I was reading Peg Melnik’s article on Chateau St. Jean’s 2010 Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay, in yesterday’s Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which reminded me that Chateau St. Jean pretty much single-handedly created the vineyard-designated Chardonnay market in the 1970s, with a brilliant series of wines crafted by their then-winemaker, Richard Arrowood. Belle Terre, Les Pierres and Robert Young were perhaps the best known, but one year, Arrowood produced 9 individual Chardonnays. (He also made vineyard-designated Fume Blancs and Rieslings.)
It got me thinking of how obsessed we are today with single-vineyard wines in California, not just Chardonnay, obviously, but everything, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.
The first vineyard-designated Cabernet I ever heard of was Joe Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard. It was, back in the day, the most famous Cab in Napa Valley, and if it’s lost a little of its luster in the glare of so many newer brands, it’s still well-regarded. I don’t recall the first single-vineyard Pinot Noir I ever had. The first one I ever reviewed in my wine diary was a 1982 from Louis K. Mihaly, with a Napa Valley appellation. The label said “Produced and bottled by the estate of Louis K. Mihaly,” so I suppose that, technically, it was a single-vineyard wine; but I’m talking about vineyard designations on the label. Ditto for the Dehlinger 1985 Lot #2 Pinot I tasted (in 1990, by which time it had gone downhill).
Today, of course, many producers make single vineyard wines. They fetch a higher price, on average, than blended wines. (Even the word “blended” sounds pejorative. We need to come up with a better one.) When you think about it, though, there’s no reason per se why a single vineyard wine should be better than a blended one. The reason the Bordelais grew so many different grape varieties was because they knew that blending could fill in the divots that a single variety wine might otherwise have (unripe, too acidic, too tannic, not enough color, etc.).
It was in the 1990s that vintners opted to go bigtime with vineyard-designated bottles. They said they were spurred by the extra complexity that certain sites exhibited, but that’s only half the story. The other half was that, by then, it was apparent the public would pay more for single vineyard wines. (We can thank Heitz and Chateau St. Jean for that!) I myself have never quite bought into the theory that the wine from a particular place is necessarily better than a blend. Some critics make much of “wines of place” and, of course, to question the concept of terroir is to hold oneself up for ridicule. However, I don’t see how you get around the “divot” theory: in a perfect vintage, a particular site might yield a complete wine. But not all vintages are perfect, and it’s only logical to expect that, in other vintages, the grapes from a particular site will be lacking something and could benefit from being blended with the grapes from another place.
Today we have brands that specialize in single vineyard wines: Siduri, Loring, Testarossa and Williams Selyem (among many others) in Pinot Noir, and practically everyone making high-end Chardonnay. (Williams Selyem, Lynmar, Rochioli, Paul Hobbs, Marimar Torres, Martinelli, Talley and Thomas Fogarty in particular come to mind.) There also are an increasing number of wineries that bottle vineyard-designated Cabs. Sometimes they buy grapes from other growers, and sometimes they simply make block bottlings from their own vineyard or from separate vineyards in their own portfolio. (Sometimes it’s hard to say what the difference is between blocks from the same estate, and separate vineyards. Witness Diamond Creek.)
As I said, I’m not sure that the best, most wholesome and complete, not to mention satisfying, wines come from individual vineyards. But wine isn’t just about hedonism, it’s about intellectual fun. For me, as a wine lover and critic, I love these single vineyard or block designation wines because they’re so interesting in themselves, even if they’re sometimes a little lacking something essential. Just like some people.
I’m going to be moderating the panel on clones at The Chardonnay Symposium, which makes it sound like I know all about them when, in reality, I know very little. However, a panel moderator doesn’t have to know much about the topic at hand. The secret to moderating a panel is simply to get the panelists do the talking.
Well, I’m being modest. I do know a little about clones. Here’s what I know–or think I know. I’m hoping to learn more from comments by my savvy readers
- There are many, many clones, or selections, of Chardonnay: Clone 4, the Wente selection, Mount Eden, Hudson, Rued, Dijons 7, 95, 96, 548, etc. I couldn’t tell you what each of them does, though.
- Almost everybody grows the Wente selection (and to add to the confusion, there are different strains of Wente).
- The various clones are sensitive to climate, which affects the wines’ acidity. That’s why some clones are preferred in Oregon and Burgundy, as opposed to others used in California.
- It’s debatable whether certain clones succeed better with certain rootstocks.
- That Rued clone often reveals itself with a Muscat-like scent.
- Some vintners, including Marimar Torres and Elias Fernandez, believe that making a single wine from multiple clones lends complexity, and helps protect against vintage variation. (We see the same thing with Pinot Noir.) At Williams Selyem, Bob Cabral planted more than 20 clones in a single block.
- Chardonnays made from different clones react differently to oak. Some seem better able to handle lots of new wood than others.
- Some winemakers swear that certain blocks within their vineyards consistently produce superior Chardonnay, and they attribute this to the clone. But it could be the terroir, couldn’t it?
Obviously, any and all of these issues can make for lots of conversation, so I’m sure we’ll have lots to talk about.
There is, however, a lacuna of knowledge concerning Chardonnay clones, which is why there’s so much confusion about them. As Nancy Sweet, at U.C. Davis’s Foundation Plant Services, explained in her 2007 paper on Chardonnay, Formal grape clonal selection programs in the United States have not received the financial support that has allowed European programs to progress. I would guess, given the dismal state of educational funding nowadays, that that situation is unlikely to improve.
So far, my panelists are Merry Edwards, Jeff Stewart (Hartford Court), Clarissa Nagy (Riverbench), James Ontiveros (Alta Maria and Native 9) and a Wente yet to be determined (but I think Karl is unable to come. The Wentes, of course, know a lot about Chardonnay clones). The Symposium is at Byron, down in the Santa Maria Valley, where we should have an audience of about 100-150.
One thing I want to avoid, as moderator, is the panel getting bogged down in technical minutiae. After all, this is a consumer event, not a graduate seminar at Davis. But I won’t let it get dumbed down. I was at a panel event recently (in the audience, not onstage) where the moderator tried to dumb it down by getting cutesy with the panelists. It wasn’t exactly “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” but it was close. When you have smart people onstage, let them be smart.
Far be it from me to dispute the findings of a survey conducted by a reputable outfit, but I’m not buying the portentous headline, “Popularity of chardonnays declines” and the report that “consumption is down,” as this study contends.
It was done by Napa Technology, whose website describes it as “dedicated to designing innovative Intelligent Dispensing Solutions and Products that drive wine revenues, operating control, and growth for the Restaurant, Retail, Entertainment, and Hospitality industries.”
The company counted “90 respondents” to a survey (not revealed is how many people they actually surveyed), and of them, “forty percent…said that Chardonnay is on the decline.”
Forty percent of 90 is 36. That means 36 people in America said Chardonnay is declining, out of a population of more than 300 million. The respondents were said to be “sommeliers, wine directors, restaurant and hotel operators, wine producers, media, analysts and wine buyers.” That’s eight categories, meaning that there were about 4.5 respondents in each category. Even if you round 4.5 up to 5, that means that 5 somms, 5 wine directors, 5 restaurant operators, 5 hotel operators, 5 wine producers, 5 media people, 5 analysts and 5 wine buyers in the entire United States said that Chardonnay is declining.
I’m no expert in statistical analysis, but that doesn’t sound like a scientifically valid poll to me.
There’s plenty of evidence Chardonnay is not declining. Planted acreage of it in California alone was the highest ever, with 95,511 acres recorded in 2011 (the last year for which I have Dept. of Food and Agriculture Acreage Report numbers). While it’s true that the pace of new Chardonnay plantings slackened off from previous years, that’s easily explainable by the Great Recession. Nobody knows what the future holds, of course, but there’s no group of human beings on Earth more knowledgeable about what wines Americans will be drinking in 5 years than grapegrowers. If they’re still growing it, it’s because they believe Americans are still drinking it.
And they are, in droves. Chardonnay consumption is enormous among American wine drinkers. As the Wine Institute reported in 2011, “Chardonnay far and away remains the most popular wine in the U.S. and has continued to be the leading varietal wine for the last decade, with sales increases every year.” I get more Chardonnay samples sent to me than any other type of wine, except for Cabernet Sauvignon. That tells me that winery sales and marketing execs also believe Chardonnay’s popularity remains high. Like growers, they get paid to figure out what Americans will be drinking in the future.
The problem with little studies like the Napa Technology one that seem to “prove” things that aren’t necessarily true is that, in this age of the Internet, the “fact” of Chardonnay consumption spreads far and wide–even if it’s false. Google “Chardonnay consumption” and the Napa Technology study, as reported in Nation’s Restaurant News, is the fifth result. That’s very high up on a Google search, meaning that a lot of people will inhale that information, believe it and repeat it. The “news” goes viral, with who knows what negative impacts.
I’m willing to bet a hefty amount that ten years from now Chardonnay will still be the number one most purchased white wine in America. I don’t believe for a moment that Chardonnay has anything to fear from Albarino, Torrontés, Cava or Prosecco–all wines that the Napa Technology study said are “increasing in popularity” to Chardonnay’s detriment. Nothing personal against Albarino, Torrontés, Cava or Prosecco, but does anyone really think any of them is the Next Big White Wine?
At the Michael Mondavi tasting the other night, Rob Mondavi, Wilfred Wong and I were tasting a Chardonnay from the Isabel Mondavi brand, when the question arose of how Chardonnay came to be the top-selling wine in America.
Between the two of us, Wilfred and I have approximately 400 trillion years of experience in wine, and so we began to offer our own explanations of this phenomenon. Rob listened to us gently correct each other, interrupt with added details, agree on a shared memory; at one point he laughingly described us as an old married couple, which I suppose most old friendships become, in the best sense.
I suggested Chardonnay’s triumph was due to a small cadre of California-based wine writers in the 1970s–Bob Thompson, Charlie Olken, Norm Roby, Earl Singer, Gerald Asher, Robert Lawrence Balzer, Nate Chroman–who told a wine-ignorant but increasingly wine-curious America what to drink and what to avoid; and when it came to white wine, it was Chardonnay, “the great white grape and wine of Burgundy” (as they used to put it), they pushed. Theirs were just about the only voices of knowledgeable wine opinion in the country; it was so unlike today’s cacophony. But, far from people resenting these “top-down” critics for their dictatorial approach, consumers were happy that someone impartial and knowledgeable was willing to teach them, and they were equally happy to buy their handbooks and subscribe to their newsletters.
Then Wilfred, with a gleam in his eye, said I’d forgotten someone very important. When I asked for a clue, he said his name started with “R.”
I racked my brain, but couldn’t recall anyone. So Wilfred had to tell me: Robert Finnigan.
I had indeed forgotten Finnigan, who died in 2011. He published one of the earliest newsletters, Robert Finnigan’s Private Wine Guide (this was well before Wine Advocate), and was hugely influential among restaurateurs and merchants. I knew Bob for a while in the 1990s, when he was perhaps a little past his prime, but still active, and certainly a pleasant, dignified San Francisco gentleman. He was running the old CMCV society in San Francisco, a marketing group sponsored by the Champagne houses that had established wineries in California. (I can’t remember what CMCV stood for; can someone help me?) Bob also was sort of the personal wine consultant for the Getty family, and it was in that connection that we were brought together. Billy and Gordon Getty had teamed up with a very young and ambitious Gavin Newsom to launch their first wine shop, PlumpJack, and Gavin asked me to join a small circle who would taste wine together, once a week for six months, in order for management to decide what wines to stock on the shelves for opening day. The whole idea was to choose only the best, so that staff could assure customers that every single bottle in the store had been hand-selected.
Well, the Big Day finally came, and PlumpJack opened their doors to the public. I wasn’t there, but about a week later, I stopped by on my way home from a tasting at nearby Fort Mason. Gavin was working the register. I asked him how things had gone, and he scowled. On the very first day, a customer had come in, told Gavin he wanted a mixed case of wine, and added that he didn’t care what the particular bottles were, so long as each had scored 90 points or higher from Parker. (This was in 1992, as I recall, maybe ’93.) After all the diligence Gavin and the rest of us had applied in personally selecting the store’s stock, Gavin’s Irish temper was–most properly–aroused.
Anyhow, Wilfred was right, and he made me apologize for forgetting Finnigan, right there in front of Rob Mondavi, which I, having no ego, was happy to do.
The point remains that Chardonnay was launched on its path to superstardom by a small group of smart, visionary writers who understood that it was the greatest white wine in California, which made it the greatest white wine in the America. And such was their power, nearly 40 years ago, that America listened to them. That was the kind of top-down, one-way conversation so loathed today by the social mediacs, and it worked. No group of writer/critics will ever approach that degree of authority, much less unanimity, in our quarrelsome times. But you know what? It’s all good.
Most of the top Chardonnays I tasted in 2012 were from the 2010 vintage, not an easy one in coastal California. It was cold; Spring was wet; the harvest was delayed. Alternating heat waves, cold snaps and showers punctuated September and October. Mold was a problem, especially in the cooler, damper areas. Yet wineries that practiced careful viticulture, and had strong sorting regimes, made some magnificent Chardonnays.
The Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast, including the Green Valley, did particularly well. Alcohol levels typically were in the mid-14s by volume, giving the wines weight and warmth. Long hangtime resulted in intense flavors. Most veteran winemakers have mastered their house styles concerning interventions, including barrel and malolactic fermentation, battonage and oak aging, those traditional Burgundian techniques that make Chardonnay so unctuous. Yet these Chardonnays also possess a lyrical quality that suggests cold streams flowing over granite.
Among my favorite 2010s from Sonoma County were Failla Estate, Rochioli South River Vineyard, Dutton-Goldfield Ranch Rued, Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard, Lynmar Susanna’s Vineyard, Joseph Phelps Pastorale Vineyard, Matanzas Creek Journey, Marimar Estate Don Miguel Vineyard La Masia and Parallel. All scored from the mid- to high 90s. They are wines of incredible richness and delight, and explain why Chardonnay remains America’s favorite white wine.
Chardonnay has not achieved the ridiculous price levels of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir—not yet, and I suspect it never will. There seems to be some kind of built-in feeling on the consumer’s part that a California white wine, no matter how good it is, simply doesn’t deserve the big bucks of a red wine. I’m not sure exactly why that is. The majority of the best Chards I reviewed last year cost between $30 and $60. Granted, there were exceptions at the upper end, but for every $70 and up Chardonnay there is a cheaper analog that’s pretty much as good—often from the same winery. Vintners will charge what they think the market will bear, but they also charge on the basis of reputation and low production, which doesn’t necessarily mean the wine is better, only scarcer.
2010 also saw lots of bargain Chardonnay. Chardonnay is easier to make good and inexpensive than any other variety. That’s because the grape grows well almost everywhere (better in cool areas, but still…), but it’s also relatively neutral in flavor, so the winemaker’s contribution can fancy up even a plain wine. I grant that many among the Anything But Chardonnay crowd will find a lot of the bargain Chards I liked simple and sweet. Chacun a son gout. But from a price-quality ratio point of view, 2010 was a good year. Among my value 2010s were Annabella, Kendall-Jackson Avant, Liberty School, Leese-Fitch, Chalone, Round Hill, Greystone, Beaulieu Coastal Estates and Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi—all of them $13 or less.
The Chablisians are hitting the road to market their region and its famous white wine. It is a very ancient winegrowing region; the Romans brought vines and viticulture there sometime early in the Common Era, according to Rosemary George, MW, in her fine book, The Wines of Chablis and the Grand Auxerrois.
That the Chardonnay grape became a virtual monopole in Chablis no doubt is due to Chablis having been incorporated, in 1477, into the duchy of Burgundy. Red wine may be made there, but then, it would not be entitled to any of the official AOCs: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru or Chablis Grand Cru, but only the lowly Vin de Pays status.
My host yesterday, at a small luncheon at Boulevard, was the charming, young, voluble Jean-Francois Bordet, winemaker at Domaine Séguinot-Bordet (which his family has farmed for many centuries) and also president of the Chablis Wine Board. We tasted through 5 wines: Jean-Francois’s own Domaine Séguinot-Bordet 2010 Vielles Vignes (12.8% ABV, $16), La Chablisienne 2009 Premier Cru Côte de Léchet (13%, about $23), Domaine William Fevre 2009 Premier Cru Vaulorent (12.5%, $53), Domaine Christian Moreau 2008 Grand Cru Valmur (13%, $65) and Domaine Drouhin Vaudon 2008 Grand Cru Les Clos ($74; I did not get the alcohol). Each wine was immaculately paired with superb food, mainly sea food (crab, scallops, lobster), although Boulevard’s chef, Nancy Oaks, decided to make a steak tartare and oyster appetizer for Jean-Francois’s Vielles Vignes, and what a great match that was.
Several things were apparent: Chablis is great wine by any standard. It is reasonably priced, especially at the Grand Cru level; only a handful of domaines dare exceed $100. The wines are just what the anti-high alcohol lynch mob demands. And they are sublimely versatile with food. Of course, if you’re at a restaurant like Boulevard, you eat something classic with Chablis, such as the Maine lobster with risotto and mushrooms, which Chef Oaks paired with the two Grand Crus. But, as Jean-Francois observed, at home he will happily drink Chablis with anything including, he smiled, scrambled eggs for breakfast.
The wines themselves all possess the Chablisian traits of utter dryness, acidity and minerality. From Chablis through Premier Cru and Grand Cru one discovers, of course, increasing power and depth. In some respects, Jean-Francois’s unoaked Vielles Vignes stood out for me, so clean and vibrant and uplifting, and, at $16, an amazing deal. It was my first sip of wine of the day, so that may have accounted for much of its appeal, but I left some in the glass and, even two hours later after that splendid lunch, it retained and even increased its charms.
As if bracketing the five wines, my other favorite was the Les Clos Grand Cru. I called it “huge”, with “fantastic power,” “the biggest of the tasting,” but this is perhaps misleading, because those terms could be used for a California Chardonnay from, say, Williams Selyem, but no two Chardonnays could be more different. The Les Clos was huge in comparison with the preceding four wines, yet it also was sleek, elegant and streamlined, despite a year in oak (none of which, by the way, was new). The flavors vaguely suggested Asian pear and quince, with the wood bringing a spicy tone of butterscotch, but to over-dwell on any specific flavor is a mistake, because the wine comes across as a single entity, which is, after all, the essence of balance.
On the other hand, the third wine, the 2009 Premier Cru Vaulorent, was for me the least of all the wines. Jean-Francois explained that 2009 had been a very hot year in Chablis, and the wine right off the bat seemed heavy, lacking the vibrance of its colleagues. There also was something overtly mushroomy going on, which led me to believe it’s not going anywhere. We did have a discussion of the role of personal preference with these older wines, however, and it may be that my long experience with California fruitiness has prejudiced me against certain older white wines. Chacun a son gout, as usual.
Chablis was one of my go-to wines in the 1980s and I will always have a fondness for it, even if I don’t drink as much nowadays as I’d like. Nor do most Americans, it seems, and, as the U.S. is a very important market for domaines like Séguinot-Bordet, Jean-Francois and the Chablisians are criss-crossing the country, trying to persuade people to remember Chablis. My advice to them was to aim at the under-35 crowd, who seem so open to new drinking experiences, and communicate a very simple message: Chablis has been one of the most famous wines in the world for many centuries. There’s a reason why; no wine gets and remains famous for so long without possessing outstanding, unique qualities. They–these new wine drinkers–owe it to themselves to understand what makes Chablis so great. This is a pure, uncomplicated message, and it is made easier to digest by the fact that Chablis is Chardonnay, a variety everyone has heard of, not some grape type unknown to them.
There are hazards. Some people may have decided that Chardonnay is not for them. They will need to be convinced, and possibly, some of them cannot be. Their loss. Another hazard, which the Chablisians are intensely aware of, is the confusion in America over the use of the word “Chablis” on wines made largely from the Central Valley. This, as an issue, can be finessed, through a successful advertising campaign.