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California Chardonnay: A Paradigm Shift
By Michael Apstein
Feb 9, 2010
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It may be odd that I, a confirmed Francophile with a special affection for Burgundy, should be extolling the virtues of California Chardonnay. 
But it’s true.  Don’t think I’m comparing California--or any New World Chardonnay--with Burgundy.  I’m not.  Burgundians insist their wines are vehicles for transmitting the flavor of the vineyard--a.k.a. terroir--not the flavors of the variety.  Jacques Lardière, the masterful winemaker at Maison Louis Jadot, has said more than once, “If you taste Chardonnay in my wines, I’ve made a mistake.”  He means of course that you should taste the minerality of Puligny-Montrachet or the earthiness of Chassagne-Montrachet.

California has its unique terroirs.  Just taste Patz and Hall single-vineyard Chardonnays to see that where the grapes grow does indeed make a dramatic difference in the taste of the wines.  But identifying terroir is very expensive and time consuming.  The monks in Burgundy started 1,000 years ago.  By contrast, the span during which modern California wine growers focused rationally on what to plan where is really only about 30 years old.  So let’s not bash California Chardonnays because they don’t transmit the so-called minerality of white Burgundy.

A Welcome Change

The reason I am extolling the virtues of California Chardonnay is because of how different they are as a group from wines made from this grape a decade or two ago.  I’m not speaking just of the expensive, sought-after wines of Peter Michael, Kistler, or Freestone.  I just completed a judging of 65 domestic Chardonnays priced under $10 a bottle at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and was surprised at how enjoyable many of them were.  Some familiar names took Gold Medals: Bogle Vineyards, Cycles Gladiator, Fetzer’s Valley Oaks, Meridian Vineyards, McManus Family Vineyards and Round Hill, and one I was not familiar with, Motos Liberty Cellar.

Were they great, monumental wines?  No, but at less that ten bucks they were, as a group, a significant achievement.  At the recently concluded Dallas Morning News Wine Competition, I tasted a couple of dozen non-vintage Chardonnays--some from a box--all at the low end of the price spectrum.  Yes, they were sweet, but surprisingly, they were not the oaky oily sort of wines of the lamentable past.  And over the last two weeks, I’ve tasted a few dozen randomly selected Chardonnays--samples wineries or distributors sent me for tasting--and it’s clear there’s a paradigm shift occurring.  I’m certainly not the first to observe the shift away from big oaky overblown Chardonnays to more refined versions.  But I’m happy to join in the applause.

Overshoot: From One Extreme to Another

It’s rare to go from one style to another without overshooting the mark, at least initially.  Take the nouvelle cuisine movement that followed the classicism of cream and butter French cooking.   Some chefs’ interpretation left the diner longing for a stop at a fast-food restaurant after a nouvelle cuisine meal to avoid going to sleep hungry.  Fortunately, the food pendulum is back somewhere in the middle now.

The Chardonnay equivalent comes in the form of “unoaked” or “naked” renditions of the grape variety.  Most of these wines offer dramatic evidence of why a touch of aging in oak barrels is a good thing.   For unoaked Chardonnay to work, unique terroir is essential.  That’s why the wines from Chablis are invigorating and distinctive.  That portion of the Kimmeridgian Chain, with its limestone and clay (marl), imparts unique flavors to the wines.  For most of the rest of the world, winegrowers have yet to identify the sites where Chardonnay excels in the absence of a touch of oak aging.  But producers bottling unoaked Chardonnays are to be applauded and encouraged because along with no oak comes lower alcohol, better acidity, and less sweetness.

Barrel Aging vs. Oak Chips

The purpose of aging wine in barrel is to allow for gentle oxidation as oxygen diffuses through the pores in the wood to mix with the wine.  Leaching flavors of the wood frequently--but not invariably--occurs during this process.  Ideally, Lardière notes, “You should feel--not taste--the effect of oak.”  But consumers often associate the appealing toasty vanilla-scented flavors of oak with the taste of Chardonnay and gravitate towards that flavor.  Wine producers, knowing the appeal of oak flavors to consumers, add oak chips or oak staves to Chardonnay aging in stainless steel vats to impart the oaky flavor instead of aging the wine in barrels, which, at up to $1,000 a piece, is a far more expensive and time consuming process.  But judging from my recent tastings of low-end Chardonnay, even this practice seems to be less common, or at least, less evident.

Not Just California

Sure, there’s a body of consumers still asking for “big, oaky” Chardonnay--just last week an acquaintance asked me for recommendations along this line--and probably even more who say they eschew that style, but then order it.  But what’s encouraging to me--and why it’s truly a paradigm shift--is that the change is occurring worldwide.

Here on the East Coast, Sharpe Hill in Connecticut, Truro Vineyard on Cape Cod, and Wolffer Estate on Long Island--to name just three--are producing stylishly restrained--but not vapid--Chardonnay.  From down under, add Craggy Range’s Kidnappers Vineyard Chardonnay, which could almost pass for Chablis, to the list and of course, Kumeu River’s staggering array of balanced Chardonnays.  In Australia, not a place typically known for restraint in wine--or others things for that matter--look west to Howard Park, Cullen or Vasse Felix, all located in Western Australia.  Also in the Southern Hemisphere are Hamilton Russell’s stellar Chardonnays from South Africa and Catena’s from Argentina.

The Pacific Northwest is a treasure trove of understated--but not under flavored--Chardonnay.  Not surprisingly, Burgundy producer Drouhin at their eponymous Domaine Drouhin Oregon winery makes one—“Arthur”--year in and year out that is precise and focused with a captivating creaminess.  In Washington, Chateau Ste. Michelle excels with a lovely array of balanced Chardonnays from their multi-vineyard blend from Columbia Valley to their single vineyard bottlings.

And of course, in Napa, Grgich’s refined Chardonnays have always wowed consumers with elegance and length--not oak and alcohol.  Across the Mayacamus Mountains, Jordan Winery in Sonoma supplemented their iconic Cabernet Sauvignon with a consistently classy and refined Chardonnay. 

This is by no means a complete list, but rather one that barely scratches the surface of the names of producers bottling stylish and balanced Chardonnays.  These are producers whose wines I’ve run across recently, not looking for a particular style, but finding it nonetheless.

I’ll raise a glass--of Chardonnay--in celebration of this new paradigm.

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Questions or comments?  Other producers’ Chardonnays to suggest?  E-mail me at mapstein@winereviewonline.com