Had the pleasure of sitting down with a whole bunch of Monterey winemakers and working our way through a four flight set of 35 Chardonnays, under the auspices of the Monterey Growers/Winemakers organization.
It was informative and revealing because not only did we taste through a wide range of Chardonnays at a wide range of price points, we also got commentary and dialogue with the winemakers themselves, but without the 'beauty contest' crap that you would have to deal with in a public/consumer tasting.
We got to talk real-time practices, both with the mega-producers and the tiny little artisinal fellows, receiving honest appraisals of how wine is made and what the winemakers are looking for.
The wines? I'm pleased to report that this is the first time where I can honestly say that Monterey has successfully exhibited a thoroughly wide range of Chardonnays that both upheld the concept of a definitive Monterey style or type, but at the same time exhibited a greater range than ever before within that Monterey "brand".
The first flight was 2004 chards in the $7--12 price range (keeping in mind that when we say price ranges in this format, we're almost invariably talking about a stated marketing price rather than a real on-the-shelf-on-discount price the consumer perceives; so you might find some of these wines at the $5 range, for instance). They displayed an impressively high level of quality. No obvious dogs or deeply flawed wines; clean, displaying good varietal characters, and though there was oak present (usually from inner staves, I believe) there wasn't nearly the cloying dominance of oak that I've seen as a characeristic in the past. But neither was there the cloying and simplistic 'fruit salad' in dominance.
Wineries showing their chards in this flight were Jekel, Night Owl, Shale Ridge, Monterra, Hahn Estate, Arroyo Seco Vnyds., and Blackstone, fyi. Some of the winemakers are producing simple, good, reliable, fruit-driven but oak influenced chards---after all, that's where the market is, even today with the trend toward less oak influence, and wineries usually have to meet the market's expectations or they don't stay around long.
On the other hand, one winemaker successfully created a lovely wine with 90% Chardonnay and 10% Chenin Blanc, consciously going for more of an acid-driven, minerally/herbal style.
And even at this lower price point I saw an amazing focus on bringing out different characters by using the full palette of flavors available from the differing sub-areas of Monterey, different clones, and different rootstock vigor programs. In short, the winemakers were very aware of the complexities they have within the Monterey appellation, and are utilizing it to profound effect.
As we went up in price points through the next three flights, we started engaging with more and more secondary characteristics, both from more intensive focus on terroir, and in the stylistic variations of the winemakers. For instance, the new owners of San Saba, a young winemaking couple, showed off their two very different styles of Chardonnay. The first was in a predictable (but nonetheless well made) San Saba release, with barrel fermentation, sur lies, partial new French oak, stirring and malo. But they also showed their very successful Bocage Chardonnay, which was total stainless steel, touched up with a splash of Muscat Canelli to make the aromatics vibrant (maybe a little too vibrant for some of us actually) and floral and the wine infinitely gulpable.
Another winemaker elected to add 4% Gewurztraminer to acheive that floral aromatic boosting effect. There was the occasional over-enthusiastic reliance on malolactic--to the point of one wine smelling more like milk than wine, I thought); on the other hand, that particular winery has been very successful in the past with that very style, so who's to say.
There were some stylistic divergencies, with some winemakers going overboard in the charring of the toast, or overplaying the malo, or simply putting too much ripeness and fat into the wine. On the other hand, there was significantly more variety in expression of the variety, with more herbal characters, and more expression of untricked fruit than I've seen before, so it all balanced out nicely.
By the time we got to the final flight (in the $30 or higher price range, and with relatively minimal production quantities), some of the wines were actually quite impressive, and would easily hold their own against more cultish wines from Sonoma, Napa, or even Burgundy. The Bernardus Ingrid's Vineyard 2003 was one of the impressive ones. The Michaud 2003, from one of the oldest of the Chalone plantings up in the Chalone AVA, though somewhat stylistically controversial, was nonetheless intriguing in the basic style and quality of it's fruit. I believe the overall favorite in this flight, though, was the Talbott Sleepy Hollow. With only 800 cases made and an established price point at $45, with all of it selling quite readily, it's not exactly a wine that I expect to drink very often. But it is most certainly an impressive wine, with crisp lemon ripping over to Meyer lemon, to orange zest in the initial nose, an obvious but not terribly intrusive and relatively balanced toasty oak note that integrated pretty well with the ripeness and glossy fat of the wine. It was, truth told, a touch hotter in the finish than I care for, but that was a fairly minor flaw in an otherwise very impressiv wine---and it's not actually unknown to find too much alcohol and heat in CA wines these days, is it?
In summation, I think things have never looked better for Monterey Chardonnays. And it looks like the exciting times for this variety in this region are just now beginning to emerge.