IT’S BECOME almost a reflex among segments of the wine community to dismiss domestic Chardonnay. How could something this popular be any good? A common prejudice I hear sommeliers express regards Chardonnays whose aromas or flavors reflect even a trace of oak contact as examples of the wine industry using cheap tricks to pander to the most obvious and superficial of consumer tastes.
To all of this, I could not disagree more. Yes, certainly there are many overblown, over-oaked, poorly structured, clumsily made, and homogenized Chardonnay caricatures that we all continue to taste. Wines made according to a dumbed down formula. But this variety hasn’t endured as the number one choice of consumers in the US for decades because of its intrinsically poor quality. As a number of recent experiences have reminded me, Chardonnay from select vineyards on the West Coast can provide an authentic expression of terroir that offers as much stimulation to the palate and the intellect as Pinot Noir from Burgundy, Riesling from the Mosel, Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, or any of the world’s other noble grapes matched to the right zone of production. For me, drinking a finely tuned genuine Chardonnay, originating from one of our top regional sites or vineyards, is always a happy experience – and sometimes a profound one.
Here are some impressions of unique terroir-expressive Chardonnays I’ve recently enjoyed, as well as a description of what about them strikes me as special. What each shares in common is origination on poor rocky soils, cool climate growing conditions, moderate yields, and minimal handling. All are fermented and aged in wood, but other than that the winemakers follow their own path, adapting handling and processing procedures to the dictates of their specific terroir. Several of these are products of the classic, optimally balanced 2O12 vintage. Its ideal flowering, ripening and harvesting conditions produced a substantial crop of delicious Chardonnay grapes throughout the West Coast. Slow,? even ripening, no significant heat spikes and a harvest that completed before major rain events characterized this elongated growing season, so the better wines taste both ample in fruit and well structured. They also look to be eminently ageable, a perhaps unconventional idea when many consider West Coast Chardonnay, but one not to be dismissed lightly. Over the past few months I have immensely enjoyed the following: Sonoma-Cutrer “Founders Reserve” Chardonnay, Russian River Valley 2OO3, from their Les Pierres vineyard, a wine more lively and lemony than most 1O year old Premier Cru White Burgundy I’ve had recently; a Patz & Hall “Alder Springs” Mendocino Chardonnay, 2OO3, that was layered, expressive of fruit and not even a bit tired; and a brilliantly aromatic, spicy and mineral-accented Peter Michael “Ma Belle Fille” 2OO6 that exhibited enough zest to suggest aging for another five years at least.
SONOMA COAST 2O12
Medium to full bodied, bright and creamy with ripe apple, citrus and toasted almond notes, this is a charming wine with a subtle core of chalk and lemon that helps it to cut through richer textured dishes. Originating mostly from three “extreme Sonoma Coast” vineyards (meaning that they are actually sited close to the winds and fogs of the Pacific), its lively but subtle citrus flavors and savory acids would enable at least three to five years of further maturation. This is easily the most satisfying Noisetier I’ve had, with the firmest structure of any vintage I’ve tasted.
KNIGHTS VALLEY 2O12
Planted in a former rock quarry that is slanted at an impossibly steep angle of about 45 degrees in northern Sonoma County, the grapes for this estate-bottled stunner produce a wine with intriguing floral and pear-like perfume, and hints of white pepper, mushroom and hazelnut. Balanced more by spice and minerality than acid, this round delicate Chardonnay offers a very sensual expression, full of butterscotch and lime zest notes. The very thin Rhyolite soils are of volcanic origin which help impart the wine’s finishing stony flavor touches. Bold in alcohol at over 15%, the wine is impeccably balanced.
“MA BELLE FILLE”
KNIGHTS VALLEY 2O12
From the highest elevations on the Peter Michael estate, winemaker Nicolas Morlet produces this in exactly the same manner as “La Carriere” – natural yeast, barrel fermentation in about half new French oak, aging sur lies for 11 months with weekly batonage, bottling unfined and unfiltered – and yet comes up with a dramatically different taste profile based on the different terroir. At 17OO to 19OO feet, Ma Belle Fille is more of a gradual slope than a vertical drop. Its volcanic ash soils are also underlain with Rhyolite but the wine expresses more citrus. While the mouthwatering acids, chamomile scents and lemon oil finish evoked at these elevations are more prominent than with the La Carriere, there is also what I would describe as a Grand Cru level lushness and honeyed sensuality that is irresistible.
RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY 2O12
An estate wine from this family grower-turned-winemaker that has owned vineyards in the Russian River for three generations, this wine has a buttery, supple ripeness and toasty nutlike spice that leaves a velvety palate impression. It originates in the Russian River’s classic weathered sandstone soils. Whole cluster pressed under minimal pressure, the juice is barrel fermented and aged in French oak (25% new) for 9 months. What results is a softening of the characteristic Russian River bite and a texture rich with caramel and pear.
RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY 2O12
A blend of 5 different Russian River sites, this Chardonnay exemplifies the winemaker’s signature luscious texture, but in this rendition with earthy, ripe apple and honeyed pear notes prominent. Whole cluster pressed, and barrel fermented with native yeasts over a long 3 to 6 month cycle, it exudes buttery richness. Hobbs uses almost 5O% new French oak for aging, does more frequent batonage than almost anyone anymore (bi-weekly over an 11 month elevage) and does not fine or filter the wine. The result: pure silk.
NAPA VALLEY 2O12
Harvesting grapes from the warmer climate bale loam soils in Napa’s Rutherford Bench, Ric Forman’s Star Vineyard is underlain with a subsoil of river stones, which enable outstanding drainage and deep root penetration. Forman whole cluster presses and ferments in Burgundy barrels (15% new), but blocks the malo-lactic to retain freshness and impressions of minerality. Aged for 7 months sur lies in barrel, with only one racking, followed by a further few months off the lees, it expresses citrus and toast, with a lingering stony quality. Distinctly edgy and lemony, with a classic tart, racy style reminiscent of Chablis.
“HYDE VINEYARD” CARNEROS 2O1O
Proving once again that, when properly handled, Chardonnay can age, this is a sleek, beautifully structured wine from one of California’s true masters and pioneers of indigenous yeast fermentation – David Ramey. Originating in the stony clay soils of the storied Hyde Vineyard, this wine offers a whiff of ripe apple and herb, along with notes of butter, nectarine and citrus. Aged in 5O% new French cooperage for up to 2O months and bottled unfiltered, it doesn’t show even a trace of “oakiness legance and delicacy on the palate.
SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS
Overlooking San Francisco from 14OO to 2OOO foot elevations in the Santa Cruz Mountains, just downhill from the famed Monte Bello, the grapes for this wine are dry-farmed, hand-harvested, whole cluster pressed, fermented in American oak on native yeasts, then allowed to undergo full malo-lactic fermentation. Round and silky, but quite lively and vibrant, this wine expresses citrus, ripe apple and honeysuckle highlights along with a sharp edge of peach pit minerality.
The reality is that all of these Chardonnays taste different from one another and from all the others out there as well. Even though produced in essentially the same manner, according to similar protocols adjusted for local conditions, there is nothing generic about their flavor profiles. So despite what detractors may say, Chardonnay at this super-premium level remains popular for a reason: it can be a distinctive, texturally soft and beautifully balanced expression of its authentic grape origins.
STA. RITA HILLS 2O12
From vineyards that bump up against the Pacific in Santa Barbara County, this outstanding South Central Coast Chardonnay enjoys the longest growing season in California and benefits from weather that is quite cool and windy – rarely exceeding 7O degrees! – but arid and sunny as well. Its saline and stony flavor bite reflects the strong oceanic influence in the region’s sandy soils. Fresh, herbal and lemony, but also with a distinct tropical note. Winemaker Greg Brewer avoids new oak, does not stir the lees, preferring to keep the fruit’s naturally sharp edginess in the wine.
“NORTH VALLEY” WILLAMETTE VALLEY 2O12
Dijon clones from Burgundy have made all the difference in Oregon where 2O12 was as special a vintage as it was in California. This wine, from one of the state’s true Pinot maestros, has an enticing aroma of warm baked bread. Mineral driven, but with a ripe thick butter-and-honey mouthfeel, it is aged in a combination of new and older French oak as well as stainless to preserve crispness. Dry, lingering, with juicy apple and subtle notes of orange.