A Tale of Two Chardonnays: Part 1 (Cameron Hughes)

chardI like good Chardonnay. Still.

Even though we’re all supposed to be jumping on the New Zealand Sauv Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, and Italian White bandwagon, I still crave my richer, oakier, more hedonistic Chardonnay.

I know it’s not cool! But I still want some oak in my white wine.

Not too much, mind you. I agree that the “chewing-on-a-two-by-four” style of California Chard is way out of balance and not fun to drink. But after years of tasting and reading technical notes I’ve pieced together a “style profile” for my ideal Chardonnay: my Nirvana in a Glass will see only partial ML (malolactic fermentation), and a gentle treatment with French oak — not 100%, and not new barrels.

What will all that get me? A full-bodied but balanced Chardonnay, with richness on the palate, some crispness on the finish, and a little butterscotch along the way. I’ve had some great Chards that fit my profile, and they’re always priced upwards of $25 (try Kenneth Volk Santa Maria Cuvee 2007, or Ortman Edna Valley 2007). But is it possible to get this style for an everyday price?

Apparently it is. I’ve just discovered two California whites that I’d happily drink any day.

The first is Cameron Hughes California Chardonnay 2009, which is part of a new series from the smart California negociant and marketer (you can read my background article on Cam Hughes and a review of his Lot 190 Cabernet: ¬†“The Rise of the American Negociant”.) Until ¬†recently, Cam Hughes wines were marketed in “Lots,” each one a bottling of surplus juice from a respected appellation. Each was a one-time offering and when it was gone, it was gone.

The new “California Series” is a more traditional model: he’ll source his juice from “top vineyards and wineries across California” and each variety will be available vintage after vintage. There are currently two wines in the series, a Meritage and the Chardonnay I tasted.

I don’t know where or from whom he’s getting this Chardonnay, but I liked what I tasted. There was lots of warm, ripe fruit on the palate, with a little nuttiness and a rich, creamy mouthfeel. The finish showed some of that gentle butterscotch and enough acid and crispness to balance the richness. It was fresh and luscious, and I could drink it all day.

And I could afford to drink it all day: at around $12, this represents great value for the money (a Cam Hughes trademark).

My second “go-to” $12 Chardonnay will be revealed tomorrow. But in the meantime, go grab a bottle of the Cam Hughes and find a deck to drink it on. Set a bowl of toasted almonds and cashews beside you, and life will seem very, very good. Cheers!

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