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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Chardonnay: Out w/ the old and in w/ the new

Truth be told, my favorite expressions of Chardonnay tend to transcend the grape. Grand Cru Chablis, Jadot Chevalier Montrachet Demoiselles, Blanc des Blanc Champagne…that said, my anemic finances render these choices as mere window dressing. So what is an average pocketbook to do about Chardonnay? Perhaps nothing, but I do enjoy the warm, mouth-coating experience of New World Chardonnay in the winter and have turned to a couple spots in particular. I’m finding that my favorite site in California for most any wine is the Santa Cruz Mountains. It is unfortunately too small to exploit to the masses, so it goes w/ most prime appellations, but producers like Rhys, Varner, Ridge and Mount Eden have demonstrated how compelling cool climate California fruit can be. I’d conjecture that Oregon may be equally suitable for this style of Chardonnay, yet don’t have enough data to back up the claim. Pinot Noir seems to be too hot in the cool Willamette soils to offer up any room for whites (though I do enjoy Domaine Serene’s Cote Sud Vineyard version whenever I’m lucky enough to find it). I’ve enjoyed watching the evolution of the North & South Fork of Long Island over the past few years and they continue to augment their efforts w/ Chardonnay. While the area is still vastly inconsistent as a whole, the right vintage (ie: ’07) and the right producer can create something special. Channing Daughter’s inventiveness lends uniqueness to the grape, Wolffer’s sparklers are arguably up w/ the best in the country, Pellegrini’s minimally oaked ’07 Chardonnay is their finest to date & Paumanok’s Macon-like version handles the cellar very well (and may be a safer alternative to the fragile, oxidation-prone Burgundies). Pricing stigmas of Long Island be damned for to this style of Chardonnay, as its breed ain’t easy to find on domestic soils & some of the Fork’s finest fruit is worth the look.

Some other sweet spots for me have obviously been in the Santa Rita Hills, where my favorite versions come from Brewer Clifton & Diatom. Though one of the best producers of California Chardonnay, Kongsgaard, sources fruit from Napa, it generally isn’t a locale that I find too enthralling for whites. Perhaps I’m too blinded by cliché and stereotype, but I prefer a cool breeze in my Chardonnay a la Sonoma Coast, though I’m beginning to be priced out of that region as well. I’m interested in branching out, particularly to Australia, in light of their wine glut and distributor dumps I’d imagine it makes the most financial sense. I’m fairly dry in my attempts to come up w/ producers of nuanced Chardonnay from down under, save for Leeuwin Estates, but I’d love some names to look for while wading through the bushes of Barossa Shiraz on the shelves. New Zealand is smack dab in the middle of the cool climate nexus, and once you get past the gallons of kiwi Sauvignon Blanc & fashionable Pinot Noirs, there’s a promising bottle of Craggy Range, Mt Difficulty & Felton Road staring you in the face. While South Africa toes the line between the New World & the Old, I’ve been too intrigued by their brambly Syrah & lithe Chenin Blancs to see the Chard through the trees. Again, supply and demand seems to squelch the wines I desire from ever hitting the retail shelves, but I’m ready, willing & able to do a bit more searching if you’ve got a carrot to dangle in my face.

Are there other New World Chardonnay areas that interest you? Perhaps a fine Spanish example that I’d be too jaded to try? I will say there’s been a handful of serviceable South American Chard that I’ve sampled, yet they’ve firmly been in the 10-15 dollar weekday realm, far from serious slurping. Again, it could be that I simply have branded Argentina as Malbec world w/ a dash of Patagonian Pinot thrown in for good measure…perhaps my search soured w/ the dull vanilla stamp of a Cobos Chardonnay. I’m game for a new angle.

I’ll litter the rest of this post w/ a few Chardonnays I’ve enjoyed over the past month. Please feel free to chime in w/ a note or two of your own, ‘tis the season.

Kongsgaard ‘The Judge’ Chardonnay ’07
Let me preface this by stating this is a wine that defies conventional description. Writing about the Judge is simply an exercise in impotence, but I digress…Easily the most impressive Chardonnay I’ve tasted from California, this is a riveting tactile experience that has to be tasted to be believed. The thick layers of glycerine drip from the stem like melted ice, unmasking the deep golden colored, bass-toned wine. The scents are paradoxically obvious and profound, seething in singular waves as it sits in the glass. The Judge is as texturally dynamic in the mouth as any ‘wine-concept’ could imagine to be, w/ its immense, almost elephantine shoulders cut by a rippling blitz of minerality. Jagged & chewy at the core, yet plump and expansive in its breadth, sipping this is as overwhelming to the senses as counting the innumerable stars in the sky, 99 points.

Kongsgaard Chardonnay, '07
Following in qualitative suit from the '05s, the '07 Chardonnay is an effusive, generous wine that toes the line when it comes to balance. The flavors fill out the palate w/ a broad beam of nectarine, honeysuckle and pineapple fruit, w/ a fine undercurrent of rippling acidity splashing life into the finish. The kiss of oak is mere background music, as just a bit of airtime easily melts the toast into the belly of the wine, 94 points.

Brewer Clifton Sweeney Canyon Chardonnay, '05
A golden colored, powerful display of Chardonnay fruit, w/ warm brioche, grilled hazelnut, honeysuckle and poached pear scents funneling from the glass. Rich and ripe, w/ a gelatinous-like, layered texture powering its way to the prickly, tangy finish. Another stunner from BC that wins its marks for fabulous fruit, great concentration and lively acidity, 94 points.

Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay '07
Though Monte Bello is famous for its age-worthy Cabernet, Chardonnay has also found its home in the Santa Cruz Mountains at the hands of Paul Draper. The colors are a brilliant light gold. The hallmark poise and precision can be sensed from the nose to the palate. There's an excellent harmony between the fruit and tender use of oak, enveloping the mouth w/ round, expansive flavors of flowers, honeysuckle, pear skin, white chocolate & baked apple. The chewy, rich mouth-feel is kept honest by a solid sheath of acidity that ties it all together. This seamless beauty should drink well over the next 7-9 years, 93 points.

Peay Chardonnay '07
It is all about finesse with Peay in '07, as this vintage exhibits a particular 'coolness' to the Sonoma Coast fruit, tasting like it was dipped in a fresh spring. Notes of flowers, crushed rock, lemon peel and honeyed quince deepen in the palate. The wine is so shapely, wrapped in silk and fleshing out to a long, caressing finish, 93+ points.

Ramey Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay '06
A light gold, almost greenish hued Chardonnay, the '06 has great pop to its aromas of orange blossom, sea breeze, lemon rind, honeysuckle and shaved vanilla bean. A classic, almost textbook California Chardonnay in the palate, w/ vivid fruit flavors and a sappy, mouth-filling texture that glides through to the finish w/ great clarity and symmetry. While not as singular as some of California's top Chardonnays, this is, as always, an outstanding stalwart expression that never fails to deliver the goods, 93 points.

Arnot Roberts Green Island & Bea Ranch, '08
This novel north coast Chardonnay (from Napa and Sonoma plots) clocks in at a modest 12.9% alcohol, w/ a shy straw hue. The scents are beguiling mixture of apricot, sea breeze & honeydew melon notes, w/ a subtle floral underpinning. The palate is a dichotomous blend of the strong w/ the spry, while immediately rich and honeyed, it shifts to a bright and tangy gear, weaving in some lemon candy and bitter chalk dust notes through the nervy finish. The combination of the attack of sweet fruit w/ the lemonade-like sourness on the finish should net quite a few fans, 92 points.

Wolffer Brut ‘05
Wolffer’s ’05 is easily the best sparkling wine I’ve had from New York, and quite possibly the United States. An absolute fireball of pure graphite, quince paste, lemon verbena and honeyed nut scents that turn expansive and even more complex in the mouth. In spite of its breadth, there is a river of palpable minerality that pushes the tight bead to a long, painfully persistent finish, 92 points. I understand how labor intensive and expensive a process sparkling wine is, but New York’s Forks and Fingers have really got something here. All it takes is a few more dedicated producers to catch on.

Varner Chardonnay Home Block Spring Ridge Vineyard, '07
From my favorite spot in California for Burgundian varietals, Santa Cruz, the '07 Varner delivers just the profile I look for in New World Chardonnay. The savory nose of fig, lime, pecan and poached pear turns the dial to a higher pitch in the palate. The fresh, lightly smoked fruit is encased in a grippy layer of oak, yet the freshness paves the way to the finish, ending w/ impressive length. The one bugaboo I've got (a touch too much oak) should hide away into the darkness w/ 3-5 more years of cellaring, 91+ points.

Leeuwin Estate Prelude Vineyards Chardonnay, Margaret River Australia, '06
From Riesling to Chardonnay, this producer sure does know their whites. While the less pricy Prelude Vineyards Chardonnay is a tougher find than the luxury Art Series, it is well worth the hunt. Just gorgeously balanced, from the sweet kiss of vanilla bean to the spicy pear, nutmeg and quince flavors that dance gracefully from nose to palate. Precise and immaculately symmetrical, this white delivers high value for the Chardonnay dollar, 91 points.

Pellegrini Chardonnay, ‘07
Another outstanding ’07 white, and the top Chardonnay I’ve tasted from Pellegrini shines w/ its fabulous purity of fruit, richness and well defined flavors. Nary a drop of oak is found in this mouth-watering gem, just well rounded, brilliant Chardonnay character, 90 points.

Shinn Chardonnay ’07,
This is a hypothetical example of a blanc de blanc cuvee w/o the fizz, revealing toasty citrus, grilled nut and honeysuckle flavors that are trim, wrapping themselves around the palate beautifully. She’s got great a lot of style, fine form and unique balance for a Chardonnay. This is just another feather in the cap of Shinn, whose resume packs a lot of heft for such a young NY producer. I imagine a trip to this winery could open even the most jaded of eyes to the quality of Long Island wine, 89 points.

Talley Estate Chardonnay, '07
Purely from Arroyo Grande region, the estate Chardonnay represents a blend of Rincon & Rosemary's vineyard fruit. The nose is lilting and perfumy, with golden delicious apple, drizzled honey, peach and pie crust notes. Round and fat in the entry, the midpalate loses a bit of focus, drifting off to a finish that kicks off more heat than I'd like, but the entry level Talley still manages to deliver a solid, moderately complex performance in its category, 86 points.


Anonymous Christopher Watkins said...

Thank you for the very kind comments about Ridge, and about our Chardonnay specifically! I really appreciated your tasting notes, though I did have one question; the Ridge wine you provide notes for you list as "Monte Bello '07", however, the 2007 Monte Bello is not yet released. Did you perhaps mean the 2007 Ridge Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Chardonnay? This is also fruit grown on the Monte Bello property, but it's bottled under a different designation. Or did you acquire a pre-release 2007 Monte Bello Chard? Just curious, and mainly, thanks again!


Christopher Watkins
Tasting Room Manager/Ridge Monte Bello
Host: "4488: A Ridge Blog"

Monday, January 18, 2010  
Blogger Brad Coelho said...

Good to hear from you! I remember the bottle saying Monte Bello Vineyard on the bottom portion of the label so I think I made the assumption that it was the SVD? I'm trying to recall if the '06 Estate Chardonnay said the same thing...

So to clarify, is Monte Bello labeled on each bottling (but, perhaps more front and center in the SVD)?

Monday, January 18, 2010  
Anonymous Christopher Watkins said...

Thanks for the response Brad! So, basically, both wines are made at Monte Bello, and both are comprised of fruit grown on the Monte Bello property, so accordingly, both labels will reference Monte Bello. The difference between the two designations, which is essentially the same for our Cabernet program as well, has to do primarily with the fruit selection process; a process that is driven by matters of aesthetic character, particularly as regards issues of approachability and longevity. The 110+ acres of the Monte Bello property are actually sub-divided down into over 60 different sub-parcels, all of which get harvested and fermented separately. This allows us to fully tap all the natural complexities on offer in the vineyards, and makes for a much more complex and compelling assemblage process. Put most simply, the parcels that we believe will make for a wine that ideally deploys the greatest array of complexities over the longest period of time are selected for the Monte Bello designation, whereas the parcels that seem to evident a more present vibrancy and approachability are selected for the Santa Cruz Mountains Estate designation, with the goal of crafting a wine that, while enjoying all the benefits of "Monte Bello" methodologies (hand harvesting, wild yeast fermenting, no filtration, etc.), can be drunk in its youth, as opposed to requiring extended cellaring to reveal its full expressiveness. Not that the SCME designation doesn't make for ageable wines, it does, and we've seen great aging potential, but the key is that it doesn't necessarily require it.

Hope that all makes sense, but let me know if you have any more questions!


Christopher Watkins
Tasting Room Manager/Monte Bello
Host: "4488: A Ridge Blog"

Friday, January 22, 2010  

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