Looking for a good yet reasonably priced Chardonnay or Cabernet is getting more and more difficult these days. It seems that the average price for these popular wines from leading producers is close to $20 to $25 a bottle. That’s pretty steep for an everyday wine or when you’re entertaining more than six. The popularity of these two varieties is one of the major reasons. The old supply/demand rule is at work. In fact, as Merlot and even Zinfandel gain in their appeal, their prices are also beginning to soar. So what do we do when we have champagne taste and a beer pocketbook?
One answer is to search out either second labels or alternative bottlings from trusted producers. These wines are generally less expensive since their grapes are often from younger vines or from multiple rather than single vineyards. Sometimes producers will use the grapes that did not meet the standards of their reserve or meritage labels or will purchase grapes from vineyards other than their own. The results are often well-crafted wines that are intended for consumption upon release or shortly thereafter. After all, producers like Stags Leap, Mondavi, or Markham are not going to put their names on poorly made wines.
So this month we decided to look at some of these second label and, for want of a better term, value-line wines. We chose to focus on a single varietal, Chardonnay, so that we would have grounds for comparison and also because we’ve been accused of favoring red wines on our site. I must admit though that I get no kick from domestic Chardonnay and had to rely on our other tasters for objectivity. I am happy to report that we found many good values in this tasting, which comprised nine wines (8 from California and one from Oregon) and that ranged in price from $9.99 to $11.99.
I should also note that one of these wines, Kendall Jackson’s 1997 Vintners Reserve Chardonnay, is neither a second nor alternative label but, because it is so popular, was used as a benchmark. As is our custom, we tasted the wines first by themselves and then with food. The meal was a simple roast chicken and oven-roasted rosemary potatoes.
After tasting some of these wines, you may find yourself even asking for thirds.
1997 Kendall Jackson, Chardonnay “Vintners Reserve,” California, ($10.99). As mentioned above, this wine is not a second label, but because of its popularity we used it as a benchmark for the tasting. Pale straw in color, it has a buttery nose with some herbaceousness. It’s smooth and buttery on the tongue with melon and citrus (mostly tangerine) flavors. It has a good mid palate and good acidity and an adequate finish. There’s nothing to offend. In fact, it improved with the food.
1999 Estancia, Chardonnay, “Pinnacles,” Monterey County, ($10.99). Estancia was originally the value line from Franciscan and is now part of the “Franciscan group.” They have concentrated on producing well-made, moderately priced wines. Straw in color, the wine has a pleasant citrusy nose with hints of butter and earthy undertones. On the palate, it’s a little thin with mostly citrus flavors. It has an adequate finish. One taster thought, however, it had a “soapy” aftertaste. The wine improved greatly with the food and there was no trace of an aftertaste.
1996 Glass Mountain Quarry, Chardonnay, California, ($9.99). This wine is cellared and bottled by Markham Vineyards. Straw in color with a nice vanilla and honeysuckle nose, it has a smooth entry and is buttery on the tongue. It has good acidity with mostly grapefruit flavors on the tongue and especially on the finish. The wine is a little thin.
1997 Clos Julien, Chardonnay, “Talley Vineyards,” San Luis Obispo County ($11.99). I have reason to believe this is Talley’s entry among moderately priced wines. The wine has a golden hue with a big floral nose with hints of fennel. Full bodied with good acidity, the wine has some subtle peach flavors but over all not a lot of flavor. It was disappointing after the bouquet, but this was another wine that improved considerably with food. One taster remarked: “The food enhances the wine’s flavors.”
1996 Lorane Valley, Chardonnay, Oregon ($9.99). I am told this wine is associated with King. Pale straw in color, it has what one taster labeled a “diaper-pail” nose; perhaps a little too much sulfur. The wine is thin, with flat grassy flavors and an adequate finish. This wine, however, improved considerably with the food and its acidity here was a plus. Its unpleasant nose also seemed to disappear.
1997 Hawk Crest, Chardonnay, California ($9.99). This is Stag’s Leap’s second label. Pale straw in color with butter and vanilla on the nose with hints of pear. It has a good entry and is full bodied. On the palate, it’s buttery with hints of bitter almond. It also has a nice finish. The wine only got better with the food. Definitely one of the stars of this tasting.
1997 Robert Mondavi, Coastal Chardonnay, Central Coast ($10.99). This is one of Mondavi’s value line wines. Straw colored with a big nose of butter and figs, the wine has a smooth entry followed by buttery and nectarine flavors. It also has an adequate finish. This was one of the better wines of the evening.
1997 Hess Select, Chardonnay, California ($11.99). This is the second label of Hess. Straw in color, the wine has a big nose with some oak and pears together with butter and herbaceous undertones. Citrusy flavors burst on the tongue. It’s full bodied and forward. It also has a pleasant minerally finish. One taster labeled it a “sophisticated Chardonnay.” Fine with the food as well. This was another star of the tasting.
1997 Echelon, Chardonnay, Central Coast. ($11.99). This wine is produced by Chalone Wine Estates. Pale gold in color, the wine has a vanilla and buttery nose. It has a smooth entry as well as good body and acidity. On the tongue, it’s buttery with citrus and pineapple flavors. It also has a good finish. Yet one more star of this tasting, this was also one of my wines of the week. (It seems to have gone up in price, but even at this price it’s a good value.)
TableWine is a personal website and does not sell any wine. However, many of the wines we review are purchased from our local wine merchant, Wine & Spirit World. Their web site may help you locate a good number of our selections.
If you have any suggestions for future tastings, drop us a line at the address below.