A quick glance at the label of this respected Napa Valley chardonnay reveals a statement that strongly hints this wine will be better than average: "Estate Grown." Unfortunately, it's presented in legally regulated language that disguises its meaning unless you're already a wine expert. In plain English, the word estate conjures images of stately homes and landed gentry. But in wine-speak, it means something very specific: 100 percent of the grapes used to make the wine in that bottle must be grown in vineyards that are owned by that winery. This might not sound like a big deal, but it is. The vast majority of wines are not estate grown but are made from purchased fruit, meaning grapes grown by a vineyard owner who the sells the crop to a winery. But vintners who own their vineyards have more control over grape quality. Decisions about how to prune the vines, whether to farm organically or conventionally, how tightly to restrict yields per vine, and when to pick the grapes have more impact on wine quality than what kind of barrels are used or anything else done after harvest. Estate wines are usually superior, which explains why they also command higher prices. The difference is not so much in the wine's basic flavor profile — in this instance, richly textured with flavors of golden apples and flan — but in the length and resonance of the wine's finish, or aftertaste, which is always where a wine's quality quotient is most apparent.
Cuvaison Chardonnay, Carneros, Napa Valley, Calif. $19.99 (regularly $24.99; sale price through Dec. 2). PLCB Item #8150