As eclectic a list as has ever appeared in the Top 10, showing how, in California’s democracy, almost any kind of wine from any appellation can be good. As always, you’ll find my complete reviews and scores in upcoming issues of Wine Enthusiast. Have fun this weekend and play safe.
Jarvis 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 460 cases, 14.7%, $195. Spectacular 100% Cab, from the Vacas east of Napa. Also, Jarvis 2007 Lake Williams Cabernet.
De Loach 2009 Stubbs Vineyard Pinot Noir, Marin County. 50 cases, 13.5%, $40. There’s not a lot of Pinot in Marin, but what there is is tantalizingly fresh and complex. Also the winery’s 2009 Chardonnay, from the same vineyard.
Neal Family 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley. 924 cases, 13.7%, $18. One of the best Sauvignons on the market, and look at that price.
Phillips Hill 2009 Hinterlands Pinot Noir, Mendocino. 140 cases, 14%, $38. A delicate, transparent and complex young Pinot.
PureCoz 2007 Red Blend, Napa Valley. Mitch Cosentino is back, and in fine style with this Bordeaux blend + Sangiovese.
Calcareous 2009 Viognier-Marsanne, Paso Robles. 437 cases, 14.7%, $28. Dry and racy, with exotic flavors.
J. Keverson 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Valley. 312 cases, 14.4%, $34. Dry Creek Cabernet at its slightly rustic, charming best.
Hall 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley. 8,700 cases, alcohol not known, $22. Rich and fruity, with a touch of gooseberry. Sorry I forgot to note the ABV.
Lost Canyon 2009 Morelli Lane Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley. 340 cases, 14.1%, $45. A big, rich, spicy and delicious Pinot for drinking now. Also their 2009 Saralee’s Pinot.
Gundlach Bundschu 2010 Estate Gewurztraminer, Sonoma Coast. 2,250 cases, 14.4%, $23. Textbook cool climate Gewurz, spicy and fruity.
THE CHARDONNAY SYMPOSIUM
I hope you’ll come by The Chardonnay Symposium this July 22-23, down in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. This is the only fullscale event devoted to Chardonnay in California. I’ll be heading up a symposium; Karen MacNeil will be doing another. Lots of great wine and food, educational seminars and cool winemakers. Now in its second year, The Chardonnay Symposium, I predict, is going to be one of the biggest, most important wine events of the year.
It’s always exciting for a critic to taste through a range of wines from the same variety and winery, whose fruit comes from different places. Testarossa, Williams Selyem, Siduri, Failla, Merry Edwards, MacPhail–they all produce a wide range of Pinot Noirs (Williams Selyem made 16 different Pinots in 2007), and it’s interesting and educational to experience them as expressions of terroir, made, as they are, with the same winemaking sensibility .
One subset of this multi-bottling practice is with block bottlings. This is when the winemaker bottles the same variety from different parts of the (presumably estate) vineyard, in the belief that the various bottlings will show fascinating differences. Transparent varieties like Pinot Noir and, to some extent, Chardonnay are able to reflect small differences in terroir, in a way a heavier variety, such as Zinfandel, will not.
There’s usually a price formula with such lineups. The block bottlings tend to be more expensive than the vineyard-designated bottling, which in turn is more expensive than the non-vineyard-designated appellation bottling (if the winery has one). This model is based, of course, on Burgundy. For anyone in California who’s serious about Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, and has access to the grapes, it must be irresistable to produce multiple bottlings.
But what does this mean for the consumer? For a critic whose mission it is to provide advice and guidance to wine buyers, the question begs to be asked: “Can it be said in every case that the block bottling is better than the vineyard-designated wine, which in turn is better than the appellation bottling?” And the answer is decidedly “No.”
I’ve seen it over and over for years. I’ll use a few examples of wines I reviewed last week. Lynmar sent me 11 new 2009 Pinot Noirs, most of them from their Quail Hill estate vineyard in the southern Russian River Valley. I’ve long been a big fan of Lynmar, through the Hugh Chappelle and Dan Moore eras to the Bibiana Gonzalez Rave era of today. In 2004, Lynmar sent me 3 Pinots to review: the Quail Hill, Five Sisters and regular Russian River Valley. I rated the Quail Hill higher than the Five Sisters, even though the latter cost $30 more.
By 2007, Lynmar sent me five Pinots. I scored their Hawk Hill the same as the Five Sisters, even though the latter again cost $30 more. But the other three Pinots were tightly clustered just below them in score, meaning that for all practical purposes they were just as good. (When wines are 3 or 4 points apart, their relative standings can easily switch, given the vagaries of time and bottle variation.) Which brings us to those eleven 2009s I just reviewed. My highest scoring wine was the Quail Hill “Summit”, which I scored more highly than the Quail Hill Old Vines Pinot that cost $50 more. I scored a Block 10 bottling from Quail Hill considerably lower, as it didn’t possess the complexity of the Summit, Quail Hill Lynn’s Blend or Quail Hill Bliss Block, even though all were priced identically, at $70.
There are a couple lessons here. One is that price is no indicator of quality. We all know that, but what’s less understood is that there’s a potential risk a winery takes when it carves up and bottles an estate vineyard into lots of little blocks: it can be a zero sum game in which one side wins while the other loses. This is because, if you blend your best lots into block or barrel selections, you no longer have those barrels available to fill in the divots of other barrels that may be incomplete in terms of aromatics, acidity, depth of flavor, color, tannins, and so on.
Then there’s the case of Iron Horse’s 2009 Chardonnays, which numbered seven, the most they’ve ever sent me. The grapes for all of them came from the winery’s magnificent hilly estate vineyard, near cool Forestville, in the Green Valley. All seven are terrific wines, showing the crisp acidity, dryness, minerality and brilliant fruit Iron Horse Chards always deliver. I scored them all within a few points of each other. Well and good, but the pricing was widely disparate, meaning there was little correlation between price and quality (or my scores, if you prefer). For example, I rated the Estate Chardonnay, at $27, higher than the Heritage Clone and “M” bottlings, (the latter a block selection), both of them priced at $48.
The Burgundian model, of which Romanée-Conti is the most famous, works because vintners there have had centuries to figure out block differences that are dependably real, year after year, decade after decade. (You can think of the six red DRC named vineyards as different blocks of a single 61-acre vineyard, which is smaller than Iron Horse’s 79 acres of Pinot Noir.) The Californians haven’t yet had the opportunity of centuries to get things right. It’s certainly not improper for wineries like Iron Horse and Lynmar to tinker with block bottlings, and in fact, just the opposite: it’s a noble undertaking, not without risk (as I pointed out above), whose goal is laudable and, one hopes, achievable. In another generation or two, Iron Horse and Lynmar may have blocked out their vineyards in compelling ways. But not yet.
I’m gearing up for a big article in Wine Enthusiast on the topic of Chardonnay. The specific slant is exciting, new, young producers to keep an eye on. It’s fairly standard wine magazine stuff; part of being a good reporter is to discover and follow upcoming talent and then let people know about them. Besides, it’s fun for me personally to get to know new blood. I was just listening to Joe Roberts’ radio interview with Maynard James Keenan, during which Mr. Keenan mentioned how insulated (I think he meant insular) the rock and roll industry can get, and Joe said the wine industry can, too, and I nodded my head and thought, uh huh, that’s right. In this business you tend to talk to people you know. Unless you make an effort to smash through boundaries, you’ll be ignorant of new talent, winemakers with staying power, and so will be your readers.
I’ll be writing about these talented newcomers in the magazine, but thinking about Chardonnay got me thinking about something I hadn’t considered for a while. Chardonnay is so ubiquitous in California (100,000 acres) and on store shelves, and so dominant as a branded white wine, that I think people sometimes forget how difficult it is to make a really good one. Everybody knows how hard it is to craft excellent Pinot Noir. Ditto for Sangiovese, Grenache and Riesling. But there’s a tendency to think that Chardonnay (and Cabernet Sauvignon and to some extent Syrah) is as easy as falling off a log. If that’s the way you think, then consider how many awful Chardonnays there are out there, and you’ll see that the variety more often stumbles than succeeds.
What can go wrong with Chardonnay starts in the vineyard and then spreads into the winery. The biggest problem (aside from growing it in too hot of a climate), viticulturally speaking, is overcropping. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a thin Chardonnay. I had one yesterday, from Black Box. They must have gotten a lot of clusters per vine, or tons per the acre, but at $25 for 3 liters, it was fine and clean and dry. The winemaker let Monterey’s cool terroir speak for itself because he had no choice, lacking the budget to Tammy Faye the wine with overwrought weight. I’d choose it anytime over a clumsy Chardonnay.
What makes Chard clumsy? It’s often because a vintner will take overcropped grapes, make a simple little wine from them, then dump all kinds of oak or oak-like substances onto the wine, thinking he can fool people into believing that the smell and taste of oak is actually that of Chardonnay. That sin is compounded when the vintner leaves a little residual sugar in there. Those Chardonnays are dreadful.
Even with pretty good grapes, mishandling in the winery can make Chardonnay heavy and over-manipulated. If there’s a grape in the world that’s more manipulated than Chardonnay, I don’t know what it is. Too much oak, or the wrong kind of oak, is the usual culprit. It gives weird, toothpicky tastes, while too much char can make the wine caramelized. Inappropriate malolactic fermentation, especially in a thin Chardonnay, can spell the difference between the pleasant aroma and flavor of buttered toast and the manufactured, chemically one of buttered popcorn. Acidity in Chardonnay has to be just right, as does pH. If the wine is too soft, it can taste candied and simple. If it’s too tart, it can be sour (although I, personally, like a tart Chardonnay). Sometimes I’ll taste Chardonnay that’s tart, but the acidity tastes bizarre and exogenous to the wine–something poured out of a box that gives the wine a completely wrong feeling. Add a little residual sugar, and that makes for a truly offensive combination.
When you think of all the decision points a winemaker has, you can see how easy it is to go off-track. Maybe that’s why I’ve yet to give 100 points to a California Chardonnay. In theory there’s one out there. The thing with Chardonnay, as with most other white wines, is that because they’re less tannic, less full-bodied and assertive than, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, their faults are more apparent. It’s the difference between, say, judging beautiful Hollywood stars with and without clothes. You can see Kate Beckinsale on the runway with the most perfect hair, makeup, designer clothes and accessories and call her a perfect 100. Or you can see Kate Beckinsale naked, in which case she may score lower (because it’s a lot harder to have a perfect body than to cover that imperfect body with a perfect layer of masquerade). Chardonnay, even oaked and sur lie, is a more naked wine than Cabernet. Unless it’s bones and tone are perfect, it will be a little flawed. So I’m still waiting for that 100 point Chardonnay.
Australians are drinking less Chardonnay and more Sauvignon Blanc, according to a London wine research firm. The number of Aussies who regularly drank Chardonnay fell from 81% in 2007, to 76% in 2008, 69% in 2009, and then again to 64% in the first six months of 2010.
That’s a 21 percent dip in 3-1/2 years, a drastic loss for any consumable.
The study concluded that the reason Australians are drinking less Chardonnay is because they’re “moving away from these heavier oaked styles,” which are so plentiful Down Under. What are they moving toward? “For the first time, more Australians say they’re drinking Sauvignon Blanc (65% of all monthly wine drinkers) compared with Chardonnay (64%).” Much of that Sauv Blanc undoubtedly is brought in from New Zealand.
“The other main beneficiaries from Chardonnay’s decline”, according to the study, appear to be “niche varietals such as Pinot Grigio (up from 18% to 24% penetration) and Viognier (up from 8% to 13%).”
I have a feeling the same thing is happening here in America. Chardonnay remains our number one white wine, by far, but there’s evidence its dominance is eroding. Some of this, I admit, is frankly anecdotal. But some of it is based upon fact.
My anecdotal experience is that there is greater interest, among the media and foodies in California, for white wines other than Chardonnay. We’ve all heard of an anti-Chardonnay movement among sommeliers and restaurateurs seeking leaner, drier, higher acid and more minerally white wines to pair with their food. We see the same sort of reaction among critics. I, myself, recently headlined a story in Wine Enthusiast “Getting Serious About Sauvignon Blanc.” In it, I noted a turn toward Graves-style wines from producers such as Mondavi, Chalk Hill, Brander, Illumination, Dutton Estate and Gainey.
Along more factual lines, you may find it hard to believe that in 2009, there were fewer bearing acres of Chardonnay planted in California than there were in the year 2001. But it’s true.
2001 bearing acres, Chardonnay: 93,316
2009 bearing acres, Chardonnay: 90,434
Yes, if you factor in the non-bearing Chardonnay acres in 2009 — 4,551 — the total Chardonnay acreage bounces to 94,986. But that is barely more than the total Chardonnay acreage in 2003, seven years ago. And that, despite the fact (cited by Wine Institute) that U.S. per capita wine consumption increased by 14.5% between 2004 and 2008.
There are many ways to interpret this data. Planted grape acreage is a more reliable gauge of grower expectations than crush reports, whose numbers are influenced by vintage conditions. Grape growers have their fingers continually in the wind, sensing changes in direction. If they haven’t been planting Chardonnay to any degree for a decade, there’s a reason: they don’t see consumer demand for it appreciating.
Growers, however, have planted more of other white varieties. Between 2000 and 2009, Sauvignon Blanc acreage is up nearly 36 percent. Pinot Gris, during the same period, is up more than 800 percent, although it started from a very small base. Viognier has nearly doubled.
I do wonder, exactly, why Australians are “moving away from these heavier oaked styles.” The study provides no guidance, except for a mysterious reference to “a growing rejection of the classic oaky Chardonnay taste” among consumers. Generally, when large numbers of people reject something suddenly which they had previously liked a great deal, there are profound reasons for it. What could those reasons be for the Australians? I suppose it’s a hankering for something different. Maybe a new generation in Australia is like the new generation here: more adventurous, less likely to drink what their parents drank.
Then again, maybe the long-rumored turnaround is occurring — the switch toward more nuanced, drier, more balanced wines. Maybe the Aussie migration from Chardonnay is one of those canaries in the coal mine that portend sweeping changes ahead.
Here in California, Pinot Noir has one (World of Pinot Noir). Zinfandel has one (ZAP). The Rhône varieties have one (Hospice du Rhône). Sauvignon Blanc has one (International Symposium on Sauvignon Blanc). Petite Sirah has one (Petite Sirah Symposium). Maybe other varieties do too. I don’t think Cabernet Sauvignon does, but then, can you imagine a Cabernet Symposium? Too politically bizarre to contemplate.
Anyhow, now Chardonnay — America’s favorite white wine — is about to have its very own public event. The Chardonnay Symposium. About time.
What took so long? “We went through this ABC [anything but Chardonnay] period. Chardonnay people were looking at Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc,” i.e. almost anything other than Chardonnay, says one of the Symposium’s sponsors, Nicholas Miller, of Bien Nacido Vineyard. But “a renewed interest in Chardonnay,” he adds, prompted him and his colleagues to start the symposium now.
The one-day event is slated for Sat. July 31, in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County, with tastings, seminars, food pairings and of course a great big lunch. The various venues are at Bien Nacido, Cambria Winery, Byron Winery and Tres Hermanas Winery.
I would have loved to go, and they invited me, but alas, something more important conflicts with the date: our annual Summer Editorial Meeting at Wine Enthusiast. If it weren’t for that, I’d be high-tailing it south to hear such esteemed Chardonnay producers as the Symposium will present. Not to single out or exclude anyone, but they include people with last names such as Pisoni, Ullom, Hyde, Talley, Volk, Sanford, Tolmach and Clendenen.
Chardonnay is my favorite California white wine (excluding sparking) and it’s about time somebody devoted a big event to it. True, the geographic focus is mainly the Central Coast, with most of the speakers and participating wineries hailing from there; but then, this is the event’s first year, and you have to start someplace. When World of Pinot Noir began, what– 10 years ago? — I was there (Wine Enthusiast has been a sponsor from day one), and it was almost totally a Central Coast affair. The organizers tried to reach out to the North Coast, but it was hard. Wineries have so many opportunities to participate in so many events that they have to be selective. You not only have to pay to play, you have to open a lot of expensive bottles. And then there are travel and lodging costs, not to mention time away from your real job in the winery. It took some years for WOPN to attract a critical mass of North Coast wineries, not to mention vintners from overseas. Now, WOPN is a huge success.
Nicholas Miller envisions similar growth for the Chardonnay Symposium. “My hope is that, as people see what we’re doing, it will become like a Hospice du Rhône or a WOPN. They’ll see the success of it in future years, and we’ll get more interest from the North Coast.” So [this is Steve to North Coast producers]: keep your eyes on this one.
One tactical drawback I can see for the Chardonnay Symposium is that there’s a near total absence of nice places to stay in the Santa Maria Valley. At WOPN, most people stay at The Cliffs or at nearby resorts. It’s all very convenient. You never have to drive anywhere for the entire three days, and it’s nice to be able to duck away from a grand tasting or inbetween seminars and go to your room to freshen up or rest. By contrast, guests at the Chardonnay Symposium will be on the road all day, at the mercy of shuttle buses. They’ll also be mostly outdoors, which is always risky. It won’t rain at that time of the year, of course, but it could be cold and foggy. Or there could be a heat wave. It’s summer along the California coast; you never know. But then, the Chardonnay Symposium is beginning only as a one-day event.
Here’s what I hope some of the panels focus on.
- the role of oak. How much is too much? Can we wean the public away from their addiction to thick, clumsy oak, which they often think is the actual smell and taste of Chardonnay?
- malolactic fermentation. When is it justified? Are California vintners moving away from it? Why did they become so reliant on it to begin with?
- unoaked Chardonnay. Need it always be only a simple, inexpensive wine? Is it possible to craft an unoaked Chardonnay of great nuance and style?
I’m sure there are lots of other issues, but those are three good ones to address.
You’ll find information on the Chardonnay Symposium here.
(As in “Anything But Chardonnay”)
A friend of mine recently expressed a certain, shall we say, disdain for California Chardonnay. He used terms like “fruit bomb” and “over-oaked,” the implication being that, despite all the Burgundian bells and whistles, Cali Chard doesn’t come close to an authentic bottle of the real French stuff.
I grew emotional, as I tend to do when California wine is attacked, and wanted to leap to my state’s defense. But, in the heat of the moment, I couldn’t frame the words quite the way I wanted. As a writer, not a speechifier, I remained reticent. Now that a couple days have gone by, let me try.
As in all things aesthetic, reasonable people can disagree. You say “po-tay-to” and I say “po-tah-to”. But let me get in my two cents on why I love California Chardonnay and why I think — no, make that know that it’s the state’s greatest white wine.
We know that California can grow great Chardonnay grapes, thanks to the stainless steel, unwooded style produced by wineries such as Iron Horse, Sebastiani, Toad Hollow, Silver, Pellegrini, Valley of the Moon and others. They’ve shown us how rich and flavorful the wine can be when it’s never seen a splinter of oak. With flavors running the gamut from grapes, fresh green apples and peaches to pears, pineapples and tropical fruits, what’s not to like?
Which brings us to oak.
Okay, I’m first to admit that playing with oak is like playing with matches in a gasoline refinery. It’s dangerous. There’s a definite line between a wine that’s over-oaked and one where the oak is just right. It’s hard to define, and, like I said above, different people will come to different conclusions. For me, oak has these characteristic aromas and flavors: buttered toast, vanilla and caramel. (Usually, barrel-fermented, barrel-aged Chardonnay also will have lees influence, and that plays into the picture. And Chardonnays often are put through the malolactic fermentation, which can make them buttery and creamy. But the oak notes are as I described above.)
If the wine starts off with an over-dominating smell of buttered toast, vanilla and caramel, chances are it’s over-oaked and out of balance. That doesn’t mean it has a lot of new wood or a lot of high-char wood. All it means it that the underlying Chardonnay is unable to support the weight of the wood. (This can also be because the source of the “oak” is some ersatz cheap stuff with oak-like smells.) By the same token, a massive, ripe Chardonnay can easily sustain 100 percent new oak.
The best way to put this visually is this:
Tammy Faye Bakker, rest her soul, was and forever will be the poster child for excessive makeup. (Of course, this is no reflection on her character. I liked her, or, at least, I liked the person who came through the TV screen.) But she sure did pile on the mascara, lipstick and false eyelashes, so there was something freakishly garish about her. This is how an over-oaked and, yes, fruit-bomby California Chardonnay (and there are plenty of them) tastes to me.
Then there’s a different type of look, one I think we all can agree is beautiful and classy.
Since I happen to think that buttered toast, vanilla and caramel are pretty nice flavors, I don’t mind finding them in my Chardonnays. And when you couple those with the fruit of a properly grown Chardonnay, you’re looking at a pretty special wine. A great, oaky California Chardonnay is Sandra Bullock in a glass.
I often use the words “flamboyant” or “hedonistic” to describe Chardonnays I like. But I think I’m always careful to add something like “balanced with crisp acidity” or “with a streak of minerals” to suggest structure and firmness. Flamboyance without structure is, well, Tammy Faye. All flash, no substance. It’s a matter of taste and style. You either have it, or you don’t.
If you concede that California is capable of great Chardonnay (not everyone will, I know), then you have to admit that the greatest is going to be a ripe, oaky Chardonnay, not an unoaked one. Is that a controversial statement? I don’t think so, although I could imagine a situation wherein a very great Chardonnay is unoaked. Greg Brewer and Marimar Torres play in that sandbox. But my feeling is that, for Chardonnay to rise to its greatest heights, it needs oak.
No wine type divides wine lovers more than California Chardonnay. It’s the healthcare bill of varieties: you either love it or hate it. Nobody’s indifferent, everyone has an opinion. If you’re an ABCer, I’ll never convince you to like ripe, oaky California Chardonnay. But if it’s not California’s greatest white wine, what is?