some of the more colorful and elaborate Chardonnay packaging
This is a report on 230 domestic Chardonnays representative of what can be found on grocery store shelves in Northern California. Many of these Chardonnays can be found in grocery stores in the 35 states in the U.S. where wine sales at such stores are permitted. This is the first time such a comprehensive critical tasting and analysis has been done of widely distributed grocery store Chardonnays.
The full report on my website here includes detailed tasting notes, ratings both by price range and alphabetically, an assessment of alcohol levels and styles of wine available, and a look at that fact that over 37% of the 230 wines rated are owned by only eight wine firms.
I selected Chardonnay as the varietal to examine since it's both the most widely represented wine grape varietal in grocery stores (approximately 10% of varietal wines) and the most widely planted wine grape in California. It's also one of the world's premier grape varieties, capable under ideal conditions of producing sublime and long aging wines as well as vast quantities of perfectly adequate raw material that is highly manipulable through winemaking techniques.
Some of the insights I gained from this survey can be summarized briefly as follows:
• My scores on these wines ranged widely, from 75 to 92 points
• My average score was 85.8 points (i.e., slightly above average)
• Prices ranged from $3 to $41 before sales tax
• Very drinkable (86 to 87 point) wines can be obtained for as low as $7-9
• While high QPR (quality price ratio) wines can be found at virtually all price points, the highest rated wines (92 and 91+ points) can be found at the $15-20, $20-25 and $30-and-above price ranges
• The $26-30 range contains surprisingly few highly rated wines
• Three U.S. wine firms are responsible for nearly 17% of these wines, and the top eight wine firms own over 37% of these labels
• Nearly 16% of these grocery store Chardonnays exhibited relatively high residual sugar (sweetness)
• Less than 14% of these wines were bottled under screwcap
• 6% of the wines were affected by TCA (i.e., cork taint) and/or oxidation
The ideal place to buy wines, of course, is a dedicated wine store. Top quality, artisanal wines are made in relatively small quantities, from very limited fruit sources, so simply can't be produced in the quantities required by nationwide chain stores.
Supermarkets also rarely have on hand someone knowledgeable about wine and what they carry to offer advice and counsel. Moreover, such outlets often turn the stocking of their shelves over to one or more of the country's major wine and spirits distributors, meaning that although there may be dozens of labels on the shelf, many of them are owned by or in the portfolio of Constellation, E&J Gallo, The Wine Group or one of the other major wine firms.
Nonetheless, since dedicated wine retailers aren't available in many towns and because lots of people have asked over the years for recommendations on what to buy at the supermarket, I decided to see if there were choices available at a typical grocery store that I might be able to recommend.
I was happy to learn that very drinkable, good quality wines can be found for as low as $6 to $9 at supermarkets. I found 15 wines at this price level. My top recommendation at this price point is Ravenswood Vintners Blend (Constellation Wines) at 87 points. This wine has good varietal character and is balanced, meaning that it has good balancing acidity.
shelves of Chardonnay at a Lucky Store
In the under $6 range, my highest rating was 85+ points for ForestVille from Bronco Wine Estates. The other nine Chards at this level, priced between $3 and $5.99, ranged in scores from 76 to 83 points. I'd be hard pressed to recommend any of those wines, nearly all of which are non-vintage bottlings sourced from grapes throughout California (i.e., with no appellation identified except "California"). This is also a fast shrinking category, as market reports the last few years have shown consumers have been trading up from this price point to wines priced at $10 and higher.
In the $10 to $12 price range, the number of available labels jumped to 39. The highest rated for me, at 87 points, was Chateau Ste. Michelle from Washington State, at an average price of $10. Also close behind, at 86+ points, were A by Acacia and the 2012 bottling of Lucinda & Millie from California's Mendocino County.
My scores start to climb at the $13 to $15 level--consisting of 42 wines-with two 89 point wines, Rodney Strong ($13) and Foxglove ($14).
My scores climb again at the $16 to $19 range, with the Alma Rosa Santa Barbara County bottling ($19) meriting 91+ points and Cambria Katherine's Vineyard ($17) from Santa Barbara's Santa Maria Valley scoring 91 points. For those looking for high quality wines at relatively affordable prices, these are strong showings, both offering complexity and good balance for under $20. I found a total of 42 wines at this price point and rated another three 90 to 90+ points, and two more each 89 and 88 points.
The largest number of wines at any price point, a total of 43, were found at the $20-25 level, along with one of my highest scoring wines, at 92 points-the admirable, minerally Au Bon Climat ($21). More widely available and meriting 91+ points are the very satisfying Clos du Val Carneros appellation and Landmark Overlook from Sonoma County, both averaging $23. Another three wines at this level scored 91 points (Gundlach Bundschu, Beringer and Freemark Abbey) while seven more came in at 90 to 90+ points.
The complete ratings (along with tasting notes) at each price point, as well as alphabetically by wine, can be found here.