Californian Terroir : Chardonnay

Controlled Richness

A.B.C. stands for anything but chardonnay, which is a movement that had it's heyday after a wave of overly-oaky, characterless chardonnay swamped the market. Thankfully there is plenty of exciting chardonnay to be had in California

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Whether or not these anti-Chardonnay people reject only California Chardonnay, or Chardonnay from everywhere, I do not know. (I can’t imagine even an anti-Chardonnay person turning down a great Chablis or Montrachet!) The movement’s members seem particularly not to like the kind of overoaked Chardonnays that California often produces. I don’t like that sweet style either, but I have never been a member of the A.B.C. crowd, and I never will be, because I happen to believe that Chardonnay, at its best, is the greatest dry white wine in the world.

Yes, I know that many experts prefer Riesling, but as much as I like Riesling, I’ll take Chardonnay anytime.

The variety long has grown in California, beginning in the Livermore Valley, just east of San Francisco, in the late 1800s. But Chardonnay, as wine, was not varietally labeled until the 1930s, according to the pre-eminent wine historian, Leon D. Adams. The grapes always were fermented in concrete tanks or large redwood vats until James Zellerbach, an industrialist, planted his Hanzell vineyard, in the Sonoma Valley, in 1953, and began fermenting the grapes in the small French oak barrels he had seen in Burgundy. In the 1960s, Heitz Cellars made Chardonnay a cult favorite–using previously bottled, unsold wine it had purchased from Hanzell, following Zellerbach’s death.

There are 92,000 acres of Chardonnay planted today in California, nearly half the total acreage of all white varieties. The grape does best in the state’s cooler coastal regions, from Santa Barbara up through the Central Coast to the Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley, in Mendocino County. Napa Valley, for once, cannot boast that it reigns supreme when it comes to Chardonnay; Napa’s climate is patently too hot for the grapes to retain acidity.

In the last few years, an unoaked Chardonnay movement has arisen in America, following the popularity of Australian bottlings. Later this summer (as I write), I am moderating a Symposium on the topic of oaked and unoaked Chardonnay, in which we will address the question of whether the latter can ever rise to the greatness of the former. I plan on writing about the results.

The greatest California Chardonnays, like the best white Burgundies, combine the ripe fruit flavors and natural acidity that come from well-grown grapes, with sur lies influences of cream, and the rich buttered toast and vanilla from charred French oak barrels. These qualities are easy to mimic and there are, unfortunately, vast amounts of mediocre California Chardonnay that aim to please the American palate, with its penchant for sweetness. Indeed, it is said that many people do not know the difference between the taste of pure Chardonnay, and the taste of toast oak. These inferior wines often have some residual sugar, which makes them insipid and, in the worst cases, undrinkable.

However, the pleasure of great Chardonnay is that the richness is controlled. Nothing is out of place. As opulent as a great Chardonnay is mid-palate, it always finishes clean and dry. Michael Broadbent aptly describes the qualities of great Chardonnay as “rapier-like, firm, crisp, refreshing on the palate…full-bodied.”

Here is a partial list of the best Chardonnay wineries I have reviewed this past year, with their appellations in parentheses: Dutton-Goldfield (Green Valley of the Russian River Valley), Shafer (Carneros, on the Napa side), Marimar Estate (Russian River Valley), Vine Clff (Carneros, on the Napa side), Paul Hobbs (Russian River Valley), Migration (Sonoma Coast), Talley (Arroyo Grande Valley), Clendenen Family (Santa Maria Valley) and Keller Estate (Sonoma Coast). Perhaps the finest unoaked Chardonnay in California–certainly the best I’ve tasted–has been the 2009 Diatom, grown in the Babcock Vineyard, in the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County. Diatom’s owner/winemaker, Greg Brewer, also crafts the wines from Brewer-Clifton and Melville. His penchant for Japanese culture drove him to preserve the terroir qualities of the Babcock grapes with “Zen-like purity” (his words), a purity Greg believed would be compromised by oak

Written by Steve Heimoff

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