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A roundup of California white wines to start spring
Warm days bring out our desire for chilled white wines to sip or to have at the table. Here are a half-dozen new chardonnays from California along with a lone sauvignon blanc to start us off.
2011 Clos la Chance Central Coast sauvignon blanc ($11). This wine is spicier and less grassy than many sauvignons, a nice touch, but it also tastes a little watery. Takeaway: A basic white with no bells or whistles.
2010 Gary Farrell Russian River Selection chardonnay ($31). Creamy and juicy with some nice stone-fruit nectars, hints of crème fraîche around the edges, and some mild barrel toast and a hint of tannins in the finish. Takeaway: Yum! Very enjoyable wine with good complexity.
2011 Pfendler Sonoma County chardonnay ($38). Very fragrant with lots of toast along with some jelly beans and vanilla. Falls a bit short at the end. Takeaway: A pretty wine that misses a couple of beats.
2011 Spellbound California chardonnay ($15). Rich with lightly buttery apple flavors along with a touch of jammy grapey-ness in the end. Could use a bit more crispness in the finish. Takeaway: A nice wine for the price.
2011 Landmark "Overlook" Sonoma County chardonnay ($24). Creamy oak with good apple-y fruit and lots of nuttiness. Takeaway: Nice, somewhat complex chard that should please most palates.
2011 Truchard Carneros chardonnay ($26). Pineapple on the nose with juicy orange and pineapple flavors and a crisp finish. Good aftertaste. Takeaway: A bit of a tweener — not big and oaky, but too tropical to be Burgundian.
2011 Matchbox "Giguiere" Dunnigan Hills Musque chardonnay ($16). Sweet and spicy. Complex fruits like a fresh-cut marmalade — cloves and other pastry spices, flavors of applesauce, semi-preserved apricot, and various citrus notes. Somewhat heavy on the palate. The musque refers to a particular clone of chard. Takeaway: Let’s face it — this is more novelty wine than a straight food wine, and there is nothing wrong with that if that’s your pleasure.
Trailblazing winemaker David Ramey has almost 40 vintages under his belt in California. Now he’s on the cusp of realizing a long-held dream: to create a new estate winery in the heart of Sonoma’s Russian River Valley—a region he’s helped put on the world map for great Chardonnay.
Just north of the river near the wine country town of Healdsburg that Ramey calls home, Westside Road winds its way through a realm thick with vineyards, oak woodland and towering redwoods. It is hallowed ground for lovers of rich and well-structured Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs alike, home to top-flight producers such as Williams Selyem, Gary Farrell, Rochioli and Arista.
Next summer, Ramey plans to break ground on a winery on the north side of that road. The 75-acre property he purchased in 2012 holds his first estate vineyard, which covers 42 acres.
The new cellar will also be a big change from his current winemaking home, a leased industrial space in Healdsburg. It has served him well since 2003, and its utilitarian nature, as well as a second space secured nearby in 2007, is a fitting reflection of the self-made success of the family business.
It’s been a long, hard journey, however, for Ramey and his wife of 30 years, Carla. They’ve built Ramey Wine Cellars on their own, without partners, since founding it in 1996—all while raising their two children, Claire and Alan, and as David honed his craft and paid the bills by working in a host of leading wineries in Napa and Sonoma, beginning in 1980.
Ramey, now 68, can rightly be called the Professor of California Chardonnay, a winemaker’s winemaker who has published academic papers, pushed boundaries in the cellar and pursued the classic Burgundian techniques that are the benchmarks for Chardonnay around the world. His influence has been profound, grounded in tradition, research and experience, all driven by a vision that has helped reset the equation for great California Chardonnay.
“I love Chardonnay,” Ramey says. “It is the red wine of white grapes. It is the most compelling white wine around.” Chardonnay makes up 60 percent of his 35,000-case annual production: He also makes three Cabernets and two red blends from Napa, three Syrahs from Sonoma and a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.
“He’s an absolute icon and pioneer to be sure. When you think about California Chardonnay, he’s on the Mount Rushmore,” says Matt Courtney, winemaker at Arista and for his own wines at Ferren.
“He’s taken not only what he’s learned and studied from around the world back to California, but used the data from work he’s done in his own cellar to refine his wines,” says Jesse Katz of Aperture and Devil Proof and whom Ramey recruited to run Lancaster Estate in Alexander Valley in 2008. “His wines are rich, textured and full of beautiful acidity, and are not trying to be something they’re not.”
That style makes Ramey’s Chardonnays restrained but powerful on release, with flavors that fully develop and expand with time in the cellar, another hallmark of the Burgundian imprint.
The Ramey Chardonnay lineup comprises seven wines—two appellation bottlings and five single-vineyard wines. The current releases of these wines, from the 2016 vintage, are sleek and structured, and all scored an outstanding 90 points or higher, led by the Hyde Vineyard 2016, which rates classic, at 95 points.
The Hyde wine, from a top vineyard in the Carneros district of Napa Valley, is Ramey’s only Chardonnay from outside Sonoma all the others, except the Sonoma Coast bottling, come from the Russian River Valley. Hyde was his debut bottling in 1996, and although the site is the warmest Ramey works with, breezes from nearby San Pablo Bay keep it relatively cool. “Along the California coast, wherever there is a break in the hills you get good Chardonnay and Pinot Noir,” Ramey says. “That has been a real change over the past 30 years—the march to the sea and to the limit of ripeness.”
The latest Hyde bottling also reflects Ramey’s predilection for Chardonnays that accentuate better acidity, with a bit less ripeness and less new oak than has been the norm in California up until the past decade or so. To realize that goal, he has significantly backed off his use of new oak for aging his wines and is harvesting earlier for more vibrant fruit flavors. “Less new oak is the answer to overoaked Chardonnay,” he declares. “My model for Chardonnay is a really good Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet in a ripe vintage.”
Despite looking to a Burgundy model, though, Ramey remains proud of his California roots and says the state’s winemakers can deliver more consistent quality over a wider range of styles than their peers in Burgundy, and at a fraction of the price, mostly because of a warmer and drier growing season that in most vintages culminates in superb fruit.
“We apply the classical winemaking techniques of Burgundy, developed over the centuries, to our tremendous fruit here in California, in Sonoma County and Napa,” he says, purposefully. For Ramey, the keys to those Burgundian techniques are barrel fermentation, which adds richness and flavor, and the secondary fermentation known as malolactic, which tames natural acidity. “It’s a fine line here. We can’t make Burgundy,” he says. “But I’m trying to make the best Burgundian-style Russian River Chardonnay I can.”
Ramey grew up in the Silicon Valley town of Sunnyvale, before computers were ascendant and when orchards still dotted the landscape. He earned a master’s degree in enology from U.C., Davis, the nation’s top winemaking school, in 1979, and followed that with experience gained working a harvest for Christian Moueix at Pétrus in Pomerol. It was in Bordeaux where he first learned the Old World techniques of winemaking that he would apply in California.
In 1980 he began at Simi as an assistant winemaker under Zelma Long, another industry pioneer. They worked together for five years and collaborated in steering California Chardonnay away from the big, extracted versions that came from hot fermentations with extended skin contact and which too often quickly fell apart or turned brown in the bottle.
Instead, they pursued whole-cluster pressing, lees contact and cooler fermentations. Their work ultimately resulted in an academic paper, published in 1986, on skin contact and fermentation temperatures, which Ramey co-authored with leading U.C. Davis and French winemaking researchers.
“We went through a period, and I was part of that I think, where originally, in the s and s, people here said, ‘You can’t do what they do in France’—it’s apples and oranges—and some of us here started saying, ‘Well, why don’t we take a look at what techniques have developed over centuries in France and see if they work with our grapes too?'” Ramey says. “Why don’t we run experiments and see? So that’s when we started on the Chardonnay side, getting away from skin contact, to go to barrel ferment and lees contact and malolactic—and it worked.”
After Simi, Ramey took the helm at Matanzas Creek for five years, and then oversaw the cellar at Chalk Hill for six. He did a second stint with Moueix in Bordeaux in 1989 and came back determined to use wild yeast fermentations, which he saw in France but which were rare in California at the time. The last two winemaking jobs he held were at Moueix’s Napa Valley estate of Dominus, where he helped manage the construction of the winery, and at Rudd Estate, which he left in 2002 to strike out on his own. He has also consulted for numerous cellars over the years, including Lancaster, Rodney Strong, Hall and Snowden.
While he was working at Dominus, he says, a light bulb went on in his head. He asked Moueix for permission to make a white wine on his own, as Dominus made only reds, and he was given the go-ahead. He began in 1996 with 260 cases sourced from the Hyde Vineyard.
By 2003, Ramey was bottling 15,000 cases, sourced from a host of vineyards. He used contacts he made when working for others to get prime fruit sources, such as Dutton and Bacigalupi in Sonoma, and Hyde and Hudson in Napa Carneros, places where personal relationships are key to securing the best raw materials. The early 2000s were a heady time for Ramey, but they were also fraught with the added pressure of equipping a new winery.
“I grew stupidly with no plan,” he recounts. Although the winery remained profitable throughout these years, he says, the fast growth resulted in cash-flow problems. “And by I was upside down with the bank, and I had to sell my way out of it,” he says. “Which we did.”
It takes a division of labor to successfully run a family-owned winery, and Carla Ramey has handled the business side since the start, including workers’ compensation and compliance with various government regulations. “I’m definitely the person who does the boring stuff,” says Carla, who drew her first salary from the business only in 2005. “David’s so passionate about winemaking, and he’s so out in front, talking to people and showing the wines.”
Her focus now is to secure the bank financing to build the Westside Road winery, and taking on partners is not out of the question. “We’re going to have to get pretty creative to figure this out. Where there is a will, there’s a way,” Carla says. Ramey, characteristically, cuts to the chase as he talks about taking on debt for the first time in many years: “We just want to make sure we don’t do anything stupid.”
6-foot-1 and sporting a stubbly growth of beard and wire-rimmed glasses, Ramey has a gravelly voice and broad shoulders. His conversational style is forthright without being didactic, but he also has little patience for critics, winemakers or techniques that he considers wrong or beside the point. He minces few words, perhaps born of a long career serving many masters and winemaking styles.
Take “unfined and unfiltered” wines, a vogue for many vintners seeking a more natural winemaking style. The two are not dependent on each other, Ramey insists. “Some of the bullshit that’s been promulgated over the past 30 years needs correction—like unfined, unfiltered,” he exhorts. In his own cellar, he doesn’t filter, which could strip out the flavors and texture he is seeking, as well as the nutrients needed for malolactic fermentation, but he does fine the wines—adamantly so.
“Sometimes I talk to winemakers who haven’t been trained classically and nobody taught them about fining, and they say, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to fine. I don’t want to take anything out of the wine.’ The way I describe fining agents—it’s like using a piece of triple-aught fine steel wool on a wood chair: It doesn’t change the shape of the chair—it polishes it, it finishes it, and that’s the way to think about these very traditional and gentle fining agents,” he says, such as casein (from milk), isinglass and bentonite, which are all in his toolbox.
As for the characteristics he seeks in his wines, he is just as opinionated: “I almost never describe a wine in terms of flavor or aroma descriptors. To me it’s all about texture in the palate—smooth, silky. I like the old days when the French or Italians would describe the wines almost in terms of gender or sex—voluptuous or lean. This wine is Audrey Hepburn, or this wine is Jayne Mansfield. Man, that’s communicative.”
Ramey has seen fashions for California Chardonnay come and go. He bristles at the lingering backlash against California’s big and buttery Chardonnays, epitomized by the ABC (Anything but Chardonnay) trend that came to the fore in the mid-1990s—not because he preferred those wines per se, but because the reason for snubbing them was misplaced, he says, with malolactic fermentation seen as the culprit. As a result, the pendulum swung dramatically for some winemakers, with many abandoning malo altogether.
“At the height of the ABC days, malo got a bad name,” he says. “And people were completely unaware that all white Burgundy goes through malo, and people were talking about malolactic in California Chardonnay as if it was an activist plot to make buttery Chardonnay. ‘I can’t stand California Chardonnay, I like Chablis, I like acid.’ Well, Chablis goes through malo,” he points out, in reference to the tauter, leaner white Burgundies.
For his part, Ramey blames overblown wines on too much new oak and skin contact. Led by vintners like himself, who have backed off new oak and are using gentler extraction techniques, California Chardonnay has been revitalized over the past 10 years. In the beginning he used two-thirds new oak for his single-vineyard wines it’s now down to about 25 percent. He made the shift after running an experiment that showed that older oak barrels, up to six or seven years in age, still provided plenty of flavor to the wine—and less intrusively than did higher levels of new oak.
Ramey sees balanced acidity as the hallmark of his wines, and it is indeed a common thread among them. It gives them the ability to age, and he considers them best enjoyed five to 10 years after the vintage.
For the future, Ramey says he is starting to play with Sonoma County Cabernet, and there will also be more Pinot Noir. But the new winery is first and foremost, and he thinks of his children’s involvement in the project with a smile on his face: Claire, 28, focuses on the winery and vineyards Alan, 26, is involved on the business side.
For Carla, one important aspect of the new winery is that the family will be able to see each other more often. With the current two-building setup, they sometimes meet only in passing, and finally at dinner together. “It’s been gratifying to have the kids enter the business with their youthful ideas and energy,” Carla says. “We’re so excited to work toward getting the new facility built so we can all be in one building.”
The Rameys are only the third Anglo owners of the property, known as Westside Farms, since 1869. It includes ranch buildings from the 1940s and a hop kiln from the same era, which will be renovated to serve as a tasting room and hospitality center. So far, the struggle to build the winery has been bittersweet: It took six years to get the building permits from county officials, mostly because of opposition by some local residents on Westside Road.
“People move to wine country and then build a McMansion and don’t want to have a winery as a neighbor,” Ramey laments. “I wish I were six years younger. I don’t have the same energy as I had at 62. But now I’m passing stuff off to the kids,” he adds.
The family is designing the winery to handle a 60,000-case production as a hedge for future growth. It will be a long way from the 260 cases of Hyde Chardonnay Ramey made in his first vintage. But through it all, he has held steadfast in the vision for his wines and for his place in the fast-evolving world of California winemaking.
“I’m a traditionalist certainly in terms of wine style. And when all the new kids come along and want to break the rules, I say ‘We did that 30 years ago, and it didn’t work, and we disregarded it,'” Ramey says. “There were no goals and no limits at the start. But then again, I didn’t think I’d get to 35,000 cases.”
Aldo Sohm's Five Bottles from Alto Adige
J. Hofstätter Barthenau “Vigna S. Urbano” Pinot Nero
Named for the chemistry professor who first deigned to plant pinot noir in Alto Adige in the mid-19th century, the Barthenau is grown on that original plot of land, which was sold to the Foradori family in the 1940s. “Always the flagship of Hofstätter, this is a richer style of pinot. It’s expressive, but not as acidic as Burgundy and not as jammy as Sonoma,” says Sohm. “They age incredibly well.”
Cantina Terlano “Nova Domus” Terlano Riserva
Though a cooperative—similar to the idea of a négociant—Cantina Terlano is known for producing some of Alto Adige’s leading wines. A blend of 60 percent pinot bianco, 30 percent chardonnay and 10 percent sauvignon blanc, the “Nova Domus” is an elevated cuvée, says Sohm. “It’s fermented in steel and oak, but without losing its identity. It’s truly interesting and traditional at the same time.”
Abbazia di Novacella Kerner
Founded in 1142 by the Augustinian Order of Canons Regular, the abbey at Novacella is located in the Isarco River Valley and practices organic farming. It’s known globally for its crisp, mineral whites, as well as its pinot nero, schiava and lagrein. “I have this both at Le Bernardin and the wine bar,” says Sohm. “Kerner is a crossing of trollinger and riesling. You could bring it to the beach and you would be totally fine.”
Alois Lageder “Löwengang” Chardonnay
Past Trento, in the little southern Alto Adige village of Magrè, Alois Lageder is a 50-hectare biodynamic winery. One of the first whites from the region to gain international renown in the 1980s, the Löwengang is “a more powerful chardonnay, always one of their benchmarks,” says Sohm. “Lageder experiments a fair amount, going for a little bit of skin fermentation for freshness.”
Located at a working Benedictine monastery, originally built in the 11th century, Muri-Gries has been making wine since 1947. It’s best-known for its lagreins, one of the region’s native red grapes. “Muri-Gries is really old-school,” says Sohm, of the outfit whose vineyards are still hand-tended by the monks. (Its wines are made by Christian Werth.) “This is a hearty, tasty style of wine where you don’t feel guilty to open a second bottle.”
Sonoma Wine Country: Birthplace of California Wine (Video)
On CTV News, Leanne and I chat about how Californian wines are among the popular at the liquor store. In this segment, we focus on Sonoma.
We’re back. Let’s take a look at that map again to see Sonoma.
Tell us about Sonoma
- Birthplace of Californian wine, planted in the 1800s by Spanish missionaries
- Flagship is Chardonnay
- Judgment of Paris in 1976 – Chardonnay mostly from Sonoma like this Chard I have
What other wines is Sonoma famous for?
What’s the climate like?
- Mediterranean climate, with dry summers, wet winters
- Defining feature is the coastline – 60 miles/100 kilometres of coastline
- Marine fog keeps grapes cool in the morning, burns off
- Mountains separate coast from Valley – act like an oven, hot air rises, pulls in cool air from the ocean underneath – warm days, cool nights
- More soil types (31) exist in Sonoma than in all of France
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Natalie MacLean is editor of Canada's largest wine review web site, publishing hundreds of wine reviews every week for more than 160,000 members. She was named the World's Best Drinks Writer the World Food Media Awards in Australia.
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Natural wine for beginners: Six exemplary California whites and reds
For every big wine cashing in on the &ldquoclean wine&rdquo craze by advertising its low calorie counts and friendliness to a ketogenic diet, there are a dozen small-scale, thoughtful winemakers quietly making natural wines here in California.
Natural wine lacks an official definition in the U.S., so every practitioner may follow a slightly different set of principles, but the philosophy is broadly characterized by sustainable farming and minimal intervention in the cellar. Most self-identified natural wines are fermented by ambient yeast, are bottled unfiltered and undergo few or no additions. More recently, though, many companies have been capitalizing on the lingo without following through on the philosophy. Brands like Avaline and Good Clean Wine have amplified the already growing interest in natural wine &mdash but have also drawn considerable ire from members of the natural wine community, who fear that some companies are spreading false information and taking advantage of the work that the real natural winemakers have done.
The moniker remains a thorny topic in certain wine circles. Some California winemakers take issue with the implication that only certain types of wines are &ldquonatural,&rdquo as if the rest were industrial, chemical plonk, often pointing out that legally allowed wine additives are not harmful to human health. That&rsquos a discussion for another day.
But all that said, if you&rsquore new to natural wine and want to support small, independent producers &mdash rather than, say, Cameron Diaz &mdash this list of wines is a great place to start. All of these bottles are from California and, to my palate, should be fairly universally appealing none of them is excessively &ldquofunky&rdquo or alienating. And this list merely scratches the surface of the long roster of excellent natural wines now being made in California.
You can buy any of these wines directly from the wineries&rsquo websites, or look for them &mdash and others &mdash at one of the Bay Area&rsquos natural wine-focused shops, including Minimo, Ordinaire, Bay Grape and the Punchdown in Oakland Tofino, Terroir, Ruby, Gemini, Verjus and Fig & Thistle in San Francisco and Vineyard Gate in Millbrae.
Natural wines for beginners to try Esther Mobley / The Chronicle
&bull A crisp, ultra-light summer white: Et Alia Picpoul Blanc El Dorado Sierra Foothills 2019 ($26, 12.1%). This wine comes from Cara and Aaron Mockrish, who mostly make wines under the Frenchtown Farms label, including from the legendary Renaissance Vineyard in Yuba County. This rendition of Picpoul Blanc, a variety associated with France&rsquos Rhone Valley, is racy and linear, which you don&rsquot always find in Picpoul. It&rsquos flinty, suggesting underripe pear and sappy herbs, with a sunny, bright quality that wraps around the entire mouth.
Natural wines for beginners to try Esther Mobley / The Chronicle
&bull A white that can stand up to food: St. Rey &ldquoSRV&rdquo Chenin Blanc Sutter Ranch Vineyard Clarksburg 2019 ($15, 12.36%). Craig Haarmeyer is one of the great winemakers of the greater Sacramento area, working with vineyards from Yolo County to the Sierra foothills. His SRV Chenin Blanc tastes like a summer fruit salad &mdash think peach, cantaloupe and a generous sprinkling of lemon zest. Firm, mouth-watering acidity carries the wine. Recently, it was showing a hint of reduction &mdash that smell of struck matches &mdash when first opened, but give it a few minutes in the glass and that&rsquoll blow off.
California natural wines to try Esther Mobley / The Chronicle
&bull A different take on Cali Chardonnay: Florèz &ldquoMoonmilk&rdquo Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 2018 ($40, 11.8%). The name &ldquoMoonmilk&rdquo puts you in the right mind for the aroma of this wine, which has a dairy-like quality, something like tangy plain yogurt. Look for sour pineapple and sweet sage notes, and don&rsquot mind the spritziness that the wine shows when you pour the first glass. In other words, this effort by winemaker James Jelks is nothing like the stereotypical buttery California Chardonnay you might be used to.
Five Alternatives to Chardonnay
In a broad sense, there are two categories or Chardonnay wine, oaked and un-oaked.
Oaked Chardonnay, which is aged in new oak barrels, often has a creamy texture and is sometimes described as buttery. It is bolder and heavier than its unoaked counterpart. You can’t throw a cork without hitting a bottle of oaked Chardonnay. It is everywhere and is widely produced in California, France, and many other regions. You’ll find options from grocery store shelves to high-end wine boutiques. It pairs well with pork and rich seafood.
The unoaked variety is lighter, often crisp, minerally, and refreshing. Chablis from France is the classic expression of this wine. Chablis can be quite pricey, but options abound from California, Chile, and other regions. It pairs well with oysters, lighter seafood, sushi, and roasted chicken.
Chardonnay delivers flavors and aromas of apple, pear, lemon, and pineapple. Oaked versions can also have hints of vanilla and caramel.
With a whole world of Chardonnay to choose from, you might want to stick with your favorite grape. However, branching out from Chardonnay will bring new and exciting options to your table.
Viognier is an excellent choice for those who love oaked Chardonnays. Viognier is grown in several regions around the world but is primarily found in the Rhone Valley of France. It is a temperamental and challenging grape to grow.
Viognier pairs well with a variety of seafood, roasted chicken, and many spicy Asian dishes.
Why it’s like Chard: Also typically aged in oak, Viognier is full-bodied and lush. So, if you are attracted to the textural aspects of Chardonnay, it is a smooth transition. See what I did there?
Why it’s different: Where Chardonnay is dominated by apple and pear aromatics and flavors, Viognier carves a different path. Viognier’s aromas are often floral and peachy with flavors of tangerine, apricot, and tropical fruits.
Viognier from the Rhone region can be pricey, but other areas offer good examples from $15–50.
Albarino is primarily grown in Galicia, Spain and in parts of Portugal, where it is known as Alvarinho, but can be found in various other regions of the world. If you love seafood, there may be no better choice as your go-to wine.
It is known for its intense aromatics, citrus flavors, and a hint of saltiness. Lemon, grapefruit, and melon flavors dominate.
Why it’s like Chard: This is a wine for the unoaked Chardonnay lover. It is a light-bodied, crisply acidic wine. Like Chard, it has notes of lemon and minerality that makes it a refreshing and palate-cleansing option.
Why it’s different: Albarino has a significant level of terpenes, an aromatic compound that can give the wine herbal characteristics. Also, the thick skins of the grape can give this wine a slight bitterness in the finish.
Excellent examples can be found between $15-$30.
Garganega is an Italian grape grown in the Veneto region. While it may be hard to find under its grape name, Garganega is also the primary grape of Soave, a relatively common Italian white wine. It is also grown in Sicily under the name Grecanico Dorado.
It pairs well with light chicken and fish dishes, sushi, herbed light pasta, and soft cheeses.
Why it’s like Chard: You’ll find the some of the same flavors and aromas as an unoaked Chardonnay. Tangerine, melon, and peach are dominant. It is also light to medium-bodied.
Why it’s different: It can have flavors and aromas of orange-zest, almond, and herbs that depart somewhat from Chardonnay. Like Albarino, it can have a hint a salinity.
Great examples of Garganega (Soave) can be found for $10-$35.
If you’ve ever reveled in an ice-cold lemonade on a scorching hot summer day, Torrontes may be for you. It is crisp, acidic, and as refreshing as a plunge into a spring-fed river in August.
To be more specific, there are three varieties of Torrontes, but the grape focused on here is Torrontes Riojano. It is Argentina’s primary white grape and is grown in the northern region of Salta.
This enchantingly aromatic wine is winning fans around the world. Its flavors are lemon, citrus, and peach.
Why it’s like Chard: It is light to medium-bodied. Torrontes shares the lemony flavors and aromas. Similar to Chablis, it can have powerful acidity.
Why it’s different: It has robust floral notes of Jasmine, rose petal, and Honeysuckle with subtle spicey notes. Unlike Chardonnay, which can be suitable for aging, Torrontes should be consumed within a year or two.
This wine is a stone-cold bargain at $5-$20.
For our purposes here, I’m talking about dry Riesling. If you’ve never had dry Riesling, you should go get some right now. Forget this article and go to the store. Seriously.
Many people associate Riesling with sweetness, but there are plenty of dry options to be found. If you’re considering a bottle from Germany, look for the word “trocken,” which denotes a dry wine. There are also excellent examples to be found from Alsace, France, the United States, and Australia.
Riesling has aromas and flavors of lemon, lime, pear, honey, and apple. Curiously, it is also known for hints of petrol like aromas that come from a compound called TDN.
If you were dating Torrontes, Riesling would be the older and more sophisticated sibling that you secretly crush on.
Riesling (sweet or dry) pairs well with spicy dishes. If you’ve been looking to for that perfect companion to Pad Thai, look no further. It also goes well with pork, chicken, rich seafood, and soft cheeses.
Why it’s like Chard: Both the unoaked Chardonnay and the dry Riesling can be brightly acidic. The similarities kind of end there. If you’re thinking that Riesling seems like an odd choice to suggest as a replacement for Chardonnay, you not off base. They’re not that similar. I just really want you to try it.
Why it’s different: Apart from some lemon and acidity, it’s quite different in flavor and aroma.
You can find good Riesling from $10 and up.
You will note that I studiously avoided the obvious choices like Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. Most people are familiar with these options. Hopefully, I’ve offered at least one possibility that may not be as familiar to you.
The author holds WSET certifications in Sake, Wine, and Spirits. But mostly, I’m just an enthusiast of the deeply intertwined history of the human story and the relationship with alcoholic beverages over the millennia.
A new age for California white wines
2 of 9 Morgan Twain-Peterson who runs Compagni Portis checks the sugar content of the different variety of grapes in his vineyard in Sonoma Calif., on August 17, 2011. Audrey Whitmeyer-Weathers/The Chronicle Show More Show Less
4 of 9 Morgan Twain-Peterson who runs Compagni Portis checks the sugar content of the different variety of grapes in his vineyard in Sonoma Calif., on August 17, 2011. Audrey Whitmeyer-Weathers/The Chronicle Show More Show Less
5 of 9 Letizia Pauletto and Enrico Bertoz moved to California from Italy and now run a small wine label called Arbe Garbe in St. Helena Calif., on August 17, 2011. Audrey Whitmeyer-Weathers/The Chronicle Show More Show Less
7 of 9 Morgan Twain-Peterson who runs Compagni Portis in Sonoma Calif., on August 17, 2011. Audrey Whitmeyer-Weathers/The Chronicle Show More Show Less
8 of 9 Letizia Pauletto and Enrico Bertoz moved to California from Italy and now run a small wine label called Arbe Garbe in St. Helena Calif., on August 17, 2011. Audrey Whitmeyer-Weathers/The Chronicle Show More Show Less
The Compagni Portis vineyard could easily be overlooked, just another parcel astride weekend houses on the edge of Sonoma. But its 6 acres of gnarled vines hold the past, present and future of California white wine.
Here is a true curiosity, a vineyard that's virtually the last of its kind. Originally part of Agoston Haraszthy's old Buena Vista property, its white volcanic-ash-rich soils were most recently planted in 1954. Now farmed organically, it's an interplanted mix of grapes considered mostly historical - Green Hungarian, Trousseau Gris - in addition to Gewurztraminer and Riesling, all yielding less than a ton per acre in some years. Benevolent chaos rules each vine might be different from the next.
"It has always been here right in front of everybody's face," says Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Co.
Twain-Peterson, son of Ravenswood founder Joel Peterson, shares the vineyard's fruit with high-profile vintners including Arnot-Roberts and Carlisle. Bucklin, Gundlach Bundschu and Ravenswood have also used it. That Compagni Portis attracts such interest is a sign of where California's winemaking momentum lies: white wine.
Reds are doing just fine, thanks. But a new generation of wines - call them the New Whites - are showing the best of California ingenuity, whether it's using little-known grapes with great potential in California soil, or overhauling cellar practices to make significant wines without obvious oak presence, or even reviving the tradition of blending to achieve distinct complexity.
What's the idea behind Compagni Portis' crazy quilt? The intentional interplanting of varieties provides not only character but also what Twain-Peterson calls "an insurance policy" - it limits ripeness in hot years and assures ample flavor in lean ones. The acidity of obscure Burger balances Gewurztraminer's plushness. All the fruit is harvested and fermented together. But you never know what you're going to get.
"It'll have a little bit of a personality from year to year," says Duncan Meyers of Arnot-Roberts.
The concept is old hat in the "mixed blacks" of heritage red blends. But "mixed whites" are far rarer. Indeed, this is the only North Coast site where vineyard hounds like Twain-Peterson have been able to locate such a diverse mix.
That said, there's the nearby Casa Santinamaria vineyard, thought to be a 1905 planting of Semillon that went into an outstanding bottling from Saxon Brown. Except Twain-Peterson says he has yet to find true Semillon there instead there's Muscadelle, Chasselas, Palomino and more. And high up in Louis Martini's famous Monte Rosso vineyard, an 1886 planting of Semillon includes scatterings of white Colombard and Chasselas. Apparently the white vineyards of the past were hardly uniform.
But don't forget that varietals took hold in California only in the 1950s. White wine was more likely to be labeled as Hock or Rhine Wine, even Chablis. Those remain even today. While we discuss the fineries of Chardonnay or Riesling, millions of cases of Rhine wine and Chablis are still made in the San Joaquin Valley, built on a foundation of simple grapes like French Colombard or Burger, often harvested at up to 20 tons per acre. The long-established Almaden brand, now owned by the Wine Group, sold $2.35 million of Rhine wine from May through July, and $1.5 million more of Chablis.
Blends, then, have long defined California's legacy. Modern supermarket versions like Big House White attract a wide audience. Up the chain, so do wines like Caymus' Conundrum. The freedom in combining white grapes is irresistible.
"This," says Twain-Peterson, "is like winemaking catnip."
Inspiration from Italy
The trick with modern blends is to maintain the best qualities of white wine - balance and food-friendliness - in a serious context. Remember that mixed whites have made an impact elsewhere in the world. White field blends have good precedent in Alsace, where vintner Jean-Michel Deiss controversially interplanted top vineyards to highlight the site over any one grape. These vins de terroir fetch more than $40 a bottle.
But few places have become better hubs of white wine innovation than the northern Italian region of Friuli. In turn, Friuli is now inspiring innovation in California.
For one, credit the planting of Friuli's Ribolla Gialla grape by industry veteran George Vare (see sfg.ly/bzhxWu), who has doled out his fruit as a seed grant of sorts for pioneering winemakers intent on making profound white blends.
So there's the Napa Valley white made by vineyard consultant Steve Matthiasson, which combines elements of Bordeaux (Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon) with the high-energy profile of Ribolla Gialla and the almondy nuance of another Friulian grape, Tocai Friulano.
Then there's the Massican label, run by Dan Petroski, who makes wine for Larkmead (see sfg.ly/ngkrNs). His Gemina blend pairs the flesh of Napa Chardonnay with the twang of Ribolla, while his Annia is dominated by the floral aromas of Tocai Friulano (or whatever it is) and Ribolla.
And there is Arbe Garbe, run by Friulian natives Letizia Pauletto and her husband, Enrico Bertoz. The two have launched a shadow campaign to revive the fortunes of Pinot Grigio. Their 2009 Arbe Garbe white, mostly sourced from Saralee's Vineyard in Russian River Valley, is dominated by this grape, along with some Tocai Friulano (again) and Ribolla.
If most Pinot Grigio is insipid - point a finger at Santa Margherita - Arbe Garbe's interpretation is memorable. It is soaked on its skins for more than a day - a popular method of gaining flavor and texture that has become a hallmark of the New Whites - and fermented in neutral oak. Consider it an homage to soulful Italian versions of that grape from producers like Jermann (where the two worked as harvest grunts).
"You have these beautiful examples, but they turn them into cash cows," says Bertoz, associate winemaker at St. Helena's Flora Springs. "There's something to be said for the fate of Pinot Grigio in Italy and the fate of Sauvignon Blanc in the U.S."
Wider choice of grapes
Blends are only part of the New Whites story. Even among varietal whites, there is a push for diversity that will put a dent in the tyranny of Chardonnay.
Albarino, originally from Spain, is on the verge of a California breakthrough. In addition to specimens like those from the Central Coast's Verdad, there's also Abrente, a new Napa effort from Twain-Peterson and Michael Havens, who arguably pioneered the variety here.
Back to those workhorse grapes, there's even a move to resurrect the fortunes of French Colombard. Despite being ignored by modern drinkers, this remains California's second-most-planted white grape, with nearly 25,000 acres - almost entirely in the San Joaquin Valley.
So Yannick Rousseau was thrilled to find 35-year-old Colombard, sourced from fifth-generation grower Butch Cameron, in the relative cool of Russian River Valley. Rousseau, formerly winemaker at Mount Veeder's Chateau Potelle, has more respect for the grape than most: He's from Gascony, in southwest France, where the grape is manifest, and he saw it treated with care at estates like Domaine Saint Lannes.
Cameron's Colombard survived because it was sold to Korbel and more recently bulked up a Sonoma winery's Chardonnay. Now Rousseau buys it for $800 a ton, far above the state average of $242.
"In 2008, when I did my first vintage, my wife said, 'You're crazy to make Colombard,' " he recalls.
Crazy or not, he treats it with care: soaking grapes on their skins for up to nine hours to create nuance in a typically characterless grape. He ferments a bit in neutral oak barrels and stirs the wine's lees (solids remaining from fermentation) to create a richer mouthfeel. The result meshes the vivacious, lemony quality the grape can display in Gascony with more serious weight. Which might be why Rousseau is hunting for more fruit, even hoping to tap old Colombard vineyards farther inland.
"I don't think it was properly made or respected as a variety," he says. "So that's my mission."
The grape roster just expands from there. Just witness Matthew Rorick's Forlorn Hope label.
Rorick uncovered the aromatic Torrontes grape in Lodi and vibrant Verdelho from the Sierra foothills, perhaps that region's next great white hope, along with an Amador County specimen of the Italian white Greco. There's also his Nacré, Semillon from old Yountville vines, which at 11 percent alcohol pays homage to Australia's taut Hunter Valley specimens. (After an hour to unwind, his 2008 was a perfect foil for oysters.)
Rorick, who served in the Navy before studying wine at UC Davis, wants to go back to the future. As we discussed his cellar approach - no acid or yeast added, and just a touch of the preservative sulfur dioxide - he handed me a copy of Emmet Rixford's 19th century text "The Wine Press and the Cellar." It's how he celebrates a diversity of grapes that, frankly, might have been better appreciated when Rixford wrote his book in 1883.
"All the regions in California are totally different, and it's never made sense to me that California vineyards should grow Cabernet and Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc everywhere," Rorick says.
Revising an old favorite
Not all New Whites need be so radical, as the evolving fortunes of Sauvignon Blanc demonstrate.
While that grape has been the victim of endless dumbing down, it has also become a laboratory for some of California's most innovative winemaking. Today there are serious examples made not in the oak-driven style that gave us Fumé Blanc, but with less intrusive techniques that reveal a cellar avant-garde (see story, page G7).
Take the version made at St. Helena's Spottswoode, where Sauvignon Blanc has been a strong analogue to its Cabernet for years. (Credit is due to owner Mary Novak, who prefers white wine.)
Rather than rest on the reputation of Napa Valley's Sauvignon Blanc, Spottswoode crosses county lines to get more complex flavors - tapping not only Napa sites like Hyde and Tofanelli but also Sonoma Mountain's Farina vineyard.
Once grapes are pressed, a bit of alchemy begins. Most are fermented in barrel - but don't be deceived into visions of oak. Nearly 70 percent actually goes into small stainless-steel barrels. These can have a big advantage over steel tanks: They put far more wine in contact with its lees, resulting in a richer texture without oak flavor or quite the same exposure to oxygen that old wooden barrels provide - although a small portion is fermented in oak. Occasionally stirring those lees further enriches the texture.
The technique was devised in the mid-1990s by Pam Starr, Spottswoode's then-winemaker, along with Selene's Mia Klein and Francoise Peschon, former winemaker for Araujo Estate. All three wanted the benefits of a barrel without adding wood flavors - as a way, as Starr puts it, "to banner how delicious the fruit is on its own."
But the real inspiration here lies farther afield - in the Loire Valley, where Didier Dagueneau used the base material of Sauvignon Blanc as fodder for experimentation with long cigar-shaped barrels and extra flavors derived from grape skins. Indeed, the top wines of Pouilly Fumé and Sancerre have become a template for ambitious California Sauvignon Blanc, including the Au Naturel bottle from Brander in the Santa Ynez Valley.
That final 10 percent of Spottswoode's white? It goes into concrete "eggs," convex fermentation vessels that have become the state of the art for building texture without adding the flavor of oak.
All this contributes to what Spottswoode winemaker Aron Weinkauf describes as "California's effort at being California" - celebrating bold fruit flavors of citrus and nectar without the mask of new wood that hampers most spendy Sauvignon Blanc. The $36 price tag, while steep, shows how serious the business of white wine has become.
"Over its five-month life, more work goes into the Sauvignon Blanc than goes into the Cab," Weinkauf says.
Thus the lesson of the New Whites: made as seriously as the best reds, and meant to be taken just as seriously.
-- How they're made on G7 -- Tasting notes on G8
What's up in the cellar? Steel, eggs
White winemaking in California used to fall into two camps: simple efforts made in steel and released young, and elaborate barrel fermentations - usually for Chardonnay - devised to impart unctuous texture and oak flavor.
The world is more complex now, and much of the cellar innovation is directed toward white wine, harnessing new improvements to old-fashioned techniques instead of high-tech tinkering.
Consider stainless steel barrels, which increase the ratio of solids to liquid in fermenting wine. Their use began around 1994 with three winemakers - Pam Starr, Mia Klein and Francoise Peschon. They found steel barrels with oak inserts could add wood flavor without having to buy a new French barrel.
"We didn't want the wood, and that's how we ended up getting the stainless barrels," recalls Starr.
It allowed white wine - Sauvignon Blanc in this case - to gain far more texture than it would in a large steel tank, but without the influence of wood.
The steel still allows winemakers to stir up the solids, or lees, to enrich mouthfeel, a technique that helps give Chardonnay its "buttery" character. Starr went the other direction: putting the wine through a long, cold fermentation and letting it rest untouched all through the winter, slowly building character - a technique she finessed after meeting Loire pioneer Didier Dagueneau in the 1980s.
Steel barrels, at about $800 each, are less expensive than much oak - and easier to reuse.
But there are more radical concepts at play. The current gadget du jour is the concrete egg pioneered by the French firm Nomblot. It can add more texture to wine than the use of steel, in part due to a convective shape that keeps the wine churned up during fermentation. Opinions are mixed, although a newer model made by Sonoma Cast Stone is gaining attention.
At Spottswoode, eggs are occasionally stirred to churn up the lees, but winemaker Aron Weinkauf keeps a close watch to make sure that intense mouthfeel doesn't tip to a syrupy side.
"I look for density of character," he says. "That's not necessarily viscosity."
Concrete in general has become popular for California whites, whether in large tank or small vessel, for its ability to add a subtle richness without wood influence or the austerity of a steel tank - although there are concerns about the wine's acidity eroding the cement.
The next logical step is a small concrete barrel, already being produced by Paso Robles' Vino Vessel. And while clay amphorae have gained popularity for skin-fermented white wines from Italy, Enrico Bertoz of Napa's Arbe Garbe label is keen on a pyramid-shaped concrete vessel that could reduce the volume of wine directly exposed to grape skins, providing a more subtle effect.
That process of soaking white wine on the grapes' skins might be the most fashionable choice of all nowadays. After an extended soak the wine falls into a category popularly called orange (see sfg.ly/htLR4L), but some white winemakers are using the technique for a day or less, which subtly adds flavor and texture without profoundly changing the wine. This follows from some producers in Italy's Friuli, who prefer a less dramatic use of skin contact than their counterparts.
Friuli, along with the Loire, is a frequent source of inspiration for new California whites. But not all inspiration flows that way. Bertoz recalls that Friulian vintners Mario Schiopetto and Livio Felluga both started using stainless steel for aging after witnessing its popularity in the United States.
A taste of the New Whites
2010 Matthiasson Napa Valley White Wine ($35, 12.5 percent alcohol): This latest co-fermented edition is an infant, showing its oak and the reticence of recent bottling. Subtle and focused, with chive, key lime, orange peel and ripe pear. Give it six months to flesh out.
2010 Spottswoode Napa-Sonoma Counties Sauvignon Blanc ($36, 14.1%): A mix of six vineyards in two counties includes a dose of the Sauvignon Musque clone and Semillon, fermented in a variety of vessels (see story, Page G7). Acidity from a lean vintage plays counterpoint to dense favors of lemon, vanilla and apricot tart.
2009 Arbe Garbe Russian River Valley White Wine ($26, 14.5%): Pinot Grigio, briedly soaked on its skins before going into neutral oak, dominates the '09. (The 2010 adds in a dose of Malvasia.) A woodruff-like green note surfaces amid bright citrus oil, pear and tangerine. Acidity adds an edge to its viscosity. Seamless and profound.
2010 Forlorn Hope Que Saudade DeWitt Vineyard Amador County Verdelho ($24, 14.1%): Newly bottled, here's more evidence of this Portuguese grape's fondness for the Sierra foothills. Distinct aromas of nori and pear. Lots of tangerine and apricot, with a limpid texture that adds weight to the grape's lime-rickey tartness.
2010 Bedrock Compagni Portis Vineyard Heirloom Sonoma Valley White Wine ($20, 14.4%): Fermented with indigenous yeast in neutral oak and steel barrels, Morgan Twain-Peterson's interpretation of this field blend is notably ripe, with Gewurz-like clove overtones. Sweet flavors of lychee, peach and Creamsicle, with herbal touches (thyme, chervil) that add complexity.
2009 Arnot-Roberts Compagni Portis Vineyard Old Vine Sonoma Valley White Wine ($35, 13%): Arnot-Roberts' interpretation of Compagni Portis is a counterpoint to Bedrock's - nervy and bright. Very complex, with orange blossom, greengage plum, ginger, lanolin, ripe pear and green almond. Keeps drawing you back to the glass. Keep an eye for the 2010 version.
2010 Y. Rousseau Old Vines Russian River Valley Colombard ($17, 13.2%): The texture here is unexpected - edgy enough for oysters, but versatile enough to put with a summer corn dish. Mandarin peel, fern and a slight honey touch all come through, but a steely presence helps balance the pretty, ripe fruit. Wonderfully done.
2010 Massican Gemina Napa Valley White Wine ($30, 14%): While Dan Petroski's Annia blend is more unique, this mix of Chardonnay (80%) and Ribolla Gialla is a plusher counterpoint. Aged in neutral oak, it brims with Chardonnay's pear-tinged fruit, plus green melon, thyme and Ribolla's electric acidity, which adds a pleasing bite.
2010 Wind Gap Fannuchi-Wood Road Vineyard Russian River Valley Trousseau Gris ($21, 13.2%): This grape was once popular as Grey Riesling, and Pax Mahle's latest version highlights the textural power of concrete eggs. Intense and tangy, yet opulent and almost chewy - like Meyer lemon rind. Mineral, apple and ripe apricot fruit.
Wine with Food: Aged California Chardonnay| Pairing Tips
The deep golden hues of well-aged California Chardonnays are tantalizing suggestions of the fragrant tastes that follow. This varietal of grape, and the wine our California vintners have produced from it in the last 15 years has begun to threaten the foundations of the traditional source of Chardonnay. The winemakers of Burgundy are sitting up and taking notice.
The creations of the Barons of Burgundy are being matched and surpassed by California labels such as: Chateau Montelena, Stony Hill, Joseph Phelps, Raymond, Villa Mount Eden, Guenoc, Stags Leap, Hanzell, Heitz, Bacigalupi, Chappellet, Firestone, Alexander Valley, Chateau St. Jean, Spring Mountain, Far Niente, Gundlach Bundschu, Freemark Abbey, and many others.
Unlike many other white grapes, the Chardonnay grape can produce a wine that has ageing potential. When vinified with that objective in mind, and aged in oak, it produces a wine that changes dramatically in a period of five years. In fact, the difference between young and aged Chardonnay is much wider than most other grape varieties that have ageing ability. The cellaring conditions should be optimum, and the wine should be tracked.
So what do you do with a bottle of fine California Chardonnay that you have watched over closely, aged, and feel is ready? (Or maybe somebody has given you a bottle with that pedigree.)
“Drink it of course!” is the obvious answer. The clue to this decision is the word “ready”. Despite the fact that a few people like to age their Chardonnays similar to their red wines, the optimum time for most California Chardonnays is somewhere between the fifth and eighth year after the vintage date. Anything over that, the wine is on its way over the hill (unless the ageing has been at the lower end of the temperature scale. constant, and undisturbed. With the latter conditions, a longer ageing time is possible).
When a bottle of aged California Chardonnay is “ready” it is a treat. To bring out the best in taste sensations, it should be accompanied with special food to complement it. Here is one suggestion: Serve it at a late snack, or supper type event. Maybe an after show repast. Some mild cheese and french bread, or cold roast chicken (not fried or barbecued). Avoid dominant flavors that might overshadow the wine. You will experience the best flavors from the wine tempered with the food. Serve the wine slightly chilled, but not too cold. Otherwise you will loose the delicate nuances.
Another suggestion is to serve it with your fish course at a multi-course dinner, or with a fish entree at a simpler dinner. In either case I suggest a poached white fish, red snapper or turbot, and maybe use some of the wine for poaching! In my opinion, this is the ultimate accompaniment for that great aged Chardonnay fragrance and balsamic, incense-like complexity that some develop. The light fish tends to take and balance that bold wine, trim it down a little, and add a dimension that says “I am made for you!”
I do get carried away, when I think of some of the glorious aged Chardonnays I have been served.
For those who want to be purists, and serve an aged Chardonnay alone, as an apperitif or as an afternoon wine, I say: “Reconsider! If any one wine is made to go with food, it is an aged Chardonnay. Use a young Chardonnay to serve solo.” I find an aged Chardonnay too overpowering alone, and in fact I feel that way about a young or unoaked Chardonnay. I think they are all just much better with food.
The question of “ready” should be addressed. What is ready? How do you determine it? Pages can be written on this. A wine is ready when it has developed its optimum flavor and complexity changes, and when more ageing will cause it to start going downhill in these attributes. This is a subjective decision on your part, and an objective decision on the part of an educated consensus. You determine this by tracking the wine. You taste a bottle every so often (usually every six months) and keep some cellar notes.
Were you ready for this? If you were not, just follow the Kalemkiarian First Maxim on Wine: drink what wine you enjoy, the way you enjoy, even if you have to mix it as a spritzer!
The Stylized Workhorse
Chardonnay first appeared in viticultural reports from the 1880s as “Pinot Chardonnay.” A century or so later, soon after Chateau Montelena Winery wowed the world at the historic 1976 Judgment of Paris, American consumers would crown the grape as queen of California. And today, despite stylistic swings from lean to rich to racy, the rise of an “Anything But Chardonnay” (ABC) revolution and increased interest and acreage for a diverse range of alternative white-wine grapes, Chardonnay still shows no signs of relinquishing that throne.
From the cool coast and the warm Central Valley up through the Sierra Foothills, there were nearly 94,000 acres planted to Chardonnay in 2017. The state’s second-most planted grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, trailed by more than 1,500 acres. Approximately 614,500 tons were crushed that year, around double the amount processed in 1996.
Chardonnay is the best-selling wine in the U.S. In 2018, it accounted for almost 20% of all table wine sold in stores. And as a single bottling, Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay crosses more Americans’ lips than any other wine.
The dominant Chardonnay regions are Sonoma County, particularly the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast, and the Central Coast, which includes Monterey County, Edna Valley in San Luis Obispo County and Santa Barbara County, home to the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley.
Few know these territories better than Randy Ullom, who’s made Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve for the past 27 years.
“It’s just cool, coastal fruit,” says Ullom of the statewide cuvee. Total production on the Vintner’s Reserve is more than two million cases, with 95% of the wine barrel-fermented in small lots.
Ullom sources grapes from throughout the state, which gives him perspective on regional characteristics. From Mendocino, he gets crisp green apple, while from Sonoma and the Russian River Valley, more ripe red-apple tones are apparent.
Carneros, says Ullom, presents more pear and some viscosity, and Monterey imparts lemon and lime notes, while Edna Valley and Santa Barbara provide huge bursts of tropical flavor. The Santa Maria Valley delivers more viscosity, he says.
“There has never been a better time and a better price than to drink great Chardonnay in America than right now,” says Jim Clendenen, who’s made Chardonnay in Santa Barbara County since 1978.
Clendenen founded his brand, Au Bon Climat, in 1982, after working a series of harvests both home and abroad. It was in Burgundy that he learned to make the wine in a leaner, more mineral driven style. He’s never wavered from a philosophy to make wine with “elegance, finesse and longevity,” even when tastes shifted toward more oak and less acid.
The oaky style came about in the early 1990s, when praise for buttery Chardonnays influenced a generation of winemakers and consumers. It also fired up the haters, which powered the ABC movement toward other white wines. Though oaky styles persist, the overriding trend is back toward freshness, with higher acidity and lower alcohol.
“In the development of Chardonnay in California since [my first vintage in] 1978, I’ve seen two things,” says David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars in Sonoma. “One is a march to the coast. People came to realize that Chardonnay made better-tasting wine in cooler climates. The other is the rise of the Burgundian method.”
Most modern winemakers proclaim affinity for classic Burgundian techniques, such as harvesting while grapes are a little less ripe, fermenting in barrels with native yeasts, aging on lees and allowing full malolactic fermentation.
Greg Brewer appreciates both rich and lean expressions of the grape. He makes bolder Chardonnay for Brewer-Clifton and stripped-down versions for Diatom, both labels he co-founded and for which he serves as winemaker, but he believes that the grape’s staying power and broad likability is due to its “varietal humility.”
“I see it as a skeletal thing, an empty canvas,” says Brewer. “All of the aesthetics are beautiful, if people see them that way.” —Matt Kettmann
Lynmar 2016 Monastery Chardonnay (Russian River Valley) $55, 98 points. Salty, briny and beautifully spicy, this wine offers full-bodied richness that’s completely in balance and remarkably memorable on the palate. Everything is well integrated, from the entry to the long, lingering finish. Editors’ Choice. —Virginie Boone
Au Bon Climat 2015 Nuits-Blanches au Bouge Chardonnay (Santa Maria Valley) $40, 95 points. Rich aromas of sandalwood, cinnamon, brioche French toast, vanilla and nutmeg make for a lush and attention-grabbing entry to this bottling. There’s great cohesion of those spices on the palate, alongside a bright lemony streak that cuts through the white peach and Marcona almond flavors. —M.K.
Grgich Hills 2015 Estate Grown Chardonnay (Napa Valley) $43, 95 points. This divine and complex white delivers tones of almond paste, sea salt, lime and tangerine that are balanced by fresh, vibrant acidity. This is a well-balanced, food-friendly wine that impresses from start to long finish. Editors’ Choice. —V.B
Chamisal Vineyards 2016 Califa Chardonnay (Edna Valley) $50, 93 points. Soft and mellow yet very classic and inviting on the nose, this bottling offers aromas of poached white peach, buttered brioche, honeysuckle and oak on the nose. That oak looms over the sip but in a balanced manner, giving savory, smoky roundness to the butterscotch, clove and fresh lemon flavors. —M.K.
Le P’tit Paysan 2017 Jacks Hill Chardonnay (Monterey County) $22, 92 points. This bottling by Ian Brand always packs bang for the buck, but he really nailed it in the 2017 vintage. Clean and delicate aromas of Asian pear, lemon rind and edgy chalk lead into a racy, crisp and tightly wound palate. Flavors of grapefruit, nectarine, blanched almond and sea salt are delicious. Editors’ Choice. —M.K.
La Crema 2016 Chardonnay (Anderson Valley) $35, 92 points. This is a serious and sophisticated wine that is full bodied, luxurious in its pear and honey flavors and smooth and mouthcoating in texture. Tasty nuances of vanilla, toasted almonds, and lemon cream emerge on the palate and linger long on the finish. —Jim Gordon
More Wines to Try
Ramey 2016 Chardonnay (Fort Ross-Seaview) $42, 96 points. Hazelnut and stony minerality combine seamlessly in this full-bodied and structured wine, with steely, lively flavors of lemon peel and tangerine. Editors’ Choice. —V.B.
Williams Selyem 2017 Unoaked Chardonnay (Russian River Valley) $39, 95 points. This wine shines in fresh flavors of tangerine and grapefruit. Bright acidity lends structure to the light-bodied palate, giving it an elegant and lasting impression. —V.B.
Thomas Fogarty 2016 Damiana Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Cruz Mountains) $62, 95 points. From a vineyard planted in 1978, this bottling starts off quite subtle, with white flowers, lemon rinds, nectarine and wet white-rock aromas. The palate is extremely tense and chalky, with white flower, Asian pear and a light brush of vanilla. Drink now through 2036. Cellar Selection. —M.K.
Hanzell 2017 Sebella Chardonnay (Sonoma County) $29, 94 points. The winery’s stainless-fermented white is so good and such a value for the quality that it cannot be recommended highly enough. Licorice, anise and green apple combine around a steely core of crisp acidity and lengthy balance that impresses from start to finish. Editors’ Choice. —V.B.
Fess Parker 2017 Ashley’s Chardonnay (Sta. Rita Hills) $40, 93 points. Tangy lime and grapefruit aromas cut through the prominent sense of oak on the nose of this bottling. The palate is extremely crisp, framed by laser-sharp acidity and tense tannins, offering flavors of lemon peel, kumquat and more citrus. —M.K.
Matchbook 2017 Estate Bottled Old Head Chardonnay (Dunnigan Hills) $15, 90 points. This medium-bodied wine is subtle on the nose, but opens up on the palate to rich fruit and spice flavors that coat the tongue. It is balanced toward the soft side, but with underling acidity to balance the richness. Best Buy. —J.G.
Weed Cellars Prosecco 187mL
NAPA VALLEY "STAG'S LEAP" PROPRIETARY RED WINE
A good example of how a Central Coast Chardonnay can present an excellent fruit- to-acidity balance. Packed with banana, stewed apple and tropical guava, this wine keeps the taste profile in line with elevated acidity, ensuring the wine doesn’t build on the tongue. Great structure. - 91 Points.
Earthy forest floor, cinnamon with juicy, ripe cherry and just a hint of nutmeg make this the perfect pairing companion. Keep this versatile wine on hand over the holidays, including your Thanksgiving table. - 92 Points.