Upper Bench's $25 beauty is not too rich, not too austere and just right.
I was having a pre-dinner drink with some American friends a few weeks ago, and when I asked for a glass of white, out popped an old pal I hadn't seen in years: Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyard's Les Pierres, probably my first Chardonnay crush all those years ago. But like a break-up that ended badly, we haven't seen much of each other. Since our first meeting, the wine had become synonymous with the California-style of Chardonnay—rich, with oak to spare and plenty 'o vanilla—that is note in vogue anymore. Like, really not in vogue. So nostalgia aside, I wasn't exactly thrilled to see the wine again. But that's the thing about preconceptions—they're rarely helpful. In fact, the wine I thought of as a California punchline was wonderful. Sure, it was still rich but there was plenty of flint and fruit to keep it in balance.
All of this is a long preamble to say that this Chardonnay by Upper Bench Estate Winery likewise proved to be a wonderful surprise—at about a third the price of the Les Pierres. I've been a fan of this winery for while, and love the new labels. But if you asked me which one of its wines I was drawn to, I'd probably say the smokin' deal that is the Pinot Blanc ($16!) or one of its bigger reds that owner and winemaker Gavin Miller has proven to be so deft with. But some friends wanted Chardonnay, and so this bottle was it. It's a style we don't see enough these days—smack in between the austere stainless-steel-only versions and the all-oak-all-the-time butterscotch bombs.
On the nose, it offers plenty of butterscotch-y richness that teases you into thinking this might be at the oaky end of the spectrum (the wine oak treatment is quite light, with only half the juice seeing any oak at all and only a third of that oak being new). But in the mouth things take a wonderful detour with the richness immediately countered by a blast of lemon skin and bracing lemon pith that work with (or maybe against) the richness for a really nice degree of complexity. It tastes like the new breed of California Chards—like the Les Pierres or the $68 Cakebread—that have dialed back the oak to let their grapes sing. The only difference is that almost all of those wines start at $50—I can buy a few bottles of the Pinot Blanc with the difference.