You’ve heard it before I’m sure. Anything but Chardonnay, and I mean anything, or do I? I don’t know if you’ve noticed but all the cool kids have left that club and formed a new club. You should come and join us in the Anything But (crappy) Chardonnay Club!
Fortunately in this club we are allowed our dalliances with Chablis and Montrachet, not to mention Hanzell, Stony Hill and Aubert. OK I won’t mention them. While wine snobs have chosen to ignore Chardonnay, perhaps revealing a bit of ignorance n their own part, the wine drinking public has continued to embrace Chardonnay.
I am all for ignoring wines that made in a style that doesn’t suit you but throwing the baby out with the bathwater is just nuts. So much great Chardonnay is made around the globe that it would take several tasting just to touch on all the main regions.
This past week we at Snooth took a look at a few examples of the styles now in the marketplace and came up with a few recommendations for almost every palate. Well that may actually be a bit of a reach.
A funny think happened to California Chardonnay over the years. Chardonnay, like Pinot Noir, came to fame in France’s Burgundy region, a place fart less sunny, warm and hospitable than much of California.
The wines that put California Chardonnay on the map came from places like the Sonoma Hills and Santa Cruz Mountains. Places that had growing conditions similar to those of Burgundy. The fruit of these vines was very well adapted to the traditional techniques used in Burgundy. The use of French oak to add spice, Malolactic fermentation to tame the hard acids of cool climate grapes, and long ageing on the lees with frequent stirrings to impart a creamy texture and subtle layer of complexity to these sleek beauties that rarely topped 14% alcohol, heck many barely topped 13%.
Well once Chardonnay became a viable wine in California vineyard creep set in. That’s that insidious habits growers have of planting grapes farther and farther from their ideal terroir. Vineyards first crept down those hillsides and eventually onto the rich soils of the easy to farm valley floors. Warm, luxurious valley floors were grapes got RIPE, yielding wines that routinely topped 14% alcohol, and 15% was certainly not a stretch.
With these wines, rich, fruity and soft the affects of the traditional winemaking techniques used to such advantage in Chardonnays’ earliest years was to create big, tropical fruit laden, buttery wines with little form, or function for that matter. But people liked them, well some did, while others then began to found their own little ABC clubs.
The tipping point for Chardonnay, not coincidentally, came when it finally established itself as the market leader. Some say it was an accident, a stuck fermentation that gave the world the first taste of what was to become this nation’s most popular Chardonnay. That stuck fermentation left the wine with just enough sugar to make it taste remarkably fruity without being cloying, and ushered in an era of populist plonk that created a backlash like no one had ever seen. A huge, raucous, vocal backlash that had virtually no effect on the sales of Chardonnay!
So what exactly happened one is left to ask. I guess a few vocal people let off a lot of steam while more and more consumer were lulled into believing those slightly sweet, oaky, spicy, butter chardonnays represented Chardonnay at its finest. A true American original.
Now I am being a bit too harsh here, both on the producers of these wines and certainly on their consumers. I am a firm believer in to each his own and that just barely trumps my desire to like all wine. I think we have gotten to a point in our collective American viticultural experience where the idea of terroir, not necessarily that lands speak through the grapes but rather that certain plots of land are better suited to Chardonnay or Zinfandel ,or even almonds and plums!
We have moved beyond the application of certain techniques as fixed recipes. Winemakers are coming of age with both the fruit grown where it should be and the understanding of the impact of each technique on what will become their finished wine.
Chardonnay is emerging from its angry adolescence, all pimply and oily, covered with cream, and hair gel (or residual sugar and oak chips) in a desperate attempt to hide what it was while it searched for what it may become.
We are witnessing, if we choose to taste with an open mind, the emergence from it’s cocoon of a beautiful new Chardonnay. One capable of being big, bold and buttery on the one hand while remaining cool crisp and composed on the other.
Wine is an art, winemakers are the artists, growers create the paints and history has prepared the canvasses. The question cannot be simply do you like the results. One must first answer the question: Is this the best that could have been done with the raw materials?
That is where we are. We have some of the finest artists working with brilliant raw materials. Join the ABcC Club and experience what Chardonnay can be in its range of expressions, then decide if one is right for you. Perhaps, in the end, you will not find one that is right for you. That is as valid a conclusion as any that can be drawn, but making that conclusion on old experiences, or worse on not much more than a fad or fancy is simply, well, it’s simply stupid.
Anyway, onto the tasting and our notes!
Flight 1 - Better Budget Wines
Good Daughter CA 2007 13.5% $14.00
Has some nuanced smoky oak tones light a light lemon curd and cut nectarine fruit tones. In the mouth this is a touch sweet and round with a fleshy, friendly feel. A bit soft but shows a sense of restraint as well. 85pts
Both Cheryl and Evan found this to be a bit grassy though Didi and Paul both found nice citrus tones on the palate.
Michael David Vineyards 7 Heavenly Lodi 2006 14.5% $15.00
A fairly raw woody nose is a touch blunt. There is good acidity here but the wine needs it to balance out the sweetness. A bit of Fruit Stripes gum, artificial banana flavor on the round palate that turns a bit spicy with a bitter, pithy edge to it on the angular finish. 83pts
Eddie thought this was "over the top" and Cheryl and Paul both found this to be typically oaky and indistinctly fruity.
Toasted Head Russian River Valley 2006 13.5% $14.00
Not particularly aromatic with integrated spice tones and hints of floral, pear, and pineapple. In the mouth this is smooth and balanced with a touch of mineral cut and a dry leanness across the mid-palate that keeps the subtle fruit and spices tones in harmony. This finishes with a hint of refreshing minerality. 86pts
Several people commented on the stinky aspect of this with Didi noting that it was sulfury and Evan added that the buttery. apple flavors grew on him.
Flight 2 - Cooler Climates, than Napa at least.
Kunde Estate Sonoma Valley 2007 13.8% $18.00
Earthy and slightly minerally on the nose with dried apple, pineapple and dried floral tones that have a sage like edge. In the mouth this is focused with a big acid spine that keeps this fresh and juicy but not weighty. The flavors are a touch soft and subtle but recall nectarines and apples in a creamy, creamsicle style that grows on the long finish which has a delightfully sneaky return of sweet orchard fruits. Eminently drinkable 91pts
Everyone enjoyed this wine though Paul wanted to see more acidity and Didi noted a "chemical" scent the consensus was that this was something to go out buy and share with friends.
Stuhlmuller SV Estate Alexander Valley 2007 14.2% $22.00
A lovely nose with nuanced honey, toasted wood, nutmeat, yellow flowers and dusty earth tone. In the mouth the texture is just fantastic, bright and balanced with intense yet tense and focused mandarin orange, apricot and fig notes that are framed with just a hint of almond and measured oak notes. The finish is fruity, clean and crisp with refreshing acids and a delicacy to the flavors that makes this a winner for geek and novice alike. 93pts
Cheryl liked the "oily texture" of this wine and both Paul and Evan commented on the " caramel and hazelnut" oak tones. Didi found it "tinny and metallic".
Bouchaine Carneros 2006 13.9% $20.00
This is laden with sweet fruit aromas but has a raw wood note that adds an acrid edge. In the mouth this is very fruit driven with a hint of wood derived honeyed sweetness up front that yields to a chemical vanilla tone on the diffuse mid-palate. This does gain a little bit of creamy intensity on the backend and has good length but the finish feels a little stripped and spoofed. 85pts
Eddie went back and forth on this one, finding that the wine alternated between " a bit skunky" and "exotic fruit". Cheryl and Evan both noted off aromas but then went on to say that they enjoyed both the texture and the flavors of the wine.
Flight 3 - Napa Valley
Duck Shack Napa Valley 2007 14.2% $24.00
A touch of vanilla on the nose but this is driven by lime, apricot, and pineapple fruit tones that seem fresh and bright. Zesty acid on entry is followed by cool, crisp flavors of green fruits, pineapple and peach with creamy vanilla undertones and light wood spice notes. The texture is lovely and shows excellent integration. This is refreshing yet doesn’t lack power or richness and finishes with an absolute flourish of lime, starfruit, and peach fruit salad notes with even a hint of blueberry. Delicious 92pts
Nearly everyone loved this wine, though Didi felt the palate was a let down after the nose. Paul notes that this was a "big lemon bomb" and Cheryl added it"like Goldilocks, just right!"
LaTour Mt. Veeder 2006 14.5% $25.00
Very oaky on the nose with buttery, nutty, vanilla candy notes that almost become tarry in the glass. Big and soft with lots of flavor but not much focus. This is not fruit driven and while made and in a way Burgundian, with a touch of rocky minerality on the mid-palate, seems a bit to aggressive and lacks a sense of elegance. In it’s own way it is intriguing with a smoky, hazelnut scented finish that has a certain allure but this is not for everyone. Given time I can see this emerging into something distinct and enjoyable.88pts
Both Eddie and Evan found a lot of oak on the nose here with "coconut oil" and "strong toast flavors". Paul found the nose to be "the most complex so far with orange blossoms, fig and fresh cream then oak, oak, oak on the palate."
Frank Family Napa Valley 2007 14.4% $28.00
This has a nice dominated by spicy French oak with dried apple fruit and a bit of lemon oil. In the mouth this is very bright up front with big citrus tones that yield to a rich, viscous, powerfully built mid-palate full of pineapple, peach and apricot tones with plenty of acid backing it up yet it still becomes cloying and sticky on the backend. The finish is also sweet with big, pure notes of cinnamon toast with cream and vanilla. A lot of wine that’s not my style but should find many admirers. 90pts
For the most part everyone enjoyed the "rich, oily, full, dense" mouthfeel of this wine but the intensity was off-putting to some as was the "spintry oak that paul found though Didi enjoyed the "caramelized, molasses flavors."
Flight 4 - Up and down the coast
Ch St Michelle Caone Ridge Estate WA 14.1% $20.00
The nose here is subtle and seductive with notes of eggshell, lime leaf, butchers wax, and a wildflower sweetness tat is seductive. A leaner style in the mouth, really taut and focused with intense notes of very fresh orange, peach, pear and papaya fruits that even have a suggestion of red berry. A bit soft on the backend yet with great freshness to the slightly exotic tropical fruit flavors. The finish is a little light with a hint of mineral and hazelnut adding complexity. Very nice stuff 92pts
This wine split the crowd with Eddie noting that this was " big, full and seductive, caressing and bold like Naginsky." while Paul felt it was "full of black tea, too simple and no fun."
Ojai Solomon Hills CA 2007 14.0% $30.00
This smells very hard yet has intense and pure chardonnay fruit with background notes of saffron, honeycomb, and forest floor. Very bright and full of malic acid in the mouth that supports the intense lemon, peach and grapefruit oil fruits in the mouth. The huge acidity keeps this large scaled wine remarkably focused and highlights the wonderful purity of the fruit. The finish is snappy and as refreshing as can be with a gentle almond tone and a hint of toasted coconut. This retains a tightly coiled feeling and I expect this might get even better in the cellar. Not for everyone but a brilliant style of Chardonnay. 92pts
This was not liked by the group. Paul though it was simply "bad" and Didi felt it had a "strong, bitter, pungent taste." With time some of the group fund more to like though with Cheryl noting that " it did a 180 going from dirty and funky to clean and and pleasant with a bite." Eddie added, "this was probelmatic but ended up tieing for my number 2."
Stoller Estate Dundee Hills OR 2006 14.1% $31.00
This smells heavy like white chocolate pudding with lots of caramel notes from the wood and not much fruit. In the mouth this is lush and chewy yet feels a bit to fat with good fruit but not much follow through and finishes with over-ripe tropical fruits and movie theatre popcorn. 86pts
The oak on this wine was noted by all with most tasters finding it to be, as Evan put it, "creamy and spicy." Paul liked it's "creamy white raisin and mango" flavors while Cheryl found it to be " astringent and oaky" but still enjoyed the caramel and fruit flavors.
Well that was it. I was actually very surprised by how much I enjoyed several of these. It's been too long since i took a look at West Coast Chardonnay and I am glad I took the time to give these a test drive. I found a few for my summertime drinking. How about you? Ready to join us in the ABcC club?
Gregory Dal Piaz
Join the ABcC Club!
- Blog comment by Ryan Reichert, Jul 6, 2009.
I love it!!!
Spreading the word - ABC drove me nuts!
- Reply by dmcker, Jul 6, 2009.
I guess ABC was another boat I missed--so many of those in my lifetime! ;-)
I've never had any respect for big, bloated, amorphous, cloying alcohol-bomb California chardonnay monstrosities. Yet I've also had no respect for anyone who thinks that's what chardonnay is. Supple acidity any day, please. And a little vanilla in the mix never hurt the overall picture. When did that get demonized? California has also had great 'French-style' chardonnay, all the while. Which naming I take to signify a winemaker who understands and stays within what the fruit is meant to be. I enjoy drinking many whites from California, France and other parts of the world, from many varietals. But chardonnay has always had a special place, as perhaps my favorite, if in some fantasy world I were tied to only one varietal.
My club has always been NCC--no crappy chardonnays need apply. And NCSV, NCCB, NCR, etc., etc. There's an awful lot of crappy sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, riesling and so many others out there, too...
Thanks, Greg, for the notes and pointers. Haven't had the Ojai Solomon Hills, though that's the area where I grew up. I also haven't had a St. Michelle in years, and it appears they've improved. Will keep an eye out for them and the Duck Shack!
- Reply by dmcker, Jul 6, 2009.
P.S. Though I forgot to mention it, I was talking *white* varietals when discussing favorites. ;-)
- Reply by Eric Guido, Jul 7, 2009.
Thanks Greg, that's a pretty funny intro. I know some people are crazy about this but I always thought it was focused around over-oaked Chards. Now we just need to undo the damage that Sideways did to Merlot and we can then just drink whatever we like.
Nothing like a Chard from Santa Cruz though. Yum!
- Reply by Gregory Dal Piaz, Jul 7, 2009.
It's a tough fight, especially with those who are too in the know.
It's all about expressing what is there to be expressed.
I was quite surprised by some of the results of this tasting to be honest. I am so very glad to still have an open mind!
- Reply by dmcker, Jul 7, 2009.
I still want to know what kind of idiot seriously thinks chardonnay is a grape to avoid in its entirety. Eric, I also thought of the Sideways snobbism when I started reading above. Sure, sneer at poorly made merlots or chardonnays. But, as you so rightly point out, Greg, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater! There are still large amounts of old and new world chardonnays being made extremely well. Avoiding chardonnay is absurd, and would involve missing a huge portion of the joys to be had from white wines. Or are these the same people who sneer at whites entirely? Do these people also refuse to drink champagne? I'd be feeling a bit sorry for them, if they hadn't already through stubborn wrongheadedness forfeited their right to any pity! ;-)
- Blog comment by Dan, Jul 7, 2009.
I will admit that Chardonnay has become one of my favorite grape varieties. I pine to drink White Burgundies. But when in Rome, er, California, I find no love better than a DuMOL or HdV Chardonnay. Unfortunately these wines are hard to come by, but when they are found and a glass is poured, there is NBC - Nothing But Chardonnay that I do adore. Keep drinking Chardonnay, in all its forms. Thanks for a great post.