Wine Time with Aaron the Wine Guy

Hello Prince Albert! It’s that time again where I take two Chardonnays and put them face to face to see which reigns supreme. Of course, this is based on my personal taste, but I also take into account the technical aspect of each wine. In the end, the one I enjoyed most is crowned the winner. Are you a fan of Chardonnay? The only way to find out is to get out there and taste it!

In most of these Chardonnay Showdown columns, I compare a budget-friendly wine with a premium option. This week, I took a taste of two premium Chards from the USA: the Josh Reserve 2021 and a newer brand from Washington called Substance (2020 Vintage). The marketing on the Josh is very simple and clean with its cream-colored label and elegant writing while the Substance Chard uses the minimalistic aesthetic of the periodic table for inspiration (the letters Ch with a simple square border).

What is the difference between the Josh Reserve and the regular Josh Chardonnay? I don’t have a specific answer but one difference between reserve and non-reserve wines is often the quality of grapes, heavier use of MLF (malolactic fermentation) and oak aging. Reserve wines tend to be richer, fuller, more complex and they also have a longer finish which means more flavor to savor.

The Josh Reserve is from an AVA (American Viticultural Area) called North Coast which contains some of the most famous regions of California including Napa, Sonoma, Marin, Lake, Mendocino and Solano counties. The North Coast AVA has a close proximity to the Pacific Ocean which cools the region with chilled winds, plenty of precipitation and regular fog. Winters are mild which means the yearly swing of temperatures from season to season is moderate. Due to all of these factors, grapes generally grow slowly in the North Coast and develop softer, fruit forward flavors with less acidity and more roundness.

How do the wines of Washington compare to California? The region known as Columbia Valley is the biggest vineyard-planted AVA in Washington, producing 99% of the grapes in the region in over 50,000 acres of vineyards. Like the North Coast, Columbia Valley is a large area with many sub-regions or “micro-zones” inside, including Wahluke Slope, Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain, Walla Walla Valley, Yakima Valley, Ancient Lakes, Snipes Mountain, Lake Chelan and Rattlesnake Hills. Each sub-region has its own AVA status and grapes that they specialize in, but Chardonnay and Cab Sauv are widely planted.

Wines of the Columbia Valley (or Washington in general) are focused on fruit-forward flavors with some of the European style. The wines lean more into acidity and barrel-finishing, lending a touch of balanced bitterness to its wines; this is achieved due to the colder winters and long, dry, growing seasons with lower precipitation and lower humidity levels. This region also doesn’t have a mitigating factor like the Pacific to absorb and redistribute warmth and thus, diurnal (day to night) swings are higher with warm days and cool nights. Due to this swing in temperatures, acidity levels become slightly elevated and the fruit sometimes needs more help from oak-aging to soften and shape the style of the wine.

Both Chardonnays this week were excellent and while close to $40 for a bottle of white can be high, the wines bring the quality and flavor I expect at this price range. I adored the creamy fullness and coconut inflected fruit of the Substance while the Josh was crisp and spicy (baking spice) with a touch more acidity (more to my liking). It’s a difficult decision this week but I would choose the Josh Reserve over the Substance. To be honest, I would be happy to drink either wine! Here are my wine picks of the week!            

Josh Reserve Chardonnay 2021: (North Coast, California). Off-dry white, medium lemon color. The bouquet of this wine is crisp and clean with intense lemon curd, stone fruits (peaches, pears), brioche, vanilla and a hint of creamy cheese. Medium-intense on the palate with bright lemon, floral notes, apples, pears and peaches. Medium acidity adds enough zip for the wine to taste crisp and a touch of soft buttery flavor comes in right after the fruit begins to fade. The floral notes stick beautifully to the sides of the cheeks and linger into the long finish of spice (nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla). Joining these warming baking spice notes is that clean stone fruit character, and a gentle buzz of acidity. The full-bodied textures of this Chard are soft and fruity at first, but the additional notes of spice and flowers combined with balanced acidity make this an interesting sipping wine. Focusing the mind helps pinpoint individual flavors but everything blends together exceptionally well. Pair with crab salad, seafood chowder or creamy cheese. Very good! $36, 14.5% ABV     

Substance Chardonnay 2020: (Columbia Valley, Washington). Dry to off-dry white, medium lemon color. The medium-intense nose is fruity and buttery with aromas of coconut, orange candies, apples, juicy pineapple and vanilla. The creamy character carries over onto the palate with a full-bodied mix of deliciously ripe fruits (pineapple, orange, apples) and a buttery, soft mouthfeel. Creamy notes of coconut intertwine with flavors of Campino candies (orange and tropical fruits) on the mid-palate, but the wine doesn’t taste too sweet. Medium intensity allows the fruit to sit gently on the tastebuds and medium-plus concentration adds a touch of vibrancy. Once the fruit flavors have settled, medium-plus acidity refreshes the mouth and quickly cleans the palate. Meanwhile, the wine ends on a bit of a spicy note (a hint of pepper or cinnamon) and a twist of floral flavor. The long finish makes you want another sip of fruity/creamy goodness which makes this Chard difficult to put down. Very good! $36, 13.5% ABV   

Cheers and thanks for reading!