Chardonnay is a somewhat two-faced grape. On one hand, it has a reputation as “cougar juice,” a starring role on Real Housewives, and a tendency to get big, blousy, and chock-a-block full of oak if the wrong person gets ahold of it. On the other hand, there are brilliant examples of this widely-grown white that will make you question everything you know about wine period.
Here are a handful of wines that run the gamut from supremely affordable to special-occasion-only. Count up your pennies and take your pick.
Peter Michael ‘Belle Cote’ Chardonnay, 2016
Sommeliers tend to get burnt out serving the same couple bottles over and over again. A lot of that is due to guests’ tendency to stick with the familiar, hence all those wine pros pushing obscure labels and weird varietals night after night, but if you want to watch your server perk up and get a little glitter in her eyes, order up a bottle of Peter Michael.
This legendary winery is heavily influenced by the equally legendary wineries of Burgundy and Burgundy. Every block is carefully chosen and planted based on microclimates and terroir, leading to wines that are biodynamically sound and utterly delicious. The winery has seen quite the parade of talent over the years; Helen Turley, Mark Aubert, Vanessa Wong, Luc Morlet, and Nicolas Morlet have all made their marks.
The Belle Cote Chardonnay is decades of winemaking mastery and Michael family vision turned into a mouthwatering bottle of wine. Decadent in both aroma and flavor, the Belle Cote is bursting with tropical fruit and lithe florals and just enough warm and toasty notes to keep the whole thing grounded. The piece de resistance? A ridiculously long finish that lingers and lingers — and you’ll still be surprised and saddened when it’s gone.
Local: Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay, 2014
To say Miljenko Grgich is an icon is somewhat underselling things. Mike, as he likes to be called, was the genius behind the Chardonnay that blew French wines away at the 1976 Paris Tasting, putting California wines on the map and forever changing how the world viewed American winemakers. He recently celebrated his 95th birthday, and winery operations are now in the capable hands of his daughter, Violet, and his nephew, Ivo Jeramaz, among others.
Mike may be retired, but his dedication to award-winning Chardonnay lives on. The 2014 Grgich Hills Chardonnay is a deftly balanced blend of tropical and stone fruit, a lashing of oak, zippy acidity, and a glint of minerality that cries out for a shellfish pairing.
A Little Far-Flung: Louis Latour Pouilly-Fuisse, 2016
People often assume that Burgundy – even whites – has to be prohibitively expensive, but like most things, there are deals to be had as long as you’re not of the “Grand Cru or bust” mindset. Louis Latour has brand recognition in spades, but their portfolio is diverse in both bottles and pricing.
This Chardonnay is from Pouilly-Fuisse, an appellation nestled in the Burgundy subset of Maconnais. Pouilly-Fuisse is actually synonymous with Chardonnay, as it’s the only varietal grown there, and the wines are known for being pale, refreshing, and delicate, though the influences of oak and minerally soil are still evident. The Latour in particular is all chalk and lemon pith with a round, appealing finish. There’s something zippy that bounces around the glass, adding another level of interest to a very approachable wine.
Out There: Arinzano Hacienda de Arinzano White, 2014
Most people don’t make for the Spanish section of their local wine store when a Chardonnay craving hits, but this lovely bottle is worth the detour. If Peter Michael is the elegant older sibling with a penchant for Schubert and leather-bound books, then Hacienda de Arinzano is the younger sister who followed the Grateful Dead and has a collection of scarves. The two share similarities and you can certainly love both, but there are distinct differences that are even more apparent when you enjoy them side by side.
Hacienda is a dance of citrus and floral with luscious underpinnings of honey, sticky dried fruit, and toasted nuts. It’s ripe and creamy with an edgy finish that begs to be included in a picnic lunch or backyard grilling session with the guys.