From today's Albq Journal North.
Revisiting California Chardonnay
For many wine aficionados, their tastes in wine and drinking patterns undergo a continual
evolution. Wines they first fell in love with when they started their journey now seem
simple and unthrilling. As they try new wines, like from Slovenia or Slovakia, their eyes
may be opened to some new vinous thrills.
Certainly, that was the case in my continuing wine journey. I started with the classics
of Burgundy and Bordeaux. But, primarily because of their ballooning prices (EiYiYi...Chateau
Latour just jumped to $22 a bottle!!), I dropped them years ago and haven't looked back.
Admittedly, a great Red Burgundy is an ethereal experience that still makes me swoon from
time to time. But they just no longer excite me enough to be part of my buying regimen.
And so it was when I first moved to New Mexico and could buy great California wines
in Colorado. Cabernet and Chardonnay was where the action was. Syrah or Mourvedre or Viognier
didn't even exist. Though I still buy some favorite Cabernets, like Ridge Monte Bello,
California's Chardonnays gradually fell out of favor with my palate.
As in any of life's journeys, it's worth taking a look back at one's roots and revisiting
old haunts. And so it has been with me over the last few months with Chardonnay.
And I'm seeing a lot that I like.
Chardonnay is one of the huge success stories for the California wine industry. Back in
the '50's and '60's, plantings of Chardonnay were minuscule. The wines were labeled as
Pinot Chardonnay, even though it's not part of the Pinot family. The wines were (so I'm told)
simple and fruity, unexciting and unthrilling. The variety, which is responsible for the
great white wines of Burgundy, was not associated yet with Chardonnay in the minds of the
But things would change. In the late '40's, Fred and Eleanor McCrea, lovers of great
Burgundy, planted Chardonnay on their very rocky soil in the Napa Valley, and started producing
the wine under their Stony Hill label, with no preconceived notions as to what great California
Chardonnay should resemble.
Shortly thereafter, James and Hanna Zellerbach founded Hanzell Vineyards in the hills
above the town of Sonoma, devoted to producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that rivaled
their beloved Burgundies. They imported, for the first time, French oak barrels; rather than
use the cheaper American oak barrels that were afterthoughts of Bourbon production.
When people tasted these first two Chards (as they're commonly called), they were astounded
by their quality, probably the first truly great California white wines ever made. And
a revolution in California was launched.
Through the '60's and '70's, the Chard output rapidly increased. The use of (more expensive)
French oak became the norm. Other French Burgundy winemaking practices were embraced, like
malolactic fermentations (the bacterial fermentation that transforms malic acid to softer
lactic acid), extended lees contact (leaving the gross lees, or dead yeast cells, in contact with
the wine after completion of fermentation) and battonage (stirring up these lees to increase
their contact with the wine). Techniques that were developed for Burgundy's growing conditions
were not necessarily apropos to California, though.
The wines were harvested at riper and riper levels, so that 15% alcohol Chards became
commonplace. One particular abomination was instituted by Kendall-Jackson Winery, that of leaving
a small amount of residual sugar in the wine (0.5%-1.5%) to increase the "fruitiness" and
By the late '80's, the California Chards had developed a sameness from producer to producer.
They became tiring to drink with a meal beyond a glass or two. They were nice to taste, but
at table, they induced palate fatigue. They became more of a cocktail libation than an
accompaniment to food.
The ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement developed. Sales started to slacken, though never
actually declined. Although California Chard became America's most popular wine, it began to be
shunned by serious wine connoisseurs. This was about the time that I totally lost interest in
those wines, looking to other countries for whites with more acidity and minerality.
Through the '90's, many California Chardonnays became almost a grotesque caricature
of their former self. Many wine writers, a group for which I feel little affinity, would smugly
dismiss the genre as "big, oaky, buttery" Chardonnays not worthy of a serious connoisseur's
attention. The phrase was glibly repeated so often, in print and on the Internet, that I
begin to question its accuracy.
Thus, of late, I've been making a more concerted effort to taste California Chards,
particularly from producers whose Pinots I especially like. And, I'm finding...voila... that
all Chards are NOT those "big, oaky, buttery" wines of which I tired years ago. Perhaps my
tastes have changed, but I'm finding that there is much more diversity in winemaking style
and much more interesting Chards than I ever recall.
Though the oak is regarded by most as an important component in the complexity of Chard,
I'm finding an increasing restraint in the use of new oak in the wines. Indeed, there
is a small trend towards so-called "Inox" Chards, wines that are fermented and aged totally in
stainless steel tanks. In some cases, the malolactic fermentation is blocked to yield a
crisper, brighter wine.
Probably the biggest change is the seeking out of small micro-climates where Chardonnay
can best show its potential. In areas such as the Santa Rita Hills, western Russian River
Valley, and the frigid climes of the far western Sonoma Coast, winemakers are crafting wines that
show brighter acidity, yet the richness and texture that makes Chardonnay such a special white.
The winemakers love to chant the mantra of "terroir". By reducing their manipulations in the
cellar, they're allowing the terroir to show through in many of their wines.
That Chardonnay is California's greatest and most ageable white wine is pretty much
unquestioned. It seldom shows the minerality that you find in France's great White Burgundy.
But the quality of Chardonnay coming from California has probably never been greater.
So.... if California Chardonnay has fallen from your good graces over the years, it might
just be a good idea to revisit them. I think you may be surprised.
TomHill, a White Rock rodent, transports neutrons and wields an epee in real life.