Wistful Thinking: California Chardonnay

| February 28, 2005 | 2 Comments
  • 2 Comments

In about a week I’ll be off to New Zealand, diving headlong into the harvest at Craggy Range Winery, where I’ll be working on Blake Family Vineyard wines, getting my first winemaking experience in a truly cool-climate region. I’ll be working mainly with Blake Family Vineyards Bordeaux varieties; focusing on Merlot and Cabernet Franc. I’ll also be working with some white grapes – Sauvignon blanc, Riesling, and… sigh. Chardonnay.

Now, I was raised on French wine lore, which holds that Chardonnay is the noblest white winegrape (Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot noir tussle for the red crown), and for a long while I believed it. I was amazed at the different faces it could show, from taut, almost shrill Chablis, tasting of minerals and stone fruit, to opulent, mouth-filling Montrachets whose richness and layers of flavor almost overwhelmed my palate.

So, what happened to cast Chardonnay from the white grape throne? Two things – one, I was introduced to German Riesling (topic for another time!); and two, I started looking for Chardonnays of Burgundian character from Californian producers. With that approach, I was destined for failure. You simply can’t make French wine in California, or vice versa – they’re just not the same place, and that difference comes through in the wine.

One of the biggest differences – and most easily qualified – is temperature. It gets hotter here than in France, and it stays hotter longer. This means, in general terms, that the grapes we grow here tend to have no problem producing sugar (the vine does this quickly in hot weather) but might not be able to synthesize some of the more complex flavor and aroma compounds, nor retain their natural acidity.

The end result is that here in California, without judicious vineyard site selection and rigorous attention paid to the vines, the fruit will make wine that is high in alcohol (from the sugar), low in acid (tastes, if you can imagine this, ‘flabby’), and will be pretty monodimensional flavorwise. An attempt is often made to disguise this last outcome by covering up the fruit’s character with oak or barrel flavors and aromas, often submerging the fruit in toasty vanilla overtones to the point that you can’t tell what kind of wine you’re drinking.

However, I have found some noteworthy versions of Chardonnay that suggest California vintners are figuring out how to make this grape sing.

Melville ‘Inox’ – No oak, no malo-lactic fermentation, nothing but the fruit and the vineyard. Try a bottle of this to see what Chardonnay is like with no clothes on. Surprising and educational. www.melvillewinery.com

Stony Hill Vineyards – My vote for the best Chardonnay in California. They’ve been at it since the 50’s, and it shows. One of the few California whites that gets better with age – I recently had a ’92 that was fresh and still developing in bottle. www.stonyhillvineyard.com

Chasseur ‘Lorenzo’ – Excellent cool-climate vineyard site, expertly produced. A richer style of wine than the previous two, with great balance. www.chasseurwines.com

Littorai – Californian elegance firmly founded in the Burgundian school. Runs a close second to Stony Hill in my book. www.littorai.com

So what do YOU think about California Chardonnay? Have any wine suggestions for me? I’m always interested to try something new!

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  • Amy Sherman

    I’ve always avoided California Chardonnay like the plague, now I know why! Glad to hear there are a few worth trying. But usually they are too oaky for me or there are too many competing flavors–fruity, flowery, buttery, oak–ick!

  • Kim Goodfriend

    I agree, I’m not a fan of most California chardonnay, and tend to steer toward French, Italian, and New Zealand (!) whites. But this gives me some hope. I look forward to trying these….