On a recent trip to Australia, I had the good fortune to visit the Hunter Valley for a long weekend of wine tasting. And what a gorgeous wine region!
Our first stop was the delightful Scarborough Winery where we were treated to a first class, sit down wine tasting at a linen covered table cloth in their dining room. I fell in love with this winery at first glance. Quiet. Elegant. This was an exceptional wine tasting experience.
Walked through our wine tasting by the super friendly, knowledgeable wine server, we sampled two current release chardonnays from their Classic Range and one from their Obsessive Range. But it was this Classic Yellow Label Scarborough 2013 from their museum collection that caught my attention and came home in my suitcase. (I know. The name “yellow label” conjures up images of another Australian wine that’s not so great. But this Scarborough Yellow Label chardonnay is not related, and it’s delicious!)
Aromas of pear, pineapple, peach and biscuit can be found in the nose. It’s medium bodied with a soft, round finish. Its flavor evokes mild stone fruit, perhaps partly from the peachy aroma. It’s a complex wine that keeps delivering more flavors. The color is golden yellow and the alcohol content is 13.5%. At six years old, this wine doesn’t suffer from its age – it was made to last. Back in 2016, the wine critics were recommending laying it down for a couple of years. Perhaps it’s because it was fermented and aged on lees in French oak for 12 months.
The best part of this wine? It was under $20. Can’t make it to “the Hunter?” Try wine-searcher.com or contact the winery directly. And come back again soon for more wine tasting in Australia…
Where have you been Chardy Girl? I’ve been to Australia, sampling chardonnays from one side of the country to the other. And I’m so excited to share more about my adventures!
But today, I want to tell you about a wine I tasted in the Mornington Peninsula just outside of Melbourne, Australia. This is one of the prettiest wine regions in Australia. This area has it all – beaches, sun, and wine tasting.
We rented a house from one of the local wineries in the town of Rosebud – Nazaaray – and they left a bottle of chardonnay for us as a welcome gift. How could they have known?
I employed my favorite wine tasting partner, Gary, and our daughter (who does not like chardonnay!) in sampling this delightful wine. Here are our thoughts:
Australia’s chardonnays are typically lighter in flavor and body than the California chardonnays I’m used to. This one is lightly toasted oak with a hint of vanilla in the nose. So far so good. The body is light, the wine is clean, and the color is pale straw yellow. It has a soft mouth feel with a smooth finish.
My fellow wine drinkers agreed, it’s elegant and clean. It was aged for over 10 months. Malolactic fermentation was part of the process.
The chardonnay sells for $45 Australian dollars or about $32 US dollars. The winery itself is gorgeous. If you find yourself in the Melbourne area, I highly recommend a visit to the Mornington Peninsula. You’ll love the wines, the beauty of this region, and the close proximity of the wineries to each other and to the beach towns of the Peninsula.
Mendocino County in Northern California offers a refreshing change of scenery and pace for wine lovers looking to taste more of California’s bounty. Harder to reach than busy Napa and Sonoma Counties, Mendocino County wineries just feel a little less crowded.
A trip to Mendocino usually means, for me, a weekend away with my sister and our husbands and that makes the winetasting experience so much more fun.
On our last trip, I realized we often return to the same wineries. I’m drawn to the chardonnay, of course, while my sister loves pinot grigio. Although we always try someplace new, these three wineries are my favorite places to drink chardonnay in Mendocino wine region:
Navarro Vineyards and Winery
One of the most beautiful wineries in Mendocino County, Navarro Vineyards, 5601 Highway 128, is a perfect stop for wine lovers. The tasting room is small but the patio and picnic grounds, overlooking the vineyards and surrounding hills, are spacious. Even on weekends, when the winery sees plenty of visitors, there are always adequate picnic tables and comfortable chairs to sit and sip wine.
My sister loves to pull one of the large comfortable wooden chairs close to the pinot grigio grapes planted adjacent to the picnic grounds and talk to them. That’s her favorite Navarro varietal and she thinks it helps them grow. I think she’s crazy but it’s fun!
I’m all about the chardonnay, obviously, and Navarro sells seven – count them – seven chardonnays! From the 2013 Premiere Reserve to their 2016 Barrel Fermented, all are delicious, making this one of my favorite places to wine taste.
The second stop we make is Scharffenberger Winery at 850 Highway 128. Scharffenberger’s shaded garden in front of the white house, converted to a tasting room, provides a delightful place to enjoy a picnic and share a bottle of wine. Best known for their sparkling wines, Scharffenberger does make a tasty unoaked chardonnay. But it’s the amazing sparkling chardonnay that draws me back there time and time again.
And last, I always visit Husch Winery at 4400 Highway 128 in Philo. Around since the early 80s, this unpretentious tasting room is housed in a converted pony barn dating back to the late 1800s. Their chardonnays reflect the typical Mendocino County characteristics for this varietal – luscious, complex and vibrant with flavors. Their 2016 chardonnay boasts pear and apple flavors. The finish is soft. And their prices are easy on the wallet.
Pack a Picnic Lunch and Enjoy the Scenery
So, if you make it up to this neck of the woods, pack a picnic lunch, prepare to slow down and enjoy the scenery. You’ll love the wines and you’ll love delightful Mendocino County.
Because Navarro Vineyards makes so many chardonnays, and my sister was kind enough to give me two bottles out of her wine club shipment, I thought it would be fun to try a couple of their most popular ones in a side by side tasting: 2016 Anderson Valley Chardonnay Premier Reserve and the 2016 Mendocino Chardonnay.
2016 Anderson Valley Premier Reserve
The 2016 Anderson Valley Premier Reserve was made from grapes grown in six different blocks from three vineyard sites. The Navarro philosophy is “complexity is more interesting than a singular flavor,” and I agree.
Light straw in color with hints of poached pear in the nose, I found this wine to be surprisingly delicate, almost elegant. Despite the use of French oak barrels and a primary and secondary malolactic fermentation, this is not a pronounce, oaky, buttery chardonnay. I tasted flavors of pear, red apple crisp and crème brulee. 13.9% in alcohol, the mouthfeel was soft and light on the palate.
This chardonnay would pair well with grilled lobster or a roasted chicken with thyme and oregano.
The wine retails for $27.00 for 750 ml or $15 for the smaller 375 ml. For people who can’t get enough of this chardonnay, it even comes in a magnum for $55.00
2016 Mendocino Chardonnay
The 2016 Mendocino Chardonnay was also pale yellow in color. Produced from nine separate lots from four vineyards sites in the warmer climate of Potter Valley, only 25% of this chardonnay went through malolactic fermentation. Higher in acidity than the Premier Reserve, this chardonnay is lighter, crisper, yet more fruit driven, and thus more flavorful to my taste. I detected hints of stone fruit in the nose, lemon and pineapple in the taste. With a polished style, lighter mouthfeel and softer finish than the Premier Reserve, this easy drinking wine pairs well with food.
I recommend a soft creamy cheese like brie, grilled trout, or even a pasta with a light cream sauce to pair with the Mendocino Chardonnay.
Only available in one size, 750 ml, the 2016 Mendocino Chardonnay retails for $22.00
Lucky for me, Gary and I are headed to Navarro over this long holiday weekend. I not only get to replace the two bottles we just drank, but I get to sample the other five wines on their tasting menu.
Welcome back to the final blog in a series on small town Sonoma wine tasting. If you missed the prior articles, you can catch up here.
With 25 tasting rooms right in town, it was hard to choose and certainly not enough time to cover them all! But I have one more to share with you, located in the Ledson Hotel, on 1st Street East. The lobby of this historic hotel transforms into a comfortable lounge around a glowing fire (most welcome on the cold day we were there) and a long bar with chairs along the side wall. The tasting room offers samples of wines from Ledson Winery and Zina Hyde, with plenty of chardonnay options.
My favorite was the Ledson 2015 Russian River Chardonnay Reserve. A little pricey at $52.00, but this full bodied, creamy wine was delicious with subtle notes of toasted oak in the nose. The palate was layered with hints of crème brulee and butterscotch, typical characteristics of a Russian River chardonnay.
Two More Restaurants Worth Trying
In the first three blogs, I covered some excellent restaurants, especially La Salette and the famous Girl and The Fig. To add to the list, here are two more I would recommend:
Mary’s Pizza Shack at 8 West Spain street, a chain restaurant in Northern California, might not be your top choice in this town full of gourmet restaurants. But the fire on the patio drew us in on a cold, rainy day and we’re glad we stopped by. The menu is full of Italian and comfort food options, but the wedge salad was one of the best we’ve ever eaten. Drizzled with Italian and chunky blue cheese dressing, topped with tomatoes and bacon, focaccia bread on the side, this was the perfect size lunch. Gary ordered a bowl of their homemade minestrone soup with ham. Also, delicious!
Sonoma Grille and Bar, at 165 W. Napa Street, frequented by locals and tourists alike, was packed on this cold, rainy night in the middle of the week. Thinking that was a good sign, we stopped in there for dinner on our second night. Seafood and steak are both great options at this place. The fact that our server from the Lake Sonoma wine tasting room earlier that day was dining there that evening just confirmed our guess about the quality of the restaurant.
The vibe here is comfortable and wait staff super friendly. A handful of window seats make this place a little more fun – people watching while eating and dining. The restaurant includes a bar with ten seats that were fully occupied with locals enjoying a conversation, hand crafted cocktails, and appetizer plates of crispy calamari, cheeses and artichoke topped flatbread.
Places to Stay
For overnight stays, there are plenty of hotels on the Plaza or within nearby walking distance including MacArthur Place, a 64-room luxury hotel and spa just four blocks from the Plaza; the Best Western Sonoma Valley Inn, just one block from the Plaza; Sonoma Hotel, a 16-room historic boutique hotel on Sonoma Plaza; and Ledson Hotel, a luxury hotel with six guestrooms on Sonoma Plaza.
For more information on the town of Sonoma, wine tasting rooms, lodging, and restaurants, visit: SonomaPlaza.com.
Now park your car, wander through the historic trappings of small town Sonoma, and enjoy some of the best wines that Sonoma County has to offer.
Welcome back to my series about small-town Sonoma! We spent three days exploring the town’s many wine tasting rooms in search of the perfect chardonnay. If you missed Part One, you can catch up with it here.
With 25 tasting rooms in easy walking distance of each other, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by choices. We loved our first stop at Lake Sonoma Winery, but it was time to find lunch.
Just on the other side of the Plaza, we stopped by the Sonoma Cheese Factory, specializing in authentic barbeque, on 2 Spain Street.
The pulled pork sandwich caught our attention and was just as delicious to eat as it looked on the plate. Sonoma Cheese Factory also offers wine tasting. You can enjoy a flight of wines if you want to sample more of Sonoma’s offerings or just order a glass of local wine with your lunch. A gourmet store as well, this place is perfect for putting together a picnic lunch. In business for over 85 years, it’s easy to see why this place Is so popular.
Next, we headed to Pangloss Cellars Tasting Lounge, at 35 East Napa Street. Housed in a refurbished building built in 1902, the tasting lounge is cavernous. Visitors can relax at the large tasting bar in the back of the room or enjoy food and wine pairings in the vintage arm chairs and couches nested around coffee tables along either side of the room. At the back of the room, facing the tasting bar, is a dramatic wall of wine bottles. The lounge itself is handsomely appointed. Rock walls, rustic timber supports, exposed beams in the ceiling, and wood floors harken back to the building’s original purpose – a general store.
Seated at the tasting bar, we were served by the knowledgeable and gracious, Allisa. The tasting fee was pricey, at $25 per person, but the experience was well worth it! Plan to spend the afternoon here – as the pace is relaxed, educational, and the tasting menu generous. We tried the 2015 Chardonnay made with 30% new French oak. As Allisa, explained, the winemaker doesn’t like “a stick of butter or an overly oaked chardonnay” so he doesn’t do anything to affect the malolactic fermentation. Whatever happens, the winemaker lets it happen naturally. With a clean nose, this chardonnay is bright and crisp but still creamy and lightly oaked. 376 cases produced, the wine retails for $35.
After nearly two hours enjoying a delightful tasting experience of whites and reds, it was time to think about dinner.
That evening we dined on gourmet Portuguese cuisine at La Salette, 452 First Street East, a popular restaurant. We added the optional wine pairing with dinner. Generous pours, perfectly paired with the appetizers, entrees and dessert, allowed us to sample more Sonoma County wines and provided an extra special dining experience. I do recommend making reservations in advance as this sophisticated, tile-mural trimmed bistro has quite a local following.
After dinner, a leisurely stroll around the Plaza was the perfect way to end a perfect day. In Part Three of this series, I’ll tell you about two more delightful wine tasting rooms that I highly recommend and why, plus another restaurant that you’ll want to try!
Be sure to sign up for my distribution list or follow me on Twitter (@chardygirl) and I’ll let you know when the next in the series is out! Until then, I’ll keep on the hunt for the “perfect” chardonnay.
Sonoma County, along with Napa and several other areas in California, suffered devastating wildfires last fall. Tragically, lives, jobs, homes and businesses were lost. The fires also took a toll on tourism, the lifeblood for wine regions, as many out of towners still think that Napa and Sonoma burnt down. But they didn’t and are advertising heavily for customers to come back. So, we decided to head to Sonoma County and do our small part for the economy. And, of course, enjoy some fabulous wines.
Renowned for its chardonnay, and just a one-hour drive from my home, Sonoma County is one of my favorite wine regions. Rolling green hills planted with miles and miles of grapevines, pedestrian friendly small towns, and more than 400 wineries, located in six wine growing regions, make this part of Northern California a big draw for wine lovers.
With 18 different AVAs spread over 1,768 square miles, it would take even the most dedicated wine lover to properly sample this region’s chardonnays. Fortunately, the small town of Sonoma – not to be confused with the County of Sonoma – provides 25 wine tasting rooms all within walking distance in the center of town. Spread around Sonoma Plaza, an 8-acre historic, Mexican-era style plaza, the biggest dilemma was where to start.
After parking the car at our hotel, my husband and favorite wine tasting partner, Gary, and I walked a few short blocks to the Lake Sonoma tasting room at 134 Church Street. The winery converted one of the town’s older houses into its tasting room and this recently refurbished tasting room feels like visiting the home of a friend. As Kelly, the tasting room manager, explained, “the life of the party is always in the kitchen. The winery turned the kitchen counter of this former home into the tasting room’s serving bar. Surround by barstools, this feels like a comfortable spot to sit, sip, and savor the wines. What a refreshing change from the usual, crowded “belly up to the bar” seen at so many other wineries.
The adjacent lounge, fashioned out of the former living room, is designed for customers who want to relax and enjoy a glass or bottle of wine. A comfortable couch with pillows and a blanket, as well as leather chairs are nicely arranged for this purpose. And the former dining room, complete with a dining table and comfortable chairs, serves as a place for wine club events and special wine and food pairings.
But we went there for the wines, so we settled onto bar stools to sample chardonnays from this well-known winery. They make five chardonnays, four from the Russian River Valley. Sonoma County is home to some of the most diverse terroirs and micro-climates in the world and the Russian River Valley, I think, produces some of the most outstanding chardonnays. We tasted the 2014 Lake Sonoma Winery, Russian River Valley and the 2016 Madrone Estate Winery (their sister winery in Glen Ellen), Sonoma Valley Chardonnay.
The 2014 chardonnay is an excellent example of fruit from the Russian River Valley. Hints of light oak and orange blossoms in the nose, followed by layers of vanilla and lemon cream in the palate combine for a delightful wine from start to finish. Partial fermentation in stainless steel produces a medium bodied wine with crisp acidity. Light-straw in color, 14.4% in alcohol, sells for $30.00 at the winery.
The newly released 2016 Madrone Estate Chardonnay from Sonoma Valley was my favorite of the two. The winery’s first estate grown wine from their Sonoma Valley estate produced a soft and creamy chardonnay. Aromas of vanilla and toffee come through, followed by flavors of crème brulee and a hint of butterscotch in the palate. With the perfect amount of acidity, this wine is delicious on its own, but would pair well with creamy foods. Light-straw colored, 14.1% in alcohol, retails for $40.00 at the winery.
We dined, shopped, talked to locals and tasted at four wineries in a few short days and I have so many more recommendations for you. But, I’ll stop here today and follow with more about the other wineries we visited, and even a few restaurants, in a short series of blogs on Sonoma, California.
Be sure to sign up for my distribution list and I’ll let you know when the next in the series is out! Until then, I’ll keep on the hunt for the “perfect” chardonnay.
Dedicated to finding that perfect chardonnay, I’ve been tasting and blogging about my favorite varietal for almost two years. It’s hard to believe that much time has passed, so thanks for following my experiments and adventures.
People often ask me if I’ve found the perfect chardonnay yet and I must say, “No.” Because when I find the perfect chardonnay, the hunt is over and I won’t need to write this blog anymore. But, I will share with you my favorite chardonnays, just in case you haven’t figured a few out by reading my blog. Not in any particular order, here are my favs:
Matchbook Winery’s Arsonist Chardonnay – This is a beautiful winery, up the road on Interstate 5, past Woodland, near the town of Zamora, looking over the gorgeous Dunnigan Hills. At different times, they’ve made up to five different chardonnays, but the Arsonist is my favorite.
Alpha Omega Chardonnay– I just reviewed this one and it is almost perfect (except it’s a little pricey for my blood). But, I thank my dear friends and neighbors for introducing me to this Napa Valley wine. They are wine club members, thankfully, so they didn’t pay full price. It’s worth a splurge once in a while.
Bogle Reserve Chardonnay – I can’t believe I have never reviewed this wine. I checked all my blogs and there is not one review. Sure, I’ve written about Bogle for Sacramento Lifestyle Magazine (twice) and written about the winery in my blog, but no chardonnay review. I’ll rectify that soon, but in the meantime, visit the winery and try this wine!
Together, we’ve covered chardonnays from other parts of the world as well as my own backyard. I’ve had the good fortune to visit wineries in Sonoma, Paso Robles, Mendocino, Amador, the Delta, South America, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and most recently, France. Winetasting along the way is one of the most wonderful aspects of travel.
It’s been a blast and everywhere I find wonderful, delicious chardonnay. In fact, chardonnay carries the distinction as the world’s most famous white wine and most widely planted grape. So, it’s fitting that there is an International Chardonnay Day, today, May 25, 2017.
On this most special (to me) of days, we are headed to the land of Oz, where the nickname, “Chardy Girl” was penned and stuck. (You can read the original story here.) The lucky Aussies, they have a whole month to celebrate wine, from May 1 – 31. Our plane arrives just in time to help them celebrate by tasting some of those delicious Yarra Valley chardonnays.
And you know what that means! The next few blogs will be featuring Australian chardonnays. So enjoy! Happy International Chardonnay Day! Cheers!
Last on our tour through Sonoma County and the search for exceptional wine tasting experiences was Keller Estate. Located in the southern part of Sonoma County off Lakeville Highway, this Petaluma Gap winery is open by appointment only (although a quick phone call ahead usually gets you in right away, 707.765.2117). When you arrive, expect to be seated, not ushered up to a crowded winetasting counter. The feel here is luxurious and the pace of wine tasting is leisurely. Knowledgeable wine servers share information about the winery and serve popcorn popped in the winery’s estate produced olive oil, with a side of olive oil for dipping. While this might seem like an unusual pairing for wine tasting, the olive oil is quite delicious and the popcorn and olive oil flavors don’t detract from the wines.
Our first visit to Keller was exactly this kind of experience. 90 minutes tasting four wines in the tasting room, overlooking the vineyards and learning about the chardonnays, pinots and the Rotie being poured that day. But our return visit was so amazingly over the top and indulgent that I would happily repeat the experience. Called their Serenity and Wine Brunch, this is a three course, gourmet feast paired with estate wines. For $65 per person or $50 for club members, this is an excellent way to sample the Keller wines.
Brunch is served on the Vineyard Terrace with sweeping views of the vineyards, olive groves and Mt. Tamalpais. Seating is family style at a long, elegantly set table. Be prepared to get to know your table mates as the wine is poured. And, servings are generous! We started with a crisp, dry rose, worked our way through three different chardonnays, sampled a couple of pinot noirs, the Rotie and ended with a sparkling wine.
We even received a special treat at the end. With temperatures hovering around 100 degrees that weekend, Brian, our host, had set up the wine cave earlier in case we needed to sit inside. While we did enjoy most of our meal on the vineyard terrace, Brian kindly invited us back to the cave to cap off the afternoon with dessert and sparkling wine. We parted ways with our new found friends, purchased some favorite wines, then set off on the road wondering how we were ever going to just be able to walk into an ordinary wine tasting room again and belly up to that crowded bar!
So there, dear readers, is the last of our Sonoma County exceptional wine tasting experiences. It was fun. It was indulgent. It gave us unique and up close opportunities to learn more about Sonoma County wines and sharpen our wine tasting skills. Impress your friends or impress your date. Guaranteed that any one of these five experiences will do the trick!
Rodney Strong is a striking and dramatic winery. Upon arrival you might quickly draw the conclusion that this is one of those wineries owned by a giant corporation charging $20 per tasting and drawing throngs of wine lovers to its tasting room. But it’s not; in fact Rodney Strong is family owned and proud of it. The winery makes great wine but a visit there provides so much more. During the summer time, the winery sponsors concerts in its outdoor amphitheater and wine and food pairings on the terrace. It was the latter that brought us back to Rodney Strong for another exceptional wine tasting experience.
On this particular trip to Sonoma, we were seeking “exceptional” wine tasting experiences. We first got the idea when we visited Rodney Strong last fall. By exceptional, I mean we are seeking either a beautiful setting, or a leisurely seated wine tasting experience, or a gourmet food and wine pairing, or an otherwise unique and special wine tasting experience.
For $55.00 per person, the winery offers a leisurely paced food pairing of small, gourmet bites with five different wines. Seated at an umbrella shaded table overlooking the expansive picnic grounds and vineyards, we were offered an envelope with cards describing the menu of soon-to-come food delights and winemakers notes for each of the wines. The food was prepared by Chef Tara Wachtel and served by Greg, a long-time employee, former home winemaker, jazz pianist, and general expert of our favorite drink, wine.
Rodney Strong did not disappoint. Nearly two hours, six courses, and five wines later (plus a few extra tastings), we were feeling thoroughly relaxed and very satisfied. We walked away with a greater knowledge and appreciation for the wines that are produced in Sonoma County and thoroughly impressed with the Rodney Strong staff that made us feel like special friends just visiting for lunch.
Call ahead and reserve a time for your own exceptional wine tasting experience. You’ll find it hard to go back to the old process of standing in a crowded wine tasting room, elbowing your way to the wine counter.