Sat 16 Feb 2008
Here’s the second installment in a series that examines the real or perceived differences between a winery’s “regular” bottling of a particular wine or grape and its “reserve” bottling. Actually, today we look at three offerings of chardonnay from two far-flung wineries: Rodney Strong Vineyards in Sonoma County and Pierre Morey in Burgundy. This essay does not mean to compare Rodney Strong and Pierre Morey, anymore than you could compare the geography and culture of California and Burgundy.
We expect that a reserve wine merits that designation — which is completely unregulated on local, state or federal levels — because the grapes come from a particularly well-regarded vineyard or section of a vineyard; that the wine may represent the best of the barrels that composed the final blend; or that the wine received special care in the winery; perhaps a combination of all three potential criteria is the case. We assume, for these reasons, that a reserve wine will cost more than a regular bottling, though it often seems that the cost isn’t justified.
Rodney Strong Vineyards produces three chardonnays: 1. the “regular” and widely available Sonoma County version, one of the most reliable chardonnays made in California in its price range, about $15; 2. the Chalk Hill Chardonnay, made from the estate vineyard originally planted by the winery’s founder, Rodney Strong, in 1965, another dependable wine that sells for about $20; and the Reserve rendition, a limited production wine that gets more oak treatment than its cousins, about $35.
*The Rodney Strong Chardonnay 2006, Sonoma County, is partially barrel-fermented (40 percent) and partially stainless steel fermented (60 percent); the 40 percent continues in French and American oak to age for nine months and goes through considerable (84 percent) malolactic conversion, a completely natural process that transforms crisp malic (“apple-like”) acid to lush lactic “(“milk-like”) acid. Sorry to throw all these percentages at you, but I want readers to see how careful handling in the winery can lend character to a basic, inexpensive wine. The result here is a chardonnay that nicely balances clean crispness and vibrancy with moderate lushness and richness for liveliness and a pleasing texture. Scents and flavors of green apple, pineapple and grapefruit are bolstered by hints of dried baking spices and chiseled minerality. You feel the oak a bit in the finish, as a flush of spicy wood. Drink now through 2009. Very Good+, and a Great Bargain. This should be a no-brainer on every restaurant’s wine-by-the-glass program. About $15.
*The difference between the previous wine and Rodney Strong’s Chalk Hill Estate Chardonnay 2005, Sonoma County, lies in the firmness of the body and texture and in a tone of unabashed resonance and vividness. Ninety-seven percent of the wine was fermented in French oak barrels (27 percent new) and went through the malolactic process. Despite what could have been heavy-handed treatment, the wine does not display the flaws that commonly result from so much oak and malolactic — candy-like flavors and over-creamy lushness; instead, this wine reveals admirable balance and integration and lovely suppleness in texture. To classic pineapple and grapefruit flavors, it adds touches of pear and orange rind and limestone; the bouquet opens to offer hints of jasmine and damp rocks, while the wine as a whole delivers notable purity and intensity. Drink now through 2009. Excellent. About $20, a Great Price.
*Back in September, I wrote on BTYH, “Oak should be like shoes of invisibility, transporting one miraculously but nowhere in evidence.” Opposed to that point of view are many winemakers in California who see grapes as raw material upon which to exercise their wills. I’m not saying that Rick Sayre, longtime winemaker for Rodney Strong and now vice president and director of winemaking, believes that necessarily, but he’s certainly an advocate of putting a wine through its paces, oak-wise. Over the years, I have criticized many wines from Rodney Strong, especially reds, for bearing too heavily the stamp of the oaken vision.
That assertion is prelude to the Rodney Strong Reserve Chardonnay 2005, Sonoma County, a wine that is 100 percent fermented in French oak, goes through complete malolactic and ages for 20 months in barrels. This is still a wine of tremendous brightness and vivacity, of vibrant fruit and stirring acidity and minerality, but you smell the oak and you taste the oak from beginning to end and if oak influence had color and voice, you would see it and hear it as well. I know that there are many experienced wine drinkers and reviewers who relish the smell and taste of oak in wine, but I don’t; I think that overt oak character, that presence of toasty oak, is an aberration.
My conclusion, then, is that this wine is not for me, though it possesses sterling qualities, and it qualifies as a reserve wine because it obviously receives singular attention in the winery. Still, I rate it Very Good+. Drink now through 2010 or ’11. About $35.
For information about the winery, visit rodneystrong.com.
The situation is somewhat different with our three white Burgundy wines. First, as you will see, there are the prices. Second, the term “reserve” is seldom used in France, so what we are looking at here are a “village” wine, a village wine from a designated vineyard (lieu-dit, “named place”), and a Premier Cru wine, all three from Meursault. Unlike nearby (just to the south) Puligy-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet, with which it forms a triumvirate of ultimate chardonnay-dom, Meursault possesses no Grand Cru vineyards, though its Premier Cru vineyards are justly famous. Pierre Morey is winemaker for the distinguished domaine of Olivier Leflaive. The Morey wines are biodynamically grown.
*To be a “village” wine in Burgundy, the grapes may come from anywhere in the named village, in this case Meursault, where vineyards are allowed; that is, they can’t just be grown in someone’s backyard. It happens, in lesser years, that producers will downgrade their Premier Cru wines to village level because the quality is not commensurate with the reputation of the vineyard and producer, but 2005 was a superb year. The grapes for the winsome Meursault 2005 from Pierre Morey derive from rows of vines in three parcels in Meursault owned by Pierre Morey and planted in 1986. Though the wine aged 18 months in oak barrels, it is completely unfettered by perceivable or palpable oak influence, which is relegated to the foundation and framing of the wine rather than contributing overtly to its nature.
The wine smells slightly waxy, with touches of lanolin and sweet white flowers. Flavors of roasted lemon, pineapple and grapefruit are permeated by smoke, limestone and chalk, clove and ginger. Balanced by the ripeness of its fruit and the liveliness of its acid, the wine is very dry, but not austere. The finish is long, stony and spicy. Drink now through 2010 or ’12, well-stored. Lovely and irresistible as it is, however, it lacks true heft and balletic power, so I give it Very Good+. About — gack! — $75-$90. Yes friends the effect of the euro, the currency named for a whole continent — imagine if we called dollars “North Americans” — certainly makes itself known here. 300 cases imported.
*The Pierre Morey Meursault Les Tossons 2005 comes from a 2.2-acre village vineyard; the name means “the shards,” referring to the fragmented nature of the vineyard’s soil and rocks. The color is pale straw; the bouquet is an adorable weaving of roasted lemon, lemon balm and grapefruit, jasmine and limestone. In the mouth, the wine offers seductive depth and body, pulling you in with its buoyancy and lustrous powers, its flavors of spiced and macerated stone fruit; it’s boldly dense and chewy, almost powdery, an effect off-set by crackling acid and mineral elements. Drink now through 2011 or ’13, well-stored. Excellent. 200 cases imported.
*Morey-Blanc is the name of Pierre Morey’s negociant side that makes wine from purchased grapes; Blanc is Pierre Morey’s wife’s name. Don’t turn you nose up; most of the important domaine winemakers in Burgundy also produce full lines of negociant wines, principally from long-term contracts with growers they trust. The Pierre Morey Meursault and Meursault Tossons are domaine wines, that is, the vineyards are owned by the company; our third wine is the Morey-Blanc Meursault Boucheres Premier Cru 2005, a negociant wine and an absolutely splendid example of what Meursault Premier Cru from a great year should be.
My first notes were “Wow. Lovely, perfect.” I suppose I could stop there, but I’ll add (anyway) that the wine is crystalline in its ringing acid and pure minerality, that its resonant and vibrant intensity completely imbues flavors of candied ginger, lemon-lime and grapefruit, pear and baked apple. A talc-like scent, a powdery texture and a hint of jasmine remind me of my mother’s dressing table, with its silver compacts and drawers lined with satin, though the finish is like strata of damp limestone and shale. The wine is, in a word, Exceptional, and lovers of white Burgundy or chardonnay in general are urged to buy a case, if they can find one, since only 70 cases were imported. Drink from now through 2012 to ’15, well-stored. About $110. The importer for the Pierre Morey wines is Wilson Daniels, St. Helena, Cal.