Mon 28 Jul 2008
Please don’t take the impression from the previous post that I dislike all chardonnays made in California. What I dislike are badly-made wines — that is, thoughtlessly-made and overmanipulated wines — of any grape, genre and geographical origin. The truth is that I like California chardonnays quite a lot, especially when they capture the essence of what I think of as classic California-ness, a variety of bright ripeness and textural power married to clean acidity and a profound mineral element.
There’s no need for the Golden State’s producers to adhere strenuously to Burgundian and Chablisienne models, as glorious as the chardonnay wines from those hallowed region can be, just as there’s no need to suppress the natural exuberance that California’s many and richly varied microclimates often impart, especially in warmer areas. There’s also no need, however, to exaggerate that exuberance through the slavish use of French oak and the (wholly natural but easily subdued) malolactic process that occurs in barrel and transforms crisp malic (“apple-like”) acid to creamy lactic (“milk-like”) acid.
Ripeness is essential, but balance is all.
*Blackstone is known best for inexpensive, competently-made and rather bland wines, especially merlot. Ho-hum, right? So I was surprised and gratified by the quality of the Blackstone Sonoma Reserve Chardonnay 2006, Sonoma County. The color is medium gold; the bouquet offers classic pineapple and grapefruit flavors with a hint of mango and a touch of buttered toast. The wine is vivid and vibrant, immensely flavorful and zinging with acid to compensate for some of the richness of the spice-drenched pineapple and grapefruit flavors. The oak comes up from mid-palate back, lending some austerity and a hint of vanilla to the finish. I would like the wine better if the oak were a bit gentler in the caboose, but I think it shows amazing dedication from the winery. Very Good. About $17. Blackstone also produces a Reserve Merlot 2005 that’s well-worth picking up (Very Good+) at $15 to $19.
*The Raymond Reserve Chardonnay 2006, Napa Valley, is fermented in stainless steel; 70 percent of the wine is aged in new French oak for three months; malolactic is not permitted. The result is a chardonnay of incredible freshness and crispness with just a wisp of spicy oak to bolster the wine’s ineffable prettiness. Green apple, pear and yellow plum scents waft irresistibly from the glass to be joined by a hint of jasmine. In the mouth, the wine sports typical pineapple-grapefruit flavors in a pleasing texture of moderate weight that channels vibrant acid and scintillating limestone elements. Overall, the balance is impeccable. Very good+, and a great candidate for a house chardonnay. About $20, though one finds internet prices as low as $16.
*Markham Vineyards celebrates its 30th anniversary this year; perhaps it has been around long enough to suffer casual neglect, because it’s a winery that often does not receive proper due for making well-balanced wines and selling them for reasonable prices. The Markham Chardonnay 2006, Napa Valley, possesses not only an attractive character but some individuality, especially in a slight herbal aspect unusual for a chardonnay. The fruit is lovely, round and spicy, bright and vivid, laden with peach and roasted lemon twined with jasmine. Snappy acid keeps the wine lively, limestone provides a foundation and oak makes it supple. That oak influence gains through the finish, turning it a little “blond,” a little toasty, but overall the wine is beautifully balanced and integrated. Neither the notes that accompanied the wine to my house nor the winery’s website provides information about the oak treatment, but whatever the case, the wine came out just fine. Excellent. About $21.
*A great deal of care went in to the making of the Handley Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. The grapes are fermented and the wine ages in a combination of new barrels (24 percent), neutral barrels (meaning used several times) and large puncheons. The wine ages a bare three months; 32 percent of the wine goes through malolactic. Here, then, is a chardonnay that’s not only bright, clean and fresh but elegant and finely chiseled. Very ripe pineapple and grapefruit flavors with undertones of apple and smoky pear are nestled in a texture that embodies moderate richness and lushness balanced by snazzy acid and wet stones. This sense of structure carries through to the finish, which, unfortunately, feels a little narrow. Hence a Very Good+ rating for a chardonnay that’s compulsively drinkable. The alcohol level, by the way, is 12.8 percent; when was the last time that you saw a California wine of any kind whose alcohol was that sane? Production is 1,934 cases, from organic estate grapes. About $22.
On the other hand, I would avoid the Handley Chardonnay 2006, from the Russian River Valley. Its towering alcohol content of 15 percent makes it awkward, off-kilter and hot. About $20.
*Wines from Clos du Val are sometimes dismissed by writers with the faint praise of being elegant, and then I have to wonder, “Isn’t elegance better than shameless flamboyance?” A perfect example is the Clos du Val Chardonnay 2006, Napa Valley. This happens to be cast in the Chablis mode: cool, high-toned, packed with slate and limestone, imbued with a clean earthiness that includes a flush of lightly sauteed mushrooms; quite classic. Yet one notices California-like aspects in touches of candied citrus peel and lemon balm, hints of honeysuckle and roasted pear. All of these qualities are impeccably integrated and balanced, in a smooth, yet vibrant and resonant package. The grapes are barrel-fermented, and the wine ages 10 months in French oak, only 20 percent of which are new. This was a great match at our house with fillets of King salmon, given nothing but salt, pepper and lemon juice, and briefly grilled. Excellent. About $24.
*My first note on the Sonoma-Loeb Private Reserve Chardonnay 2006, Sonoma County, is “Whoa, classic California!” It’s a large-framed chardonnay, incredibly powerful, vibrant and resonant and bursting with ripe, spicy pineapple-grapefruit flavors bedded on fathoms of limestone and enlivened by purposeful acidity. This, my friends, is a real mouthful of wine, a personification of glamor, yet it manages, paradoxically, to behave itself and display a little restraint, it holds something back, though the oak comes up like a tide through the finish; still, great balance all around. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $25 at the winery, but you’ll find prices around the country up to $33.
*The Hendry Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay 2004, Napa Valley, is just damned superb. (The ’05 is available now; I haven’t tried it.) Made from vines planted in 1974, the wine is beautifully delineated, packed with detail and dimension and with every resource of vibrancy and resonance that a chardonnay can call forth; the purity and intensity of the chardonnay grape here are so concentrated yet so generous that the wine feels crystalline, otherworldly. It spends 11 months in French oak, 33 percent new, and it does not go through the malolactic process, a factor that lends elements of spice and suppleness without throttling the wine with wood. Power is married to elegance, even whimsy, as roasted lemon flavors take on notes of orange zest and cinnamon toast. This is still young; try now through 2012 or ’14. Exceptional. Prices range from about $21 to $27, a bargain considering the tremendous quality and character of the wine.
*The Nickel & Nickel chardonnays are barrel-fermented but do not go through the malolactic process. Oak is typically fairly restrained; both of these wines received nine months in French barrels, 42 percent new oak for the Truchard, 55 percent new oak for the Medina. Despite that fact, you feel the oak a bit more in the Nickel & Nickel Truchard vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Napa-Carneros, than in the Nickel & Nickel Medina Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Still, the Truchard is sleek and smooth, almost lustrous; it’s a golden blond, while the Medina is more platinum. The Medina, my favorite of this pair, reveals tremendous presence and verve, incredible layering of limestone and shale, of rich spicy fruit and vivid acidity; the texture is almost talc-like yet it retains electrifying crispness. Each is a terrific chardonnay, but I give the Truchard a rating of Excellent and the Medina, well, it has to be Exceptional. Drink these now through 2012 or ’13. Each about $45.
*The Oakville Ranch Chardonnay 2006, Napa Valley, takes apple-pineapple-grapefruit flavors and etches them with crystallized ginger and cloves, then brings in notes of roasted lemon, lemon balm and jasmine. The wine is clean and fresh, chiming with acid and dense with damp limestone; that density and the intensity burgeon in the glass, creating a wine that feels not just lively but alive; you wonder how the bottle contains it. Oak — 11 months, 70 percent new French barrels — is subtly revealed in the wine’s suave suppleness, in unobtrusive layers of spice. This is a very young chardonnay; drink now through 2011 or ’12. Production is 513 cases. Excellent. About $46.