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The Chardonnay Symposium: a photo essay

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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!

 

 


The Chardonnay Symposium: afterthoughts

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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.


How to taste? Let me count the ways

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There are as many different ways to taste wine as there are to roast a chicken, and, like roasting a chicken, every taster will have his or her favorite approach.

And I’m not even talking about the single blind-double blind-open thing.  I’m talking about the specific wines you include in your flight. A “flight” is, of course, the wines to be tasted on that occasion. It can have any number of wines in it. I’m comfortable with a daily flight of fifteen, more or less.

I’ve said and written before that my preferred method of tasting is in peer groups of similar wines, but what does that mean? In theory, it could mean any of several things. A classic arrangement would be all the First Growth Bordeaux and their equivalents [let’s say eight in all], with some Super-Seconds.

A classic equivalent in California might be a flight of the top red wines of a region in Napa Valley such as Eastern Oakville or Pritchard Hill or even a larger area, like the Stags Leap District. That would be comparing apples to apples.

Another version of a classic flight might be tasting all of the 18 or so Pinot Noirs Bob Cabral makes every year at Williams Selyem. But he once told me he’d rather I review his wines by appellation, so that, for instance, I’d taste his Russian River Valley Pinots against other RRV Pinots not from Williams Selyem.

These are all examples of classic flights, but unfortunately, it’s not always possible to arrange a classic tasting due to functional realities. That means I might taste 15 Cabernets in a flight, but they might be from all over Napa Valley–maybe even one or two from Sonoma County, the Santa Cruz Mountains and even the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. That’s un-”classic,” but it does have the upside of directly comparing a Happy Canyon Cabernet to an Oakville Cabernet. Maybe it performs favorably. Yay for Happy Canyon!

Every once in a while I like to shake things up with a wacko flight. I’ll do, say, two Petite Sirahs, two Cabernets, a Merlot, a Petit Verdot, a Syrah, a Barbera, two Pinot Noirs, two Sangioveses, an off-beat blend of Tempranillo, Merlot and Petit Sirah from Paso Robles, and a Zinfandel. I can see some of you shaking your heads. WTF? But listen to me, this can be really cool.

For one thing, since it’s blind, you have the instructive pleasure of trying to determine what each wine is. You can’t do that if you know you’re tasting all Oakville Cabernets. In the wacko flight, you have to concentrate hard. Some of these California Pinots are big, dark, extracted wines, so peppery and meaty, they’re easy to confuse with Syrah or Grenache. Zinfandel or Cabernet? At 15.4%, it can be hard to tell the difference. But what I like best about the wacko approach is that, since you don’t even know what the variety is, you might award a wine a very good score even if it’s bizarrely atypical of its region and variety.

Still and all, I think the best way to go is with flights of peer groups.

I’m off to Santa Barbara now for The Chardonnay Symposium and my great panel on terroir.  I’m sure I’ll have plenty of good stuff to report on. Meanwhile, have a great weekend, no matter where you are.


The Chardonnay Symposium: 8 days and counting…

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There may still be time to get a ticket for my panel at next Saturday’s (June 30) Chardonnay Symposium.

Last year the topic was the role of oak in Chardonnay–which turned out to be more interesting than I initially thought it would be. This year, I chose the topic: how does the winemaker preserve “terroir” in a grape and wine that is usually so heavily manipulated? When you think of all the things winemakers do to Chardonnay–barrel fermenting it, stirring it on the lees, putting it through the malolactic fermentation, exposing it to varying degrees of oxidation, and on an on–what happens to all that terroir that was born in the grape?

A reporter for another magazine called me yesterday because she’s writing somethng up on the Symposium (now in its third year) and was shopping for quotes. She asked me if Chardonnay wine shows greater terroir than other varieties. “Good question!” I replied, which are two words a reporter loves to hear from an interviewee. Usually, people say that Pinot Noir, Riesling and Sangiovese reflect their terroir more purely or transparently than other varieties. Chardonnay is often referred to as a wine so neutral (i.e. non-terroir driven) that it needs winemaker bells and whistles in order to taste good.

Well, of course, that’s nonsense, as anyone who knows anything about Grand Cru Chablis or Montrachet understands. Here in California, we have our “grand cru” Chardonnays (you’ll pardon the expression), and I tried to round up panel members who work grand cru vineyards. They are:

Jenne Bonaccorsi – Bonaccorsi, Santa Rita Hills
Bob Cabral – Williams Selyem, Russian River Valley
Dieter Conje – Presqu’ile, Santa Maria Valley
James Hall – Patz & Hall, Carneros Valley
Eric Johnson – Talley, Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley
Heidi von der Mehden – Arrowood, Sonoma Valley
Bill Wathan – Foxen, Santa Maria Valley
Graham Weerts – Stonestreet, Alexander Valley

A pretty impressive crew, I think you’d agree. I told the reporter that there are certain noble grape varieties in the world, and when these grapes are grown to the highest standards and vinified accordingly, they all show terroir, including Chardonnay. Pinot Grigio is not a noble variety (at least, not in California) and thus you don’t expect to find “terroir” in a $15 PG. You expect freshness, crispness, cleanliness, fruit, etc., but not some eye-opening expression of the site where the grapes were grown.

Each of my winemakers will pour one wine, from a single vineyard, and tell us about the natural terroir, what he or she did in bringing up the wine, and then describe how the natural terroir still shines through. (Well, the one and only Dieter Conje is pouring two wines, but he has a very specific point he wants to make.) Perhaps some of the winemakers will say they believe they actually enhanced the expression of terroir through their interventions, the way, say, Professor Henry Higgins brought out the “real” Eliza Doolittle. Was Eliza more or less “Eliza” before the Professor taught her to speak correctly, dress and behave like a lady and be, well, more attractive to men? In some sense, she was more Eliza when she was an unkempt street urchin selling flowers from the gutter. Did she become “inauthentic” when she was transformed into “My Fair Lady”?

This is an idiotic question, one for metaphysicians to waste their time on. However, in the case of Chardonnay (and especially considering the question of oak), it is decidedly not idiotic; and to Chardonnay lovers, it’s the stuff of grand debate. I hope to see you at the Symposium.


In Pursuit of Balance: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

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The buzz at yesterday’s second annual In Pursuit of Balance tasting was all about low alcohol, as in below 14%. Vintners were excited about the 2011s, still in barrel. David Hirsch told me some of his lots clocked in at 13.1%, low even for Hirsch Vineyard. “And what do they taste like?” I asked. David just smiled and said “Fabulous.” Unfortunately the ‘11s won’t begin to come out for at least 18 months or so, so we’ll just have to wait. But in the meanwhile we can savor the 2010s, another cool vintage that offers tantalizing hints of yet to come.

Jon Bonné, the San Francisco Chronicle’s veteran wine writer (he’s now been around long enough to merit the v-word) was there. I congratulated him on his column, from Sunday, in which he officially blessed the cool 2009, 2010 and 2011 vintages, writing that they “proved the virtues of restraint.” It was interesting that he made a comparison between 2011–so much cold and rain and, in some cases, mold–and 1998, a vintage universally panned here in California for much the same reasons. However I know a lot of people who say the ‘98s were better than originally portrayed, and are in fact aging well. As if in proof, at In Pursuit of Balance Josh Jensen had a bottle of his Calera 1998 Pinot Noir (I forget which vineyard from his estate on Mount Harlan; sorry. Reed?) that he particularly wanted me to try because of the vintage’s evil reputation. It smelled and tasted just fine, a wine of purity, elegance and harmony, and still fresh in fruit. So next time somebody says a vintage sucked, don’t believe them (unless it’s me!).

I won’t remark on individual Pinots I tasted, because my formal reviews will be appearing in Wine Enthusiast.

I have a big Chardonnay article coming up, so I was also interested in tasting as many Chards as I could, determined to get to the bottom of what makes for balance in that variety. The thing that fascinates me is how some Chardonnays taste too oaky even if the amount of new oak isn’t particularly high. Vice versa, too: some 100% new oak Chards are balanced. Lots of this is dependent on the base wine, of course: a big, fruity Chardonnay can take more oak than a thinner one. Still, I don’t think there’s any one right answer. Some vintners–Adam Tolmach, at Ojai–have largely moved away from new French oak because they prefer to let the fruit talk about the terroir. Others aren’t afraid of new oak and love it. Emmanuel Kemiji, M.S., whom I knew when he was sommelier at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco and who now owns the fine brand, Miura, lavished 50% new French oak and 50% one-year old barrels on his 2009 Chardonnay, from the Talley Vineyard. I love Ojai Chardonnays and I loved that Miura. But, as Kemiji pointed out, if he didn’t have grapes from Talley, with all that natural stone fruit and acidity, that much oak would be too much.


Terroir vs. intervention: the case of Chardonnay

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I’m going to be moderating a panel at The Chardonnay Symposium next June 30. They asked me to pick my topic and after long thought I came up with this:

Given that Chardonnay is, by all accounts, a neutral grape, how do you preserve or express terroir under all that winemaker influence [barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation, sur lies, barrel aging, etc.]?

I’ve heard that “Chardonnay is a neutral grape” almost ever since I started writing about wine. Wikipedia (which is blacked out as I write this to protest pending anti-piracy bills in the Congress) says “The Chardonnay grape itself is very neutral.” By “neutral” I always figured people meant that the grape and the wine made from it is somewhat linear, being neither strong in flavor nor spicy the way, say, Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc or, especially, Gewurztraminer and Riesling can have strong aromas and flavors.

It was a sentiment I accepted, because so many smart people said so, until the unoaked Chardonnay phenomenon began, and I found myself tasting Chardonnays that had never seen a splinter of wood that were magnificently rich and layered. Well, you might argue, they still might have been manipulated, with malolactic fermentation and sur lies aging adding things that never came from the grape. And you’d be right.

Yet of all the white wine grapes in the world, save possibly Riesling, experts say Chardonnay most reflects its terroir! Hence my topic idea. What the heck does it mean that Chardonnay displays terroir, when the winemaker has interfered so thoroughly in its manufacture? And I use the word “manufacture” deliberately.

We come here to the concept of lines. By that I mean, there must be a line between one form of winemaker intervention that smothers terroir, versus another that helps express it. But where is that line? And in asking this question, are we engaging in rhetorical flourishes when we get into these angels-dancing-on-pinhead metaphysics? So let me rephrase the question this way: Given that Chardonnay expresses terroir, what can the winemaker do to enhance that terroir–to sharpen its profile to make it more interesting and attractive to the wine drinker?

Well, each question leads to another, creating the risk of an infinite regress. Why do we not say that the most terroir-driven Chardonnays of all must necessarily be entirely unmanipulated? I suppose there are Chablisians who would take that position. So might Greg Brewer, who describes his approach to the grape at Diatom this way:

The challenge is to subtract all extraneous elements to arrive at the utmost level of simplicity, serenity and refinement. In order to maintain this desired purity, fermentation is carried out at a very cold temperature in neutral vessels to retain the most primary attributes of the fruit. Furthermore, malo-lactic is inhibited to avoid the distraction of that secondary level of evolution. The resultant wine is then aged on its non-disturbed lees for health and protection, and removed just before there is any risk of autolysis which could impart nondesirable yeast-like characteristics into the wine.

Great word, “subtract.” I’d call it “not add.” Yet Mr. Brewer remains very much in the minority in the Chardonnay world, where heavy winemaker intervention, including charred oak barrels, lees aging and the malolactic, remains the norm. So, once again, how do we reconcile this notion of “neutral Chardonnay” with “terroir” and all that manipulation?

I don’t know the answer, but it’s a great topic, and we’re going to have a great time knocking it around at my panel. I can guarantee we’ll have 8 or 9 fantastic winemaker speakers, tons of great food, and some surprises too. The Chardonnay Symposium, which will be in its third year this June, is growing by leaps and bounds, and is set to become the premier Chardonnay event in the country, if it isn’t already. I hope to see you there.


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