Sat 26 Jul 2008
We see many comments on blogs and in print columns that over-oaked chardonnays are passé, that the American consumer has been weaned away from the smell and taste of butterscotch, crème brûlée and burned toast in chardonnay and that, thank god, producers have come to their senses and begun making chardonnays that emphasize the purity and intensity of the beloved grape.
The most recent wave in this tide of optimism was the comment by The New York Times’ Eric Asimov in his “Wines of the Times” column Wednesday: “Now, the chardonnay producers have pulled back and are making leaner, livelier, non-oaky chardonnays.”
If only it were true.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
Last year Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery released a new line of single-vineyard wines from the Russian River Valley. There are five chardonnays and one pinot noir. I didn’t taste those 2005s, but last weekend I tried two chardonnays from 2006, “Emelia’s Cuvée” and “Fiorella,” released in February. Let me put the straight stuff right up front: Packed and permeated with so much oak that they were exaggerated and cloying, the wines were not merely unpalatable but undrinkable.
The immediate impression of “Fiorella” is of spicy oak, crème brûlée, butterscotch, toasted coconut saturated with vanilla; the oak gets toastier, “where’s the fruit?” ask my notes, and “sorry, this is all about the wood. ugh.”
“Emelia’s Cuvée” begins with baked apple and roasted pear, but takes on notes of crème brûlée (especially the brûlée part), scorched butterscotch and toffee, increasingly toasty oak; the spice turns strident, overpowering; the finish is oddly austere. The whole effect is like drinking baked Alaska, and I don’t mean that in a positive way.
Here’s the oak regimen for these wines: They’re barrel-fermented, go through 50 percent malolactic and rest in barrels, on the lees, for 15 months. The barrels are 30 percent new for Emelia’s and 40 percent new for Fiorella. That’s actually a pretty sensible approach, though 15 months is a serious amount of time for chardonnay to be in wood; perhaps that’s the factor that affected this chardonnays so drastically.
The effort is obviously to make significant wines. The packaging is discreet and elegant; production is limited — 344 cases for Fiorella, 449 cases for Emelia’s — and the price, $36 a bottle, commands respect. Such wines are not inexpensive to produce. French oak barrels cost around $1,000 each nowadays; in Sonoma County in 2006, according to the Sonoma Economics Development Board, chardonnay grapes sold for about $1,500 a ton. Fifteen months in the cellar ties up capital.
Why, though, go to the time and expense to fashion a single-vineyard, limited-edition chardonnay and merely produce an over-oaked, over-ripe and spice-sodden chardonnay that smells and tastes like every other over-oaked, over-ripe and spice-sodden chardonnay made in California? Despite the names of the vineyards on the labels and the name of the grape, these wines are neither about the vineyards nor the grapes; they’re about a process that happens in the winery. Far from revealing the wonderful purity and intensity of which the chardonnay grape is capable, these wines blatantly display the hand of the winemaker.
I know, you’re about to interrupt and say, “Wait a minute, F.K., there are plenty of people who like this kind of chardonnay.”
Yes, I know, and I feel sorry for them. The chardonnay drinkers who dote on the flavors of coconut cream pie, roasted marshmallows, marzipan, vanilla custard and the other dessert-like characteristics that the Wine Spectator heaps high ratings on might as well be drinking over-manipulated viognier or sauvignon blanc than chardonnay; there’s no chardonnay “thereness” there.
Here’s another disappointment.
I am generally a fan of the wines of X Winery, but the X Winery Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Carneros, Napa Valley, proved to be a major let-down. It’s rich and ripe from the beginning, flamboyance leading to opulence, “truly full-bodied” say my notes, dense and chewy; classic grapefruit-pineapple flavors quickly expand into toffee and butterscotch and cinnamon toast, with deep-seated toasted coconut. The wine becomes so spicy that it’s off-kilter, strange, almost clueless. Lord have mercy, why didn’t they take a hands-off approach to this beautiful fruit? How do I know that the fruit was beautiful? Because Truchard itself made a gloriously, irresistibly pure and intense wine from the same vineyard. X made 336 cases of this chardonnay. About $25.