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by Fred McMillin
for May 17, 2001


California Chardonnay...

How Good are the 1998's?



J.J. McHale Chardonnay 
"For the first time in years, the 1998 California Chardonnay vintage falls short of outstanding. You may want to shop for any 1997s and 1996s still on the market."

...James Laube, Wine Spectator


Let's Check It Out

The difficult growing year produced Chardonnay more acidic and less appealing than usual, according to the Spectator. For example, the previous four vintages averaged a 96 rating, while the 1998 came in at eighty five, down eleven points!

If that's the case, I figured even we normal mortals should be able to detect it. My panel has tasted blind a large number of 1996 through 1999 vintages in various price ranges. Here are the winners.


How did the 1998s Do?—California Chardonnays

Ivan Tamas Chardonnay

Our Best Chardonnay of the Winning Years 1996-1999

$10—Sierra Vista Winery, El Dorado County, 1999
$11—Meridian, Santa Barbara County, 1999
$13—Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County, 1997
$15—Beaulieu, Russian River Valley, 1999
$16—Sierra Vista Winery, El Dorado County, 1998
$17—This was a 1995. Fetzer Reserve, Sangiacomo Vineyard, Carneros
$20—Ivan Tamas Reserve, Central Coast, 1996 (see label)
$24—Chateau St. Jean, Alexander Valley, Robert Young Vineyard, 1997
$30—Grgich Hills, Napa Vally, 1998
$33—J.J. McHale, Redwood Valley, Lolonis Vineyard, 1999 (see label)


Was Laube Right?

There were 53 Chardonnays in the study, including 28 1998s. The '98s won only two of the above10 price groups. What doesn't show on the table is that the '98s came in last in 7 of the 10 groups. Laube was right!


Postscript—A "Chardenot" Footnote

We've been exploring Chardonnays of the nineteen nineties. How was the grape doing in the eighteen nineties in the Golden State? The foremost Napa Valley author, Prof. George Husmann, indicated the status of the "Chardenot" grape. In 1886 he wrote that while it had "high promise, [the variety] has not yet been well and thoroughly tested." But, just a decade later "the celebrated wine grape of Burgundy" had made his highly-recommended list of the 1890s!


About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers. For information about the wine courses he teaches every month at either San Francisco State University or San Francisco City College (Fort Mason Division), please fax him at (415) 567-4468.



This page created May 2001