version; not to damn with faint praise but at least its not overly ripe or cloyingly tropical or dessert-like, so it gets points there; wish it were better balanced though. Very Good. About $22.
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Sanford Chardonnay 2010, Santa Rita Hills. 14.2% alc. Mild straw-gold color; full-bodied, resonant, complete, confident; roasted lemon and lemon curd, touches of pear and grapefruit, notes of fig and quince, cloves and allspice, all beautifully balanced; ripe, spicy citrus flavors riven by acidity and tempered by heaps of limestone and shale; luscious yet almost rigorous; spice and mineral packed finish. Now through 2016 to ’17. Excellent. About $28.
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