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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

This is why we taste blind, Chardonnay has its virtues

If you count all the wine related clichés, I’m certain that close to half of them involve our ubiquitous whipping boy, Chardonnay. If we put the jokes involving the neutral, over toasted stereotypes for the varietal aside, it’s evident that Chardonnay has seen a bit of a stylistic face-lift in the varied terroirs of the new world. We’ll call it the ‘buttered popcorn backlash,’ for alliteration sake. The ebbs and flows of pushing the envelope in terms of residual sugar, low acidity and heavy handed wood treatment have seemed to shift in favor of ‘naked’ or ‘unwooded’ expressions gaining a bit of market share steam at ‘the oak monster’s’ expense. There were only two major offenders during our tasting that spoke softly and carried a wooden stick, as most wines offered up refreshing acidity, clean profiles and judicious use of the good old barrique.
I think that tasting this particular line-up blind really opened our eyes to:

· The virtues of Kistler w/ a bit of age
· The gray area between the old and new world can become even more blurry when Californian winemakers throttle back on the wood and reel in a bit more finesse
· Gaja Chardonnay is over-priced to a scandalous degree (w/ all due respect to Angelo, we all wanted to beat him over the head w/ his own bottle after finding out how much the Gaia & Rey cost)
· 20 dollar Chardonnays from the Languedoc region can really rock your world
· 16% alcohol wines can be impeccably balanced and, gasp, minerally as hell
· Romanian Chardonnay sucks (well, this one wasn’t very good…I’ll keep an open mind if I taste another)

Wine number one:
As crude as it sounds, the color descriptor of very dehydrated urine is probably as apt as it gets, and oxidation is never far behind once viewing such a sight. The nose had a bit of an old Chenin Blanc spin to it, w/ a flutter of beeswax, witch hazel and tropical oils dancing from the glass. In the mouth, there is an off-dry, clumsy attack, that fought boisterously to make its expression, albeit a kinda clunky one that I kindly spat out instead of swallowing. The 1996 Murfatlar Romanian Chardonnay aint’ dead, but is in dire need of food to find any semblance of harmony, 71 points.

Wine number two:
While I smelled a touch of TCA initially, the fruit of the wine was not suppressed and it showed honey glaze, smoked pear and brioche notes nose that were actually quite attractive. As the wine warmed, the richly fruited ride became a bit bumpier, as some alcoholic fumes entered the picture. Unfortunately time reveals all flaws, and the moldy National Enquirer magazine characteristics suffocated all that was once virtuous in the ’02 Kistler McCrea Vineyard. For the record, quite a few tasters initially had it pegged as a Chablis, NR.

Wine number three:
I really panned the hell out of this mess which exposed an appallingly earthy streak of white pepper, mustard seed and tepid bath water flavors that became entirely emaciated in the mouth. I’ve never experienced any of these characteristics in a Chardonnay, and for my palate’s sake, I hope I never do again. This ’05 Jean Noel Gangnard Les Caillerts Chassagne Montrachet better have been an off bottle, or else he’ll be just as deserving of a whack on the head as Angelo Gaja, 64 points.

Wine number four:
Ahhh thank goodness we’ve found a savoir in number four, which provided a turning point in the dynamic of the tasting. A thrilling nose of jammy quince, smoked pecan, cornmeal and salty sea breezes filled the aromatics in a beguiling fashion. Fat, but pure in the mouth, evoking a bit of Meursault-esque poise and paving the way for a gorgeous beam of minerality that pumped out rich flavors along the finely tuned finish. Call me crazy, but I think this ’99 Dutton Ranch from Kistler has some room for even more future development, 92+ points.

Wine number five:
Perhaps one of the more idiosyncratic noses of the evening, revealing iron, roasted marshmallows, lime candy and a mélange of tropical fruits in a subtle, less overt style than most Chardonnays of this breed. Unfortunately the foreplay in the bouquet evolved to be a bit of a quickie, as the midpalate was skeletal and dropped off on the finish like a bad habit. There was balance but little grace in the 1999 Gaia and Rey, whose three figure price tag was much more noteworthy than the substance it provided, 84 points.

Wine number six:
Time for a trip to Chablis, as this wine was full of classic crushed stone, clove, lilac and citrus blossom characteristics in the whispering little nose. The mouthfeel reminded me of Sancerre as it was light, but pleasantly elegant in a citrus-infused sort of way. While she finished quickly, the Chateau de Maligny Montee de Tonnerre ’04 managed to do so in a manner that we still enjoyed all the same. Sometimes sheer character can trump body and length, 85 points.

Wine number seven:
This contrasted beautifully next to the Maligny, as it showcased Chablis w/ much broader shoulders, offering up a similar sense of suave minerality w/ much more depth, persistence and layers of flavor. Baked apples, citrus cream and an overlay of freshly cut flowers sashayed through the palate w/ clarity and an absolute transparency of place. I was extremely impressed w/ how the ‘05 Domaine Pinson Freres Mont de Milieu managed to chisel its breadth into a compelling Chablis, 91+ points.

Wine number eight:
While suffering from the sticker shock of the Gaja, this was a more than welcome edition to our tasting that provided an absolute knock-out performance for about a tenth the price. From nose to finish, this was a complex and alluring interpretation of Chardonnay, offering a vivid nose of crème brulee, plump fig, sunflower and smoky graphite flavors that were funneled through the mouth by a gorgeous beam of racy acidity. Who knew such impeccably balanced Chardonnay could come from a humble Vin de Pays in the Languedoc? Great job Rodet, your ’06 is a beaut, 93 points!

Wine number nine:
Now what intrigued me most about this wine was that it must have been entirely void of new oak. It had the crystalline purity and freshness that I always associate w/ stainless steel (more specifically, how an infant Grenache Blanc tastes right out of the gates), displaying crushed tangerine, citrus peel and cantaloupe melon flavors that pumped along the palate w/ ease, thanks to the crisp, yet unadorned structure. The second Chateau Maligny of the night, an ’06 Vieilles Vignes, was another example of a wine that is anything but flamboyant, but you can’t help but admire its authenticity, 87 points.

Wine number ten:
Alright, disclaimer…I knew this was my wine. The ‘my wine’ bias aside, I still found it to be the most compelling Chardonnay of the evening (and no, it wasn’t an Aubert…those are terrible wines to bring to blind tastings, the cloudy haze always gives them away!). There is a striking intensity in this wine’s character, from the richness of its golden hues to the viscosity found in the palate. The scents of lemon peel, dried pineapple and cedar box are so channeled and precise, you can’t help but be intrigued as to what lies beneath them. While opulent and mouth-filling, there wine is personified by its presence, juxtaposing an overlay of cream with glorious mineral character. To me, the winemaking crew at Brewer Clifton is as top flight as any in California, and while their ’06 Sea Smoke Vineyard (which buries the Sea Smoke Chardonnay, by the way) is stellar, their Mount Carmel is even better, 95 points.

Sidebar: I waited until everyone tasted this and formed a concrete opinion before I dropped the bomb on them, telling them the labeled alcohol content is a heady 16%. No one believed it, and Michel’s oak/alcohol-aphobic palate enjoyed this wine quite a bit (I had a keen eye on him the whole time, seeing if Brewer Clifton could pass the Abood test, and they seemed to do so w/ flying colors). After visiting the winery and tasting some of their other projects; like Diatom, Palmina and Melville, I became completely hooked on just about anything these guys touch. I can’t praise their wines enough and hope they can persevere through their ‘pricing stigma’ which they seem to have picked up during the past couple years. Some brands, like Aubert and Kongsgaard, while expensive, don’t get quite the same pricing flack as Brewer Clifton, but in my humble opinion, the Brewer Clifton wines certainly belong in that category in terms of quality…and that quality comes at a price.

Wine number eleven:
Yep…there’s oak. Yep, there’s butter. Having said that, I found it to have plenty of super-rich Chardonnay fruit to match, making this a hedonistic thrill-ride that was just a bit too pricey for the admission fare. There’s no shortage of citrus oil, orange marmalade and other devilish delights in the mouth that maintain a sense of symmetry that demonstrates how the Jayson 2000 fits the Californian stereotype, but still manages to pull it off w/ just enough grace in its steps, 90 points. Michel said that this wine has not budged a bit since its youth…another good reason for a paradigm shift in the stereotype.

Wine number twelve:
Well, we saved dessert for the end as some residual sugar has crept into the Newton Unfiltered, 2004. Perhaps the most frank wine of the evening, w/ blatant fig, salted butter, brioche and poached pear notes that get a touch cloying in the mouth-filling, full bodied palate. Those that loathe the Chardonnay cliché will abhor this effort, but if you’re hankering for a bit of marmalade on your toast, this will certainly be your ticket. For me, this earns its marks on exuberance, but falls short of outstanding simply because it is flaccid and lacks singularity, 88 points.


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