Chardonnay. It’s a grape that makes many wine lovers shudder. I blame the over-oaked, buttery, flabby chardonnays coming out of California. The overly tropical ones coming from Down Under aren’t doing us any favors either. I’m talking about barrel fermented chardonnay here, by the way. Gary over at Wine Library TV complains about these wines and the "Oak Monster." And he’s right.

There was even a time when I turned my nose up at
barrel-fermented chardonnay because so few winemakers seemed to know how to use
oak judiciously–as a spice rather than main component.

Local wineries fell into this trap as well, resulting in gawky,
disjointed wines that did both the grape and the region a disservice.

But in the wine world, there are always exceptions. I’ve always
found the chardonnays made by Roman Roth at Wolffer Estate Vineyards exceptional
in a lake of local chardonnay.

For casual, everyday sipping, I always enjoy Wolffer’s La Ferme
Martin Chardonnay ($14)
. The current release, from the 2004 vintage, is
fermented mostly in stainless steel, preserving the bright fruit and fresh acidity that
this wine is known for. Crisp pear, citrus and just a little minerality are the
calling cards here. 15% barrel fermentation lends just the most subtle
creaminess on the finish.

For the Wolffer Estate 2003 Reserve Chardonnay ($18), Roth
fermented more than 80% of the juice in French oak, but it’s not overbearing or
heavy handed. The oak monster is around, but he’s not in your face. The fruit is still at the forefront here, but it’s joined by
toasty, nutty aromas and a pear-driven palate is joined by roasted nuts, spicy
yeasty notes and a little honeyed citrus on the finish. Malolactic
fermentation was only allowed to 80% completion, which brings a liveliness and balances the wine.

Like I said, I used to eschew barrel-fermented chardonnay, but wines like Wolffer Estate’s 2003 Estate Selection
Chardonnay ($27)
are the reason I don’t anymore. It’s fermented 100% in French
oak (20% new) and it is among the best barrel fermented chardonnays around. The nose
is toasty, as you’d expect, but ripe peaches and apricots are joined by marshmallows toasted
over a bonfire, providing depth and complexity on the nose. Medium-to-full bodied,
the stone fruit flavors are rich and mouth-filling with more subtle toasty oak
and vanilla play beneath. Perfectly balanced by acidity, there is an intriguing
kiwi note on a very lengthy finish.

Roth is the maker of the East Coast’s most expensive, luxurious
merlot, Wolffer’s Premier Cru Merlot ($125). With chardonnay like this one, can a Premier Cru Chardonnay be far behind?

Visit www.wolffer.com for more information or to order.