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Making Chardonnay Matter Again
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Aug 15, 2017
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Sonoma-Loeb, Carneros (California) Chardonnay, El Novillero, 2015 ($42):  In recent years, Chardonnay has earned the image of a commodity wine because of its standardized style when produced by very large wineries for mass-market wine drinkers.  In fact, Chardonnay owns a whopping 20 percent of the California wine market in food stores according to Nielsen statistics.  Many sophisticated wine drinkers, however, claim to prefer anything-but.

I recently tasted a range of three 2015 Chardonnays from Sonoma-Loeb and realized what pleasure we can be denying ourselves when we turn our noses up at Chardonnay.  These are three top quality Chardonnays that are anything but standard, differing in richness, texture, and weight. They range in price from $27 to $42.  They are all barrel-fermented and undergo malolactic fermentation (ML).

All three Chardonnays come from Carneros, from vineyards that are part of the huge Sangiacomo holdings, but the specific fruit sourcing differs in each wine.  The basic Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay ($27) hails from Sangiacomo’s Home Ranch and other top blocks; “Envoy” Chardonnay ($38) focuses on low-yielding vines from the Wente, Hyde, and Robert Young clones; and the Sonoma-Loeb El Novillero Chardonnay ($42) comes from a specific low-yielding gravelly and rocky site with vines of the Robert Young clone. 

The Chappellet family acquired Sonoma-Loeb in 2011.  Since then, vineyard manager Dave Pirio and winemaker Philip Corallo-Titus have been fine-tuning their grape sources, directly managing the vineyard blocks that they have under contract, and modifying vineyard practices, such as harvesting slightly earlier to retain more natural acidity.  Their emphasis on freshness and acidity is evident in the three Chardonnays.

The 2015 Sonoma-Loeb Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay is an impressive Chardonnay, especially for its $27 price.  Its aroma suggests sweet, ripe fruits (pear, apple, lemon, pineapple) with a hint of vanilla and a slight crème brulée note.  In your mouth it is dry, soft and flavorful with bright acidity and creamy texture; flavors suggest tropical fruits, lemon zest, spicy clove and nutmeg.  Two aspects of this wine make it special: the interaction of the soft, creamy texture and the fresh, enlivening acidity; and the relative delicacy of the aromas and flavors, which make themselves available without being overly intense. This is a very pretty Chardonnay, easy to like but very well made.

The 2015 Sonoma-Loeb “Envoy” Chardonnay is a limited production bottling. This wine is the firmest and most characterful of the three because of the oak that you can sense on the palate, and the earthy and savory mineral notes on the aroma and flavor.  The aroma also suggests apricot, tropical fruits, and baking spices, as well as nuttiness from lees aging.  The wine is full-bodied with high acidity and concentration of flavor; its texture is creamy despite the firmness of tannin that is evident when the wine is first poured.  In fact, the wine’s oakiness is not excessive and the creaminess of texture offsets it beautifully, but it is does distinguish Envoy from the other two Chardonnays.  Only 50 percent of this wine underwent ML.

The 2015 Sonoma-Loeb El Novillero Chardonnay is a gorgeous Chardonnay, with all the richness and complexity that California Chardonnay can deliver but none of the excess.  Its exotic aroma speaks of lychee, ripe lemon, quince, butterscotch, cream and smoky oak.  In your mouth, the wine is full, round and voluptuous, with creamy texture but also an enlivening acidity that holds the rich elements in check.  Its flavors suggest peach, pineapple, lemon, floral notes, nutmeg and buttery brioche.  The wine’s acidity gives depth and dimension to the complex flavors and rich structure.  The oak barrels in which this wine fermented were 50 percent new; all the wine underwent ML and the time on the lees was ten months compared to eight months for the other two Chardonnays.

Now, my tasting partner insists that I mention the 2015 Sonoma-Loeb Bateman Ranch Pinot Noir that we tasted ($62), from Russian River Valley.  Its aroma suggests small black berries, cherry and currant, with spicy, oak-derived notes of cinnamon and clove and smokiness.  In your mouth, this wine is dry but lush, round and rich, with tannins that are so fine and powdery that they easily yield to the rich fruit.  This is a big, sensual Pinot Noir and yet it has precision.  An impressive Pinot Noir but limited production of only 169 cases.

El Novillero Chardonnay, 92 Points