I’m back from my panel at The Chardonnay Symposium down at gorgeous Bien Nacido Vineyards and man oh man, what a fun time it was. Only in its second year, TCS is growing by leaps and bounds, and is destined to be the premier Chardonnay event in the U.S.A. (Actually, it already is, but you ain’t seen nothing yet!)
After my panel, on oaked and unoaked Chardonnay, people asked me, what was your favorite wine in the flight? And I said, I can’t actually say. There are different ways I taste wine. Tasting at home for review is a very specialized form of wine tasting. It’s how I taste at work, but it’s not how I, or any normal person, would taste wine anyplace else. It would be dreadfully boring to always be formally tasting wine.
For example, at my seminar, the way I tasted was to look for what was best and most exemplary in each wine. So although we had 12 wines, and they were all quite different from each other–grown in different regions, made by different winemakers, some entirely unoaked, some with 200% new oak, some at 13%, some at 16%, some from barrel, some 8 years old–I looked for the best qualities of each. And I found them, because you generally find what you’re looking for, whether it’s in wine, people or life.
On the other hand, when I taste critically, in blind flights, what I’m looking for are faults. I’m seeking to eliminate wines from the lineup, one by one, due to certain flaws. They may be excessive in acidity, or flabby, or too hot in the finish, or too oaky, or not fruity enough, or have raisin tastes, or be too sweet; it could be anything. Last one standing wins. So, just as I said you always find what you’re looking for, if you’re looking for faults, you’ll find them.
This leads to the question, is it better to look for faults or for virtues? The answer is, you can’t say one approach is better than the other. Different approaches are suitable for different purposes. When I’m reviewing and scoring, it’s appropriate to look for flaws. When I’m leading a panel of invited winemakers, each of whom I’m honored to sit beside, I’m looking to find those qualities in the wines that are the topic of the symposium. And let’s face it, the winemakers on my panel are not accustomed to making ordinary wines! Each of the twelve samples was extraordinary in its own unique way.
(Thanks by the way to Ellen for being a wonderful traveling companion!)
The Wine Blogging Awards
Of course I wanted to win Best Wine Blog at the Wine Bloggers Convention. And I didn’t. But I can honestly say that there’s nobody whom I would more have preferred to beat me than Tom Wark and his Fermentation blog.
Tom deserved this award by every measure. He’s easily the most important person in wine blogging history. He not only had one of the first wine blogs, he began the Wine Bloggers Conference and he started the Wine Blog Awards. Those achievements alone put Tom in the pantheon. Tom is to wine blogging as Walt Disney is to animation, as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were to the personal computer. In other words, the creator.
More personally, Tom has been my mentor in wine blogging. Not in the most direct way, but still importantly. It wasn’t Tom alone who persuaded me to be a wine blogger. But he was incredibly supportive of my efforts from the start. When I began wine blogging, Tom wrote one of the first reviews, which he headlined “Steve Heimoff and the Active Mind.” I was so proud of that, because Tom really “got” what it was I was trying to do (as I already had “got” what he was trying to do).
Since then, Tom has been a friend and ally. I like to think he’s had my back, and I know I’ve had his. It was Tom who advised me to blog 5 days a week. I’ve had offline conversations with Tom over the years. I’ve asked him questions and for advice; he’s always kindly answered. He’s asked me questions; I’ve given him my opinions, I hope helpfully. I respect the hell out of Tom Wark (and by the way, Tom is absolutely leading the fight against monopolistic distributors). Like I said, if I couldn’t win this award, there’s nobody on Earth I would rather have seen win. So my heartiest congratulations, Tom. You singularly deserve this honor.
I’ll be heading down to Santa Barbara on Friday July 22 to host a panel on unoaked and oaked Chardonnay at the second annual Chardonnay Symposium, which will be on July 23, at Bien Nacido Vineyard, with lunch to follow at Au Bon Climat/Qupe’s little facility, tucked away in a corner of the vineyard.
I wrote, above, “unoaked and oaked,” but I could have written “unoaked versus oaked.” I think that’s how the organizers would have preferred it, because a little controversy is always good for attracting paying customers. But I couldn’t feel it in my heart to pitch this as a contest. It’s not. It’s simply two different approaches to making Chardonnay.
Why there is even an increasingly important category of unoaked Chardonnay isn’t hard to understand. There are two reasons. First, the category did well coming out of Australia. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, it addresses the loud complaint of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) crowd that too much Chardonnay is overoaked, sweet plonk that’s virtually undrinkable at any price. Even though I’m a confessed lover of oaky Chardonnay, I’ll agree that there’s an awful lot of terrible stuff out there, simple wines that taste oak-like even though they may never actually have seen the inside of a proper oak barrel.
So the unoaked movement has allowed Americans to taste the true flavor of Chardonnay. Of course, just because a Chardonnay is unoaked doesn’t make it interesting or good. If you don’t put oak on top of a simple Chardonnay wine, all you end up with is a simple unoaked Chardonnay. The best unoaked Chardonnay I’ve had is from Diatom, Greg Brewer’s little project (he’s on my panel), but Greg reserves the right to put a little oak on Diatom if he wants to. If he gets radically good fruit in any given vintage, he’ll let it shine with unoaked Zen purity. And given the vineyards he has access to–Clos Pepe, Babcock, Huber–it’s more likely than not he’ll find good fruit.
For Chardonnay to succeed on its own, without oak, the wine needs complexity and acidity. A touch of minerality doesn’t hurt, and of course the finish must be dry, even if the center is fat and honeyed. The first time I ever tasted an unoaked Australian Chardonnay, I was amazed at how much vanilla there was. I had thought vanilla came from oak, but apparently there’s something in Chardonnay that gives it too.
Our panel is two hours in length, a long time for which to keep an audience amused. I’m just finishing the final touches on its structure. We have six panelists (excluding me), and I think I’ll have each winemaker bring two wines. Tasting twelve wines will help fill in the time by letting us compare and contrast more. But I also want to get into other issues. There are technical questions to be discussed, and also issues involving marketing and pricing. Why do winemakers make unoaked Chardonnay anyway? Is it because they perceive a niche for it, or because it’s cheaper? Does unoaked given them a higher profit margin? Do winemakers feel a tension between appealing to the marketplace, as opposed to making the best wine they can?
Anyhow, this should be an interesting panel, and I hope to see you on the day.
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.