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Let the Pendulum Swing
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Apr 19, 2011
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Nickel & Nickel, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Chardonnay Medina Vineyard 2009 ($48):  One of the first California wines I ever loved was a late-1970s vintage Chardonnay from Santa Ynez Valley, which I tasted in the early 1980s.  As someone who drank mainly Italian wines, I had never encountered such richness and seductiveness in a white wine before, and I was smitten.  Barely a decade later, the pendulum swung to the leaner, “food wine” side for California Chardonnays, and then to wherever it is today, when taut and firm Chardonnays co-exist with huge but soulless cousins.  In that context, this 2009 Chardonnay is a throwback to richness that I heartily welcome.

Nickel & Nickel is a Napa Valley winery that produces only single-vineyard, unblended varietal wines from top vineyards mainly in Napa Valley but also in Sonoma County.  Founded in 1997 by the partners of the respected Far Niente winery, Nickel & Nickel currently makes 13 Cabernets and two Merlots from Napa Valley sites, as well as two Syrahs, two Zinfandels and three Chardonnays.

The winery’s goal is to make wines that express the essence of each vineyard site.  Each wine is indeed distinct, even if the winemaking is fundamentally the same.  Recent Nickel & Nickel releases, for example, include the 2009 Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay from the Napa Valley part of the Carneros wine district and this 2009 Medina Vineyard Chardonnay from Russian River Valley in Sonoma County; both wines are entirely Chardonnay and have been whole-cluster pressed, barrel-fermented in French oak with no malolactic conversion and aged nine months in oak -- but the wines are distinctly different.  The Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay ($48; 14.2 percent alcohol) is a big but taut Chardonnay with crisp acidity, strongly mineral flavors and improbable creamy texture.  The Medina Vineyard Chardonnay is richer, softer and unabashedly luxurious.

Here’s what to expect from the Medina Vineyard Chardonnay.  The aroma is broad and welcoming, with notes of ripe lemon, tropical fruits (the winemaker’s notes specify kiwi), leesy nuttiness and a measured smokiness that might come from oak or from the earth.  In your mouth, the wine is full-bodied and dry, with very soft, creamy texture and a backbone of high acidity that supports the wine’s richness without undercutting it.  (For the record, this wine is 14.6 percent alcohol.)  The wine’s flavors are not all that intense -- the wine’s richness lies in its structure and texture more than in its flavor intensity -- but they suggest rich, very ripe apple and citrus, along with that earthy or oaky smokiness.   Balance: somewhere I have seen a cartoon of a pig on a tightrope, and this wine brings that image to mind, in the most positive way.  I must also comment that compared to today’s typical rich Chardonnay, this wine is dry, and very little of its richness derives from oak.

If you prefer lean, trim, minerally Chardonnays, do try the Nickel & Nickel 2009 Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay, which is a superb wine.   Or let go for one evening and wallow in the luxury of the Medina Vineyard Chardonnay.  For food pairings, I suggest dishes that are similarly rich but not intensely flavored such as mushroom risotto, poached chicken breast, or pizza bianco.

92 Points