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.
The conversation of whether California Chardonnays or Rieslings age or don’t age rarely happens, and for good reason: few do, and most people don’t care about aging white wines the way they do with reds. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “age.” Most any wine will last for a while before becoming utterly undrinkable, whatever that means. By “aging” we mean to indicate several qualities about a wine: that it becomes better (again, whatever that means) – that it becomes more interesting (but this is in the eye of the beholder) – that the connoisseur will appreciate it whereas a novice might not (but we have to be careful with such descriptors) – that it is worthy of respect to still be clean and drinkable at a great age – that it has transcended its fruity origins (primary) and achieved secondary or tertiary characteristics.
That long opening paragraph is meant to indicate some of the problems or issues involving older wines. Tasting an old wine that is, by some sort of common critical consensus, “properly aged” is not a simple matter, cut-and-dried, like determining whether or not milk is fresh or spoiled.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I can tell you about a tasting yesterday at RN74 in San Francisco of some wines from the famous Stony Hill Vineyard. In case you don’t know, Stony Hill is one of California’s and certainly one of Napa Valley’s oldest, continually-operated wineries, run by the founding family–in this case, the McCreas. Fred and Eleanor bought their property high up on Spring Mountain in 1943, and nine years later, in 1952, they produced their first vintage of Chardonnay. Riesling subsequently followed, and, in 2009, they made their first-ever Cabernet Sauvignon, released just a month or so ago.
(Trivia segue: Only three wineries in Napa Valley that were in business in 1952 are still owned and operated by the same families today: Stony Hill, Charles Krug [by the Peter Mondavi family] and–who’s the third? Guess. The answer is at the end of this post. First to get it right gets a free lifetime subscription to steveheimoff.com.)
Anyway, here are my notes. I’m not scoring the wines because in my judgment it’s harder to rate old white wines like these than younger ones since the perception of them is so varied. Besides, I obviously tasted them openly and that is not my usual tasting procedure.
2010 Chardonnay: Classic Stony Hill style, dry, minerally and citrusy, with little apparent oak. (The alcohol on all the Chardonnays is in the 13% range, give or take a little.)
2006 Chardonnay: Shy at first, then lemon verbena and mineral notes. Drying out a little. Somewhere between fresh and aged, indeterminate. Something mushroomy suggests wild mushroom risotto.
2001 Chardonnay: Spectacular. Roasted honey, dried lime, minerals, salt. Fruit fading into the background. Interesting and nuanced.
1997 Chardonnay: So clean and inviting. Really stands out. Honey, sweet cream, Meyer lemons, vanilla. Obviously no longer young, but fresh, tangy, vibrant.
1994 Chardonnay: Clearly an old Chard, but no trace of corruption. Nuts, sherry-like oxidation, dried fruits and honey. So dry, with mouthwatering acidity.
1982 Chardonnay: Botrytis shows in the sweetness. Impressive for 30 years in the bottle, but for me the sweetness is off-putting.
1978 Chardonnay: A touch of corkiness? Or just getting old? Whatever, it’s dry, creamy and nutty, with Meyer lemons, minerals and pears. Perfectly fine and complex. 38 years old and still kicking!
1992 White Riesling: At 20 years, such a wonderful wine. Off-dry, honeyed, brilliantly crisp, offering ripe orange blossom, green apple and mango flavors. Has at least 10 more years ahead.
1988 White Riesling: Has picked up an old gold color. Very pure aromas. Old, filled with tertiary notes, not for everyone. Dry, delicate, brittle, sweet toffee, grapefruit, lemon zest, salty. Some oxidation, like a manzanilla sherry.
2009 Cabernet Sauvignon: Their first Cab ever. Made in an old style: 13.5% alcohol, tight, tannic, bone dry, earthy, with sour red cherry and red currant fruit. Fans of ripe, opulent, high alcohol Cabs might not like it. Will age for many decades. I would love to taste this wine in 2029 and maybe I will.
Answer to trivia segue: Nichelini.
A reader griped the other day that I was writing too much about social media and not enough about wine. So here goes!
These are my 5 top-scoring wines from three popular varieties over the past several months. (All reviews and scores have been published, either in Wine Enthusiast’s print Buying Guide, online, or both. I’ve scored other wines higher, but they haven’t been published yet.) Within each variety, I consider the commonalities that made the wines so great, to me.
98 Goldschmidt 2006 PLUS Game Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $150
97 Shafer 2007 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap); $225
97 Cardinale 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $250
97 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2008 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $195
97 Yao Ming 2009 Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $625
2. from Napa Valley or its sub-appellations
3. relatively high in alcohol [minimum: 14.5%]
4. relatively low production
6. quality factors: richness, full-bodied, ripe, oaky, dense, appearance of sweetness, complexity
98 Merry Edwards 2009 Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $57
97 Donum Estate 2009 West Slope Estate Pinot Noir (Carneros); $100
96 Rochioli 2010 West Block Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $100
96 Marimar Estate 2008 La Masia Don Miguel Vinyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $39
96 De Loach 2009 Pennacchio Vineyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $45
1. All from Russian River Valley except Donum, which is on the Sonoma side of Carneros
2. alcohols within a narrow range [14.4-14.7]
3. production relatively low [maximum: Marimar Estate, 3,300 cases]
4. all show oak, but balanced
5. quality factors: juicy in acidity, medium-bodied [not too light or too heavy], rich in fruits [generally red stone and berry], dry, spicy, silky, elegant, approachable
99 Failla 2010 Estate Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $44
96 Lynmar 2010 Susanna’s Vineyard Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $50
96 Roar 2010 Sierra Mar Vineyard (Snta Lucia Highlands); $45
94 Sandhi 2010 Rita’s Crown Chardonnay (Sta. Rita HIlls); $55
94 Matanzas Creek 2010 Journey Chardonnay (Sonoma County); $75
1. Geographically diverse, so no common origin
2. alcohol levels diverse, ranging from Sandhi (13.0%) to Matanzas Creek (14.6%)
3. all show well-integrated oak
4 quality factors: all made in the popular style: oaky, creamy, rich, flashy fruit, spicy, good balancing acidity
In Cabernet Sauvignon the address remains Napa Valley, most often the hills but not necessarily. And you get what you pay for. Also, great Cabernet can come from any vintage, regardless of its challenges.
In Pinot Noir, quality is considerably less tied to price: put another way, there are more bargains and also more overpriced ripoffs. Nor is geography as simple as with Cabernet: any of the coastal appellations can shine.
In Chardonnay, the same is true: great Chardonnay comes from the same areas as great Pinot Noir, with the single exception of Napa Valley, where very little reliably good Pinot Noir is produced. But then, I can remember a time when Napa Valley did produce interesting Pinot Noirs. The vines have all since been ripped out or budded over, victims of a critical mindset that determined Napa Valley cannot produce good Pinot Noir.
The Symposium was last Saturday in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. I hope you like these pictures.
The red house at Bien Nacido Vineyards, where I often stay in Santa Maria Valley
Bien Nacido on a sunny afternoon
Bien Nacido, fog blowing in
Gus outside the red house. He loves to run free on the ranch
My panel at the Symposium, which was at Byron Winery
Byron Winery, vineyards
Dieter Conje (Presqu’ile) and Josh Klapper (La Fenetre)
Jonathan Nagy (Byron)
Eric Murphy (Talley)
Bob Cabral (Williams Selyem)
James Hall (Patz & Hall)
Gus, back at the red house, after a long day!
At the age of 3 years, The Chardonnay Symposium, held last Saturday at Byron Winery in the beautiful Santa Maria Valley, was the best, biggest, most successful yet. It was completely sold out–not a space left for my panel. In fact, the conversation among organizers now is, where does TCS go from here? It’s no lie to say it’s the most important Chardonnay public event in California. If you think about it, it’s downright bizarre that there hasn’t been an event celebrating Chardonnay before now. After all, Chard is the most popular wine in America.
My panel was awesome: Josh Klapper [La Fenetre, sitting in for Jenne Bonaccorsi, who had a death in the family), Bob Cabral (Williams Selyem), Dieter Cronje (Presqu'ile), James Hall (Patz & Hall), Eric Johnson (Talley), Heidi von der Mehden (Arrowood), Bill Wathan (Foxen) and Graham Weerts (Stonestreet). They really got to the root of the topic: How to preserve the terroir of a great Chardonnay vineyard while applying so many winemaker interventions, like oak.
One of the winemakers on my panel -- I think it was Dieter [LATER CORRECTION: IT WAS JOSH KLAPPER] — made this analogy: you can take Wonder Bread, white, bland, tasteless, and spread it with good butter, and you’ll get the taste of the butter, but very little else because the Wonder Bread has no flavor. On the other hand, you can take a really great homemade bread, filled with fabulous goodness and flavor, spread the same butter on it, and you’ll still get the butter but also so much more. Oak is like the butter: Put it on a bland wine, and all you get is oak. Put it on a great Chardonnay, and you get the deliciousness of the butter plus the complexity of the fruit. The resulting wine is all the better for the butter.
I think the conclusion was that things like barrel fermentation and the malolactic fermentation actually enhance terroir. At any rate, the wines spoke for themselves.
One of the topics of conversation between the event’s organizers, participating wineries and me that arose repeatedly was, Why is it that younger people seem not to accept Chardonnay, or don’t like it very much, or don’t seem to be buying it? I heard this from so many people that I assume it’s true (after all, they’re closer to the wholesale/retail market than I am). Here’s what I told them, which is just a theory, because I don’t have any survey results or anything like that. I think people from, say, 18-early 30s who do like to drink alcoholic beverages don’t want to drink their parents’ wine. They want to do their own thing, and they don’t want to feel or look old-fashioned or anachronistic. This helps to account for the explosion of all these fancy, infused (and often weird) cocktails lately as well as all these obscure wines from foreign countries. Dad didn’t drink those things, but he did drink Chardonnay. When you’re 27, you don’t want do what Dad did, you want to do something he didn’t.
I understand that. That’s part of being young and finding your own tastes in life. But here’s what I say to Gen X and Y: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! Chardonnay from France has been celebrated as one of the great white wines in the world for 400 or 500 years, maybe longer, in the form of white Burgundy, mainly from the Cotes de Beaune and Chablis. Multiple generations of humankind have declared Chardonnay’s greatness. So, to the extent that 27 year old says “I won’t drink Chardonnay because my mother likes it,” he’s cutting off his nose to spite his face–missing out on one of the most delicious white wines on earth, and certainly the richest dry table wine you can buy at affordable prices. When that 27 year old is 37, or 47, he’ll realize why the world has coveted this grape and wine for so long.