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A tasting of Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay

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I was really looking forward to our first Chardonnay tasting yesterday, after a half-year of exploring Pinot Noir. Although Pinot is inherently a better, more complex variety than Chardonnay—at least, in California, IMHO—the latter is the most important variety and wine in our state, and across America, and the winery I work for, Jackson Family Wines, has a big stake in Chardonnay. So I thought it was important to taste intensively across all of the important appellations. We begin with Santa Maria Valley.

Chardonnay somehow seems to be in the crossfire of critics, who always have something to inveigh about it, or so it seems. These days, the invocation is for drier, lower alcohol and more streamlined Chardonnays—dare I call them “minerally”? In this Santa Maria Valley tasting, which was completely blind, we set ourselves the task of determining just what makes some wines more balanced than others, despite all of them being grown in close physical proximity to each other, and made more or less identically, along white Burgundy lines: barrel fermentation and aging, stirring on the lees, the malolactic fermentation.

We tasted eighteen wines, over nearly four hours; there was a great deal of conversation. My top-scoring wines (and the other tasters generally agreed) were Alta Maria 2014 Bien Nacido ($40, 95 points), Ojai 2013 Solomon Hills ($35, 95 points), Jackson Estate 2013 (98 points, about $20) and Alta Maria 2013 Rancho Viñedo ($40, 96 points). Yes, it was gratifying, but not entirely surprising, when the Jackson Estate took top honors. Other wines tasted were from Byron, Cambria, Foxen, Riverbench, Presqu’ile, Qupe, Chanin, Paul Lato and Rusack.

These Santa Maria Valley Chardonnays shared much in common. All show masses of fruit, due to the cool climate and exceptionally long hangtime of this southerly growing region. All exhibit mouthwateringly brisk acidity, and a firm minerality that I always think comes from the sands and fossilized seashells scattered throughout the soil. Sometimes there can be a slightly green note, although not in great vintages, such as 2013. The best wines show a real sense of terroir—not that generic feeling that the grapes could have been grown anywhere. And all the wines handle oak well, although, to put this into the proper context, I should say that on average the wines have between 10% and 35% or so of new oak. Beyond that, the barrel influence can dominate, especially when the wood has a good amount of char.

The greatest problem with these Chardonnays concerns residual sugar. Often, the wines are noticeably sweet, which in my book is a no-no. Sometimes, I think, the winemakers leave a little sugar in there to counter-balance the acidity, which can be fierce. But sometimes there doesn’t seem to be any discernible reason for it. There’s an exceedingly fine line between balanced R.S. and unbalanced R.S. For me, the former happens when the wine tastes opulent and honeyed yet finishes throroughly dry. The latter unfortunately strikes when the finish is not dry, giving the wine a somewhat insipid, cloying taste; the word “candied” frequently arises. Finding exactly where this line is is the supreme task of the winemaker.

The Santa Maria Valley is the least well-understood important coastal appellation in California. Critics and other tastemakers seldom get there, due mainly to the absence of tourist amenities such as hotels and restaurants. Whenever I visit, I stay at the Santa Maria Radisson near the airport—good enough for my needs, but well outside the appellation’s boundaries. In the valley proper, and especially on the bench and in the southern hills, Chardonnay can be as spectacular as any other region makes it. But, as our tasting showed, even though Chardonnay seems to be a “winemaker’s wine” that adapts to the most extreme interventions without resistance, it really is not an easy wine to make in a balanced way.

As we did with Pinot Noir, we’ll continue our Chardonnay tastings, moving northward up the coast. Next time: Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay. How does it differ from Santa Maria Valley? We’ll see.

  1. Steve,

    With an awarded score of “98 points” and a suggested retail selling price of “$20,” you have me leaning in regarding the 2013 Jackson Estate Chardonnay:

    http://jacksonestate.kj.com/wines/santa-maria-valley

    Please put your praise in context: what other California Chards in recent memory have garnered a similar “near-perfect” score from you?

    (Sounds like the type of score one awards to Marcassin, Peter Michael, Littorai and other elite bottlings.)

    ~~ Bob

  2. Here’s a running start:

    http://buyingguide.winemag.com/search?q=California%20Chardonnays

    I don’t see a score higher than “96” points.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    I was visited by my Regal wine rep today.

    I cited in passing the 2013 Jackson Estate “Santa Maria Valley” Chardonnay.

    He informed me that (to the best of his knowledge) the above wine is destined for the “on-premises” (a.k.a. restaurant and wine bar) market.

    A shame, as I’m sure the public would appreciate owning bottles that can purchased from retailers.

    Anything further you can share on the wine?: YOUR tasting note (as distinct from the website’s); channel(s) of distribution; production level.

    ~~ Bob

    Postscript. There is a typo on JFW’s website profile of the wine:

    “Join the Estates Club
    Get 20% off all wine pruchases (sic), exclusive pricing for Kendall-Jackson wine events and special benefits when visiting our winery!”

  4. Bob Henry says:

    “Interesting.”

    According to Wine Searcher, there is ONE U.S. retailer selling the wine:

    http://www.wine-searcher.com/find/jackson+estate+santa+maria+valley+chard/2013/usa

    And in its home state of California, ONLY JFW is selling the wine:

    http://www.wine-searcher.com/find/jackson+estate+santa+maria+valley+chard/2013/usa-ca

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