The Frank Family was a more typical representation of what I think a California Chardonnay is going to be like. As much winemaker over climate as anything, it’s a super popular style and one wineries have tried hard to perfect over the years. On a whim I chose to include two other regions here that have, more or less, a reputation for a cooler climate. Just east of San Francisco, Livermore is a historic wine growing region that has seen significant vineyard losses as new homes encroach on formerly agricultural areas. There are still plenty of vineyards around, and I was able to add the value-priced 2010 Darcie Kent Chardonnay De Mayo Vineyard Livermore Valley ($12) to the mix, which was probably a bit unfair. This certainly had some of the apple and citrus flavors we associate with cooler climate wines, but at the same time it was soft and creamy, seemingly being shoehorned into the popular Californian style. Not my cuppa anything as it were.
The Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara county is famous for its cool climate. Covered by fog from evening until late morning and then consistently cooled by the currents coming off the Pacific Ocean, the only reason grapes can ripen here is the luxury of an extremely long growing season. I would expect Chardonnay from this climate to combine a certain degree of power with bright fresh flavors, but sadly the 2010 Sierra Madre Vineyard Chardonnay Block 210 Santa Maria Valley ($30) showed more California style than Santa Maria freshness. This explodes with intense pineapple fruit, laden with a heavy load of oak. Some people are going to love this, but for me it was too much style over substance, though this is a very substantial wine. Still, it doesn't speak to me.
The 42nd parallel north marks the border shared by California and Oregon. Coincidentally, it also roughly marks the southern edge of France, so seeing as that’s where we began this discussion, it seems like a fitting way to end it as well. Of course the climate of Oregon, driven by the Humboldt currents, and that of Burgundy differ greatly, but they do share some traits, like the amount of potential sunlight they might receive through a growing season, and the fact that their temperatures are in general cooler than regions further south. One might fairly assume that if you’re going to find Chardonnay in the U.S. that compares favorably with many French examples, this is the place to look. As usual one might also be right.
Right off the bat you can tell that the 2010 Troon Chardonnay Applegate Valley ($24) celebrates its cool nature. Aromatic, tart and with an elegantly light mouthfeel, this is a clear, precise and refreshing wine that may not reveal the same minerally terroir as Chablis, but it is certainly trying. If you’re looking for more richness in a wine that still maintains the clarity and freshness of a cool climate, you need to look no further than the 2010 Stoller Chardonnay Reserve Dundee Hills ($28). Here’s a wine that deftly combines subtle winemaking with fruit that has intensity and complexity, yet remains light and elegant. It’s the epitome of new world winemaking meeting cool climate fruit, and while that’s not what I started out looking for, it is where I just ended up!
Whatever conclusions one gets from this admittedly tiny sample size can really only serve to inform further research, but it’s worth taking note.
1) If you enjoy French Chardonnay, and that is casting a wide net indeed, you probably will enjoy Chardonnay from Oregon. The cool climate and winemaking perspectives born of an industry that is Pinot-centric are turning out some dynamite wines.
2) The Sonoma Coast appellation is too big. I would love to see further clarification on the bottle from where within the appellation wines come from.
3) The Russian River Valley might be the perfect place to produce classically styled California Chardonnay.
4) Are the two sides of Carneros as similar as we are lead to believe? I’m not convinced.
5) Winemaking style can trump terroir, smother it in fact, so an appellation on the label remains at best a rough guide to what is in the bottle.
6) You can learn more by drinking wines than from reading books, and it’s more fun!