Wine(s) of the Week: Duel Napa Valley Chardonnay

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I had a couple bottles of Chardonnay sent to me from different wineries, and noticed they were both within a year's vintage of one another, in the same price range, and both from the Napa Valley. So, why not do a Wine of the Week, "Food Fight" style? It was on like Donkey Kong, only a little more civilized and a lot less pixilated.

The more expensive of the two - the Robert Mondavi Winery 2008 Napa Valley Chardonnay, was a whopping $20 a bottle, and if you've read my reviews, you know this is a little out of my personal price range, and that I'm a fan of value wines. I truly believe that anyone can find a decent bottle within the $15 range. Also, what do you expect from someone that references Donkey Kong?

All bargain hunting aside, Robert Mondavi is a name you'll see in just about any place selling wine. From cheap steakhouses to Spec's to Kroger to your neighborhood liquor store, the Mondavi name is a big one, so this particularly steep price (at least for my plebeian budget) came as a bit of a shock, because I've never actually bought a bottle. I've sold it as a bartender but never actually bought a bottle myself.

The wine was very Chardonnay-ish, which is to say, it had that funky finish that I'm not particularly fond of in this overexposed varietal. Some highlights were the herbal notes, the hint of vanilla and, really, not much else. The company description touts "notes of nutmeg and cinnamon... aromas of panna cotta and warm hazelnuts," none of which I actually was able to distinguish. I would much rather a buttery, sultry Chardonnay (like Clos du Bois) than one with that skunky bite at the end like this 2008 Mondavi.

The second bottle was a Franciscan Estate, 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay. Maybe that one year makes a big difference, or the more obvious possibility - the winemaking was responsible for the subtle, but influential variations between the two bottles.

This wine was much less intense and in-your-face than the Mondavi Chardonnay; much more nuanced and drinkable than its older cousin. Perhaps the sur lie aging was longer here than in the Mondavi wine, or the additional barrel fermentation (100 percent barrel-fermented compared to Mondavi's 69 percent with the remaining fermented in stainless steel) gave it a rounder, more approachable profile, but it was much gentler and more pleasant on the palate. It had lots of vanilla, oak and minerals, with a creamier, softer finish.

So if you are going for a big-name wine in this price range, go for the Franciscan Chardonnay at $18 a bottle. It's a better bottle for less money. Donkey Kong has spoken.

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