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Hanzell: The Gold Standard of California Chardonnay
By Ed McCarthy
Feb 25, 2014
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California Chardonnays remain the most popular wine sold in the U.S. today.  I don’t often write about them, because this style of wine generally does not appeal to me.  But there are exceptions (there always are), and Hanzell’s Chardonnays are exceptionally delicious and age-worthy.

During the 1970s, when I made my first pilgrimages to California wine country, visiting Napa Valley and Sonoma, Chardonnay was just starting to make its name in California as an important varietal white wine.  Two of its key pioneers and champions were Stony Hill Vineyard (founded 1952) in St. Helena, Napa Valley, and Hanzell Vineyards (founded 1957), north of the town of Sonoma, on the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains.  Even before these two icons, Martin Ray started the varietal Chardonnay movement in California in 1945 with his eponymous vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains; the winery has continued since 1972 as Mount Eden Estate Vineyards.

All of these wineries are still thriving today with Chardonnay as their most renowned wine.  Stony Hill is quite small--producing about 3,400 cases annually, 60 percent of which is Chardonnay, but now its production also includes Cabernet Sauvignon.  Stony Hill’s style is unique among California Chardonnays:  No oak aging (except in very old, neutral oak barrels), and no malolactic fermentation, which preserves the rather high acidity of this Spring Mountain wine.  Most of its production is sold through its mailing list and online.  Stony Hill Chardonnay has a well-earned reputation of aging well for decades.

Mount Eden Estate produces only 1200 to 2,000 cases of its Estate Chardonnay per year, along with non-Estate Chardonnay, some Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.  The Estate Chardonnay is made from low-yielding old vines; it goes through full malolactic fermentation; it’s barrel-fermented and aged on its lees for 10 months in both new and one-year-old French Burgundy barrels, and then cellared for two more years.  Mount Eden Estate Chardonnay usually requires a decade or more of aging before it reaches maturity.

Of these three great, pioneering Chardonnay-dominated wineries, I have had the most experience with Hanzell Vineyards over the years. Hanzell is also small, producing 6,000 cases annually, three-quarters of which is Chardonnay (the rest mainly Pinot Noir).  I have enjoyed bottles of Hanzell Chardonnay from vintages of the late 1970s and early 1980s when they had acquired about 20 years of age.  Not once did I ever drink a Hanzell Chardonnay that was past its prime.

Hanzell’s philosophy of winemaking has always been “non-intervention,” an idea the founder, Ambassador James Zellerbach, brought with him based on his observation of Burgundy winemaking in France.  Hanzell was the first vineyard in the U.S. to use temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks in fermentation.  Besides the winery’s magnificent site on the Mayacamas slopes, one of Hanzell’s secrets to its success has been its old vines, first planted when Zellerbach built the winery in 1953.  Hanzell’s 60-year-old Chardonnay vines are the oldest in the Western Hemisphere, and are the only vines Hanzell uses in its finest Chardonnay, "Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard".  But Chardonnay grapes from the 1953 blocks play a role in Hanzell’s other Chardonnay wines.  And the original 1953 grapes, now known as the Hanzell clone, have been utilized to propagate other, younger Hanzell blocks.  

Since 1961, only Hanzell’s estate-grown fruit goes into making all Hanzell wines, an enviable position just a few California wines can follow. 

In its 60-year history, Hanzell has employed only four winemakers: founding winemaker Brad Webb (1956-1973); Bob Sessions (1973-2001); Michael Terrien (2001-2006); and Michael McNeill (2006-present).

Hanzell uses both new and one-year old French oak barrels to age its wines for all but its young, least-expensive “Sebella” Chardonnay.  Hanzell’s Chardonnays go through malolactic fermentation--except the Sebella, which avoids malolactic fermentation to keep it fresh.

What is the classic Hanzell Chardonnay style?  Hanzell’s Chardonnays have depth and complexity.  They are never overly ripe or alcoholic, and the taste of oak never intrudes on the palate.  They are made for the long haul, like great white Burgundies.  In the better vintages, they can age for 40 years or more.  Because Hanzell’s Chardonnays possess such depth and need so much aeration, the winery suggests that you decant its Chardonnays one to two hours before tasting them, and decant its top-of-the line 1953 Ambassador’s Vineyard for three to four hours before serving.

Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay, its flagship wine that is made from a blend of all of its vineyards, retails in the $65 to $78 price range.  This is the Hanzell Chardonnay that I am most familiar with, and I can testify to its excellence and its long-lived qualities.
Recently, I had the opportunity to compare five Hanzell Chardonnays, beginning with the 2012 Hanzell “Sebella,” and ending with the 1977 Hanzell Ambassador’s Vineyard Chardonnay:

2012 Hanzell “Sebella” Chardonnay:  What a delightful, fresh, lively Chardonnay!   This is the sixth vintage of Sebella.  Made from younger vines, this vibrant wine is meant to be consumed within a few years of its release.  It is fairly light-bodied, with tart apple and citrus flavors.  I wish all young California Chardonnays tasted as good as this one. ($33-$36).  89-90

2011 Hanzell Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard Chardonnay (magnum):  The 2011 spring in Sonoma was cold and wet, which reduced by half the grape production from the vines planted in 1953.  In a way, this reduced crop was a blessing, because the wine is truly magnificent.  This wine blew me away with its concentration, liveliness, and incredible fruit flavors of lemon zest and apricot.  I turned to my tasting neighbor and remarked, “I had forgotten how great Hanzell can be.”  As good as it is now, it should mature into one of the all-time great Hanzell Chardonnays.  ($290 per magnum).  98

2007 Hanzell Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard Chardonnay (magnum):  The Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard Chardonnay is produced only in good vintages such as 2007.  This wine is aging beautifully, showing us a hint of what it will become.  It exhibits lots of minerality, with firm acidity and fresh lemony flavors.  More full-bodied than the 2011.  It needs another decade to fully develop.  (not commercially available).  95

2005 Hanzell Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard Chardonnay:  Another fine vintage, 2005 was marked by a production of small, concentrated grapes from Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard.  It is a Chardonnay with firm acidity, but perhaps without the richness of the 2011 or 2007 Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard Chardonnays.  It should be at its best within seven to eleven years.  $250.  93

1977 Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay, Ambassador’s Vineyard:  Although from the Ambassador’s Vineyard, this wine is not from the 1953 blocks.  The 1977 Hanzell, at age 36, is perfectly mature now, and will not improve further.  Those wine drinkers who enjoy older Chardonnays will love this wine, even if it does show a trace of oxidation.  (not commercially available).  90

Although I have mentioned just three California Chardonnay wineries in this column, with the focus on Hanzell, obviously I have enjoyed other California Chardonnays over the years.  A short list would include, alphabetically, Au Bon Climat, Chateau Montelena, Far Niente, Grgich Hills, Kistler, Nickel & Nickel, Ridge Vineyards, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.   And I do know that you cannot go wrong acquiring Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay!