California’s 2011 chardonnay is in the market now, and – despite some weather challenges – it’s an excellent vintage.

Late frosts and a cool, rainy start to summer in some areas had growers worried, but a September heat wave saved the day.

In fact, it created a long growing season with plenty of “hang time” that made sure full flavors had developed by the time technical sugar measurement said it was time to pick.

Chardonnay always has been a chameleon grape – changing character readily by climate, ripeness and fermenting technique.

In California’s cool, foggy Russian River Valley it turns crisp and intensely fruity; in warmer climes it can be creamy and lush, spicy and caramel scented.

Aging in oak barrels can give it vanilla flavors; a secondary “malolactic” fermentation can soften its acids and create complex and creamy texture and buttery flavors.

Aging in stainless steel tanks, without oak exposure, on the other hand, can create crisp, purely fruity wines.

For example, Kendall-Jackson ages its “Vintner’s Reserve” Chardonnay in new oak barrels seeking a rich, creamy style; it makes its “Avant” Chardonnay mostly in stainless steel tanks for a crisp, intensely fruity style.

Shafer Vineyards grows its chardonnay in Napa’s cool Carneros area for intense fruit, foregoes the secondary fermentation, but ages 75 percent of it in expensive French oak barrels, achieving a superb complexity of flavors.

Put them all together and you have a varied crop of chardonnays – something for every taste.

It’s why chardonnay, despite increasing competition from other varieties, remains America’s favorite white wine.

Highly recommended:

• 2011 Shafer Chardonnay, “Red Shoulder Ranch,” Napa Valley, Carneros: subtle hint of oak, complex, shifting aromas and flavors of ripe tropical fruits and citrus, flan-like opulence, crisp, tart finish; $50.

• 2011 MacMurray Ranch Chardonnay, Russian River: rich and fruity, with aromas and flavors of ripe pears and peaches, opulent; $20.

• 2011 La Crema Chardonnay, Russian River Valley: rich and creamy, with flavors of ripe golden apples and spice; $30.


• 2011 Rodney Strong Vineyards Chardonnay, Sonoma County: hint of toasty oak, full aromas and flavors of golden apples and citrus, crisp acids; $15.

• 2011 Lost Canyon Chardonnay, Ruxton Vineyard, Russian River Valley: hint of oak, aromas and flavor of ripe apricots, crisp and citrusy finish; $35.

• 2011 Carmel Road Chardonnay, Arroyo Seco, Monterey: crisp and fruity, with ripe pear and lemon aromas and flavors; $18.

•2011 Cambria Estate Winery Chardonnay, Katherine’s Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley: hint of oak, crisp and fruity, with flavors of ripe pineapples and lemons; $22.

•2011 Amapola Creek Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Joseph Belli Vineyards: hint of oak, intense ripe pear and apricot flavors, crisp and minerally; $45.

•2011 Landmark Vineyards “Overlook” Chardonnay, Sonoma County: hint of oak, rich and creamy, with tropical fruit flavors; $25.

•2011 Kendall-Jackson “Vintner’s Reserve” Chardonnay, Calif.: hint of oak, rich tropical fruit flavors including ripe pineapples, creamy and smooth; $15.

•2011 Kendall-Jackson “Avant” Chardonnay, Calif.: intense fruit aromas and flavors of Granny Smith apples and lemons, lean and crisp; $15.

•2011 Clos LaChance Chardonnay, Monterey County: aromas and flavors of ripe tropical fruits and peaches, crisp finish, lush fruit; $11.

Fred Tasker has retired from the Miami Herald but is still writing about wine. He can be reached at