Great American Chardonnay Not an Oxymoron
By Kerry Winslow, grapelive.com
Chardonnay, she’s the queen, America’s number one wine, but most of the wine insiders scoff and gag at thought of it, there is a whole ABC, Anything But Chardonnay crowd out there screaming to high heaven, railing against this grape and this wine, yes there is a real disconnect going on, but the truth is and will always be Chardonnay is a great grape and is a great wine. The days of denial look to be short, I think see a major come back for this grape and let’s face it the young and talented generation of winemakers in America are now making wines that rival the fabled wines of Burgundy, it is not just the Marcassins, Auberts, Peter Michaels, Kistlers or Kongsgaards that are doing it, no and you don’t need to spend the 100, 200 or 500 Hundred dollars that those wines sometimes fetch retail, there are lots of sublime and majestic Chardonnays available at reasonable prices, I mean wines that still deliver Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet quality made here in California, wines that are not sweet or butter bombs, but wines that give the purest of flavor, with good graces and vibrant acidity to boot.
There are some that will argue, they will point out the sweet, like Kendall Jackson, the buttery like Rombauer or the over blown or over hyped, better not mention those, but you know who they are, and yes the over oaken styles that were so popular only 10 years ago. These are what they are and there is a steady stream of buyers for them regardless, so moving on let’s now look at the opposite those gimmicky unwooded, unoaked or naked Chards that were all the craze, I must say I almost hated these worse that the over the top 100% new wood jobs! While I can enjoy Chardonnay without any oak what so ever, I just detested the marketing job, and thank heavens it seems to have died down a bit.
Anyone who says California can’t make a grand Chardonnay that matches the fabled white Burgundies is a fool, there are plenty, I mean a lot, no question, though I do admit there are a few Burgundy wines that are on a different plane, but then again not many people get a chance to drink the Grand Crus like Le Montrachet, Batard-Montrachet or Les Clos in Chablis. That said, trust me, there are wonderful and elegant Chardonnay wines in California, here is a must try list of wines that will certainly impress the most educated of wine snobs, and the rest of you as well!
Ten Chards you should try as soon as you can, listed below with some of my notes, but first, here are some honorable mentions that also will be worth checking out. Value priced wines like Navarro from Anderson Valley, Bernardus from Monterey and Copain from Anderson Valley, all please the palate vintage to vintage, small artisan wines from Freeman, Roar, Hyde de Villaine and Donum Estate make super Chardonnay that get overlooked as most think about their Pinot Noir wines, then there’s new hot producers like Sandhi, a Raj Parr and Sashi Moorman creation, and old school classics like El Molino and Hanzell that still make some of the best Napa and Sonoma Chard as well, all of these are worthy and stunning, especially the latest from El Molino… By the way, the following ten wines are in no particular order, all are number ones in my book.
1. Brewer-Clifton, Chardonnay, Mount Carmel, Monopole, Sta. Rita Hills.
Forget vintage, it just doesn’t matter this is a great wine, I’ve never been disappointed, ever, Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton make some of the world’s best Chardonnay, and while I personal love their Sweeney Canyon Chard too, it is their Mount Carmel Vineyard that always blows me away, this is as good as it gets, I’d be more than happy to drink this wine any time, even if it meant forgoing Batard-Montrachet, as much as that pains me to say, this wine is that good, no question, the 2000 vintage Brwer-Clifton Mount Carmel Chard changed my thinking forever, I only hope I get to try that wine, perfectly cellared again, mind freaking blowing!
2. 2011 Tyler, Chardonnay Zotovich Family Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills.
Justin Willett is crafting some beautiful wines, and his Tyler label is one to watch, his latest releases from the unheralded 2011 vintage are staggeringly grand efforts and showcase his talents and the fantastic vineyards and terrors his finds for his wines. The stunning and haunting 2011 Chardonnay from Zotovich Vineyard is amazing and Permier Cru Chablis like in detail and style, certainly a wonderfully balanced wine with lovely layers and pure mineral goodness flowing throughout. Willett has worked with Joe Davis, Arcadian and the Burgundy devotee ideas have formed some of his style, but he really has taken his own path and this last two vintages have proven his talents and his star quality. I am utterly impressed and blown away with his Pinots and Chards, especially this Zotovich 2011 with it’s subtle grace and poise from Willet’s artisan touch, it is vibrant, focused and delicious from start to finish. The nose here is citrusy and bright with white flowers and wet stones leading to a vivid and crisply fresh palate of lemon, apple and pear fruits with hints of lime and white peach along with clove, golden fig and loads of chalk, acidity and sublime length. This 13.3% Alcohol Chardonnay is all class and harmony in the glass, drink now through 2018.
3. Alfaro Family Vineyards, Chardonnay, Lindsay Paige Vineyard Estate, Santa Cruz Mountains.
Richard Alfaro’s Chard, named for his daughter, Lindsay Paige is one of my all time favorite wines, let only Chard, it is fantastic year in and year out with lovely white flowers, lemon curd, white peach and tropical notes leading the way with touches of fig, butter, spiced pear, stoney minerals and smoky hazelnuts. The French oak is toasty and present, but not intrusive or unwelcome and there is a tangy tangerine note that adds interest as well. This wine is a stunning and rich effort that gives a lot of pleasure.
4. 2011 Arnot-Roberts, Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains.
The Pacific Ocean influenced Arnot-Roberts Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay is a totally unique terroir driven wine that highlights a huge sense of place and of course the talents of Nathan Roberts and Duncan Arnot, who are very much rising stars these days, if not established all ready. This delicious white was whole cluster pressed, fermented in stainless and allowed to ferment with natural native yeast strains then transferred to neutral French casks, making for a vibrant and pure express of the grape and allowing the vineyard site to shine through. This 2011 Chardonnay is intensely fresh in style with a streak of mineral and sea salt along with zesty acidity heightening the verve and flavors that include lemon, white peach, green apple and pear fruits along with hints of clove, hazelnut and dried fig. The vivid layers are sharp and focused, but with air the wine starts to fill out and gain density, hinting that there is more to come here and while now the finish is crisp, bright and mouthwatering there is a certain roundness and texture too.
5. Ridge Vineyards, Chardonnay Monte Bello Estate, Santa Cruz Mountains.
One of the great wineries in America, a legend, but still people overlook their gorgeous Chardonnay, this wine is as classy as it gets, not a wine to be missed! Sadly, I too seem to not review this wine enough, this is classic Chard with loads of character and finesse, white flowers, hazelnuts, lemon and apple fruit with subtle wood notes and mineral spice, this wine is detailed and richly flavored.
6. 2009 Lucia, by Pisoni, Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands.
Jeff Pisoni has nailed it again with some of his dad’s oldest vines to create a world class Chardonnay that can rival the best from anywhere! The 2009 Lucia Chard is rich, full and wonderfully balanced with vigor and fruit intensity showing pure pear, apple, white peach and lemon curd, while there is spice cake, clove, fig and hazelnut in the background. This Chard should gain lots in character with some bottle age and while it is rich and full bodied it has nice bounce and clean acidity. I hope it picks up a bit more mineral and brioche notes, as that is all that would be need to merit an even higher rating! This wine is hard not to love and competes well with $75 to $100 Chards, be they from Burgundy or the Sonoma Coast, bravo guys this is awesome.. I know this is from the 2009 vintage, but the same holds true for the current version, though this was Awesome!
7. 2011 Diatom, Chardonnay “Hanna Shinobu” Sta. Rita Hills.
At 13.8% Alcohol the new “Hanna Shinobu” from Greg Brewer’s Diatom label is notably less heady as past versions of his Diatom wines, which have reached almost 16% at times and seemed rather severe, but this one really finds a nice balance. Brewer’s brave experiment in Chardonnay is impressive to taste and one can only admire his focus and commitment even if these wines are not to everyone’s taste, these pure no wood, no batonage Chardonnay’s are the ultimate extreme experience of terroir essence and a stark view of the naked grape itself. The new 2011 Diatom “Hanna Shinobu” is clear and vivid with tart green apple, lime and grapefruit zest with plenty of brisk acidity and steely minerality. The Hanna Shinobu opens with air to reveal lemon and fig notes, but stays edgy and feels razor sharp and vibrant. Best to enjoy this wine with soft cheeses and lighter seafoods plus raw Sushi grade yellow tail. Greg Brewer (Brewer-Clifton & Melville) has chosen a new path and created a new vision of Chardonnay that certainly challenges convention and is neither Burgundy/Chablis like or anything like California norms, making for an interesting choice and unique style wine that try to capture the true heart of the vineyard, a worth a try if you want something on the wild side.
8. Rochioli, Chardonnay, Estate Grown, Russian River Valley.
While some will say Rochioli makes a big oaky wine, that just is not true, and especially the current releases, this 2011 vintage is stunningly elegant wine! This vintage of the Rochioli Estate Chard is refined and refreshingly subtle with medium weight, vibrancy and graceful round flavors with touches of mineral, saline and a delightful texture. The nose is steely with wet stones, hazelnut and a hint of fig with a burst of citrus and pear, leading to a layered palate of lemon, apple, pear and a touch of white peach. The restrained nature of this elegant wine almost brings a fine Chassagne-Montrachet to mind and highlights the cool vintage and shows the deft winemaking, even on the this scale, this is a well crafted Chadonnay that delivers nice detail, has good balance and gives lots of pleasure.
9. 2010 Kesner, Chardonnay, Rockbreak Vineyard, Sonoma Coast.
Jason Kesner, assistant Winemaker at Kistler, is making quite a name for himself making wonderful Pinot and Chardonnay under his own Kesner label, especially striking is this 2010 Kesner Rockbreak Chardonnay, this lovely and full expression really shines with dynamic flavors, texture and charm. I’ve tried just a few of his wines, but I am a big fan and think he’ll be a label to watch going forward, these are well crafted artisan wines made in very small amounts. I tasted this wine again recently in a ultra Chardonnay challenge against some top producers including Kistler, Hyde de Villaine and one of my new favs Arnot Roberts, all were sublime all in the 94-95 Point range, but I will say the Kesner might have been the winner on the day, with flowing rich density, juicy acidity and gorgeous length and hints of the exotic it was magical. The nose is full of white flowers, touches of smoke, hazelnut and tropical essences leading to a layered palate of apple, peach, pear and lemon curd with faint traces of honeysuckle, pineapple, green melon and clarified cream and vanilla, finishing rich in the mouth but with a burst of energy and tangy citrus.
10. Peay, Chardonnay, Estate, Sonoma Coast.
This is another wine, I absolutely adore, made by Vanessa Wong, of former Peter Michael and Chateau Lafite fame, this elegant Chardonnay from the rugged/extreme Sonoma Coast is as lovely as Chardonnay gets and without question one of the top wines in the state. This cool climate Chard is never short of vitality and class, be sure to find this Chardonnay, again it does not matter what vintage, though I rate the 2006, 2007 and 2010 wines off the charts in my own notebooks!
In summary, I urge you to open your minds and try the mentioned wines, I can attest the quality and passion of these wines, these will change more than a few minds, they did me and I have seen more than a few people in the ABC crowd come back to Chardonnay from California after tasting these wines, enjoy the experience! Don’t forget the way back Judgement of Paris Tasting when a little known California Chardonnay changed the world…