Stonestreet Alexander Valley (California) Chardonnay, Upper Barn, 2007 ($65): Although I agree with most other wine critics that far too many California Chardonnays are far too oaky and far too huge, I am mighty glad that not every winemaker has followed the pendulum’s swing toward delicacy. A lavish Chardonnay can be pure delight. This Stonestreet Chardonnay provides that kind of treasure.
Stonestreet Alexander Mountain Estate, as the vineyards are properly known, is an extensive, extremely varied property on the western ridge of the Mayacamas Mountains, technically in the Alexander Valley AVA but really a mountain property, with vineyards at altitudes of 400 to 2400 feet. The estate is 5,100 acres in size but only 900 of those acres are vineyards. Those 900 acres divide into 235 individual plots of various altitudes, expositions and soils, mainly thin, low-nutrient soils that foster low yields. They share unusual extreme temperature patterns that can exceed 100° during some days, go down to 50° many nights or mornings, or remain warm at night, depending on the airflow. This is the former Gauer Ranch property, which Jess Jackson purchased in 1995 and expanded from its original 200 acres of vines. Block 48, the Upper Barn site, dates back to 1982 and is the oldest plot. It sits at 1800 feet above sea level.
I have always loved the texture of Stonestreet Chardonnays, which are silky, soft, and enveloping in the mouth. This splendid richness to me is the salient trait of the winery’s five Chardonnays -- the basic Alexander Valley bottling ($29) and four single-vineyard Chardonnays. In blind-tasting this Upper Barn Chardonnay, I was again taken by that luxurious texture, which in this case forms a striking contrast to the wine’s crisp acidity. The wine is quite full-bodied with high (14.5%) alcohol and it is dry, despite being so rich. The aromas and flavors are very complex, ranging from seductive notes of honey, butter, smoke, melon and ripe lemon on the nose to pineapple, citrus, stony minerality, mushroom and nutty notes in the mouth. But: Rich as they are, these aromatics are not flamboyant; within the huge structure of this wine, they are relatively restrained.
Winemaker Graham Weerts believes that the lovely texture of his Chardonnays derives first from the impressive low-yield fruit that the vineyards give him -- in 2007, the Upper Barn site yielded 1.4 tons of grapes per acre -- and second, from a few key winemaking practices. These include the use of only free run juice from the whole-cluster pressing of the fruit, to minimize the phenolic content of the juice and wine; ambient yeast fermentation in barrel; and a gentle fining just before bottling to soften the oak’s impact in the wine’s taste. Other elements of the winemaking include complete malolactic fermentation, and 11 months of aging in French oak (50 percent new barrels).
In the end, the combination of gifted fruit and natural winemaking has resulted in a provocative and beautiful Chardonnay. Only 385 cases produced.