Turns out the future of the signature California white wine lies in its past
Don't blame California chardonnay for becoming a fashion victim. It's not the grape's fault but rather what was done to it. Just when I'd almost given up hope that chard would return to its senses, some noble vintners came to its rescue.
As popular and ubiquitous as they have become, chardonnay grapes—the famed white of Burgundy—had their innocent and even humble beginnings in California. The Wentes of the Livermore Valley started it all in 1933, when their vineyard bottled the first chardonnay (called pinot chardonnay for decades) from imported French vines. André Tchelistcheff, the legendary wine consultant, said Wente's 1938 was the best chardonnay he'd ever had. In spite of the maestro's blessing, the grape took quite a while to gain favor with the public. For 40 years, the pioneers who chose the chardonnay path often modeled their wine after the crisp, lean style of chablis. Still, no matter which style they emulated, alcohols were low, and the wine from those early producers—notably Martin Ray, Heitz, Hanzell and Stony Hill—was pretty with pure fruit. In other words, it was what California does best. But a big seller? Hardly. Before 1968, the amount of acreage devoted to chardonnay was so small it was reported in the "miscellaneous" category.
All that changed after the now famous 1976 Paris wine tasting, when the Chateau Montelena bottled by Mike Grgich trumped the French for top awards for white wine. In the decades after, acreage in California devoted to chardonnay—especially in Napa and Sonoma—more than quadrupled, from 11,000 to 45,000 acres. The craze for the wine made way for what can only be categorized as its Britney era: Success happened too fast at too young an age. Faltering was bound to follow. And it did.
Why? For one, producers were looking for ways to feed the oak and sugar monster in creating their chards. The grapes were so overripe that acidity and structure were the losers. Alcohols climbed. Compounding the problem, it seemed as if all the chards were pushed through malolactic fermentation, softening the already nonexistent acids and adding buttery flavors and fat. The 100 percent new oak (or chips) was part of the recipe. And voilà, the transformation was complete: Instead of the fresh, fruity delight that nature intended, chardonnay often became synonymous—and weighty—with vanilla and toast. It was almost impossible to find evidence of actual grape. It's not that some wines couldn't take this recipe—it's more that the techniques were applied universally, often with disastrous results.
Now chardonnay redemption is at hand! Vintners have been rethinking what makes a wine truly Californian, and as a reward, the dry white delight has been granted the opportunity for a magnificent makeover. The changes include more careful planting in areas that have cool (even cold) mornings and nights to ensure acidity. California has more volcanic soils than the deep ocean limestone of Burgundy, so wines will never have that French minerality—though they do have that beautiful fruit. Other modifications include the unoaked chards, which forgo the overoaked issue by fermenting in stainless-steel tanks.
Advancing the cause are some unsung heroes: old, such as Stony Hill; and new, like Kevin Kelley, who is doing stunning work for Lioco (unoaked) and under his own label, Salinia (full and lush). This year, he has experimented with fermenting the grapes in their skins, a more natural process (a technique trendy in Friuli, Italy, but rare with chardonnay). His first vintage is looking gorgeous, with a pithy complexity that seems to balance out the opulent fruit. I like the added dimension.
This technique is unlikely to become a trend, except among very boutiquey winemakers. More likely the word unoaked will show up on labels, at least in the under-$20 category. In John Gillespie's Wine Opinions study on chardonnay trends, he reveals that those who love big, oaky chardonnays are mostly male and over 60. Women of all ages still love chard, but please, no oak. The millennial under-thirties have more interest in Grüner Veltliner, but if they did opt for chardonnay, they'd reach for the nonoaky version.
"Unoaked is the latest extension. It's only going to be held back because winemakers can't charge as much for unoaked versions," says California wine critic Dan Berger, with a touch of well-placed cynicism. But he goes on to list examples he is happy to drink—Grgich Hills, Navarro, Trefethen, Silverado's Vineburg, Robert Sinskey, Frog's Leap, Dutton-Goldfield and, of course, the wine that never strayed from its golden roots, Napa's Stony Hill.
Seems a lot has happened to chardonnay while I wasn't looking. In the course of tastings, I decorked a few Stony Hills and was pleased to find it lean and long-lived—the 1998 is wonderful right now. While not unoaked, the oak is so old it is almost neutral. I was surprised to find I liked the shock of cinnamon in Heitz. And while initially knocked off balance by the massive fruit and texture of the 2004 Ridge Monte Bello, there is no denying it is complex and well made, perfect for those who love their chardonnays big and bold.
Among the newest unoaked and unmalolactic, the Pellegrini Family Vineyards version was a delight. I got to know winemaker Kevin Hamel when I was stomping grapes with him last fall. While he has been making wine for more than a quarter of a century, his first release of chardonnay was after he took over at Pellegrini for the 2005 vintage. With a certain food-friendly edge, it offers plenty of attitude. When asked how he approaches chardonnay, he says that even though it may sound selfish, he just tries to make a wine he really wants to drink.
With any luck, there will be more coming.
White-wine lovers waiting to move beyond the world of ABC (anything but chardonnay), your time has come. Here are some chards sure to please every palate.
2006 Ramey, Russian River Valley, $38, rameywine.com
Expect a bright orange and honey aroma, lively spicy-sweet lemon flavors, a nice bitterness and just a touch of smoke.
2004 Ridge Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains, $60, ridgewine.com
For those who love big-style chardonnay, this will suit: rich and round, with plenty of complexity and toffee and caramel coming on strong.
2006 Hanzell, Sonoma Valley, $70, hanzell.com
A full-bodied chardonnay with apparent toast and a nicely integrated preserved-lemon and roasted-nut complexity, it’s quite the polished number, despite the almost 15 percent alcohol.
2007 Heitz, Napa Valley, $20, heitzcellar.com
The incredible balance between fruit and acidity in this old-school-style chardonnay accompanies the not-overpowering oak that provides hints of cedar and cinnamon.
2007 Pellegrini (Unoaked), Russian River Valley, $20, pellegrinisonoma.com
There’s a good bit of lemon confit along with a refreshing clarity of fruit in this food-friendly wine.
2007 Lioco Demuth, Anderson Valley, $35, liocowine.com
Gorgeous lemon and tangerine fruit on the nose and hints of juicy Comice pear on the finish make this a winner. With plenty of acidity and angles, it’s a midweight wine that goes perfectly with grilled salmon.