Chardonnay


It’s not merely a matter of custom but a case of government regulation that the vineyards of Burgundy are officially measured, assessed and codified. The French love to be orderly and rational about these things, though one could argue that when it comes to classifying tiny vineyards no more distant from each other than the width of a country lane or ancient stone wall rationality has little to do with it. Still, the division of vineyards into the status of Village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru and the retention of that code form the basis upon which Burgundy works its magic and cements its reputation as the origin of some of the finest chardonnay and pinot noir wines in the world. This scheme, based on the supposition of the quality of the vineyards, that is, the terroir, and the wines they produce, holds true from Marsannay at the northern end of the Côte de Nuits to Saint-Véran at the southern tip of the Maconnais. I’m sorry that the Wine of the Day, No. 52, isn’t one of those fine chardonnays or pinot noirs from the Côte de Noir or Côte de Beaune — not that I wouldn’t mind tasting a few of those, please, sir — but My Readers won’t be too sorry, since those rare wines cost many hundreds of dollars. Instead, I offer a classy, beguiling and reasonably priced chardonnay from the Mâconnais, the Albert Bichot Viré-Clessé 2013. The region was awarded its own AOC in 1999, consisting of the communes of Clessé, Laizé, Montbellet and Viré in the sprawling and irregularly shaped AOC of Mâcon-Villages. Chardonnay is the only grape permitted. The Albert Bichot Viré-Clessé 2013 was fermented 80 percent in stainless steel and 20 percent in oak barriques and then aged — depending on the demands or blessings of the vintage — 12 to 15 months in the same vessels. The color is shimmering pale gold with a faint flush of green; aromas of lightly spiced green apple, pineapple and grapefruit are infused with a sense of limestone and flint minerality and notes of jasmine and honeysuckle. The wine passes lightly and deftly over the palate, but leaves an impression of pleasing fullness and an almost talc-like texture; bright acidity, however, keeps it spanking fresh and crisp. Citrus flavors take on shadings of pear and peach, all set within the context of chiseled and scintillating limestone elements where oak places a fleeting footprint. Alcohol content is 13 percent. Now through 2017 or ’18 with appetizers and main courses centered on fish and seafood, particularly grilled trout with brown butter and capers, seared salmon or swordfish with a mildly spicy rub; ideal for picnic-and-patio drinking; nothing too rich or heavy, mirroring the delicacy and directness of the wine. You’re not looking for anything profound here, and none such will you find; the motivation is delight and deliciousness. Very Good+. About $19, a local purchase.

European Wine Imports, Cleveland, Ohio.

The name of Wente perhaps has been around so long that it does not conjure cries of joy in American wine consumers, but we have to remember that the family was pioneering in many ways. Now run by the fourth and fifth generations, Wente Vineyards traces its beginning to 1883, when German immigrant C.H. Wente purchased 47 acres in Livermore Valley, in Alameda County east of San Francisco Bay, and planted grapes in the gravelly soil. Wente Bros., as the winery was called, released the first varietally-labeled sauvignon blanc wine (1933) and chardonnay (1936) in California and the first late-harvest riesling affected by Botrytis cinerea, the “noble rot,” in 1969. The family was also among the first to explore planting vines in Monterey County, where it now has substantial holdings. Altogether, Wente owns about 3,000 acres of estate vineyards. A history going back 132 years practically guarantees variations in production and quality and perhaps some confusion in direction — the 1970s and ’80s were not easy decades — but the Wente family absorbed those depredations over the years and now seems to be operating at the top of their scale. Winemaker is fifth-generation Karl Wente, pictured here. The estate also is a leader in sustainable vineyard, winery and company practices. The Wente Clone, originating with Ernest Wente in 1912, provides the basis for many of the best chardonnays made in California.

Let’s look, then, at currently released chardonnays from this ever-evolving winery. These wines were samples for review.
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The family’s entry-level model is the Wente Morning Fog Chardonnay 2013, Livermore Valley — now part of the San Francisco Bay AVA, established in 1999 and amended in 2006. The wine is carefully made. Fifty percent of the grapes are barrel-fermented in a mixture of French, American and Eastern European oak, after fermentation aging for seven months. The other 50 percent is fermented in stainless steel tanks; half of that amount rests on the lees for seven months and half is racked off clean. What’s the result? The color is pale straw-gold; aromas of pineapple and grapefruit with a touch of mango open to notes of cloves and toasted hazelnuts and a hint of quince jam. These elements segue seamlessly onto the palate, where the wine displays brisk acidity, fresh and ripe citrus and stone-fruit flavors and a modest amount of limestone minerality, all set into a well-balanced and appealing texture; a bit of spicy oak emerges on the finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. Is it great? No, but it is very appealing and satisfying,and you could sell the hell out of this chardonnay in wine-by-the-glass programs in bars and restaurants. And look at the price. Very Good+. About $15, representing Real Value.
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How small is the production for the winery’s “Small Lot” label? For the Wente Small Lot “Unoaked” Eric’s Chardonnay 2014, Livermore Valley, the production was 1,100 cases; that’s fairly small. The wine is made completely in stainless steel tanks. This is a fresh, clean and bright chardonnay, sporting a pale straw color and attractive aromas of ripe and spicy pineapple and grapefruit buoyed by notes of green apple, spiced pear, jasmine and honeysuckle. Every element is in its place here: lively acidity and limestone minerality, a pleasing texture and structure, balanced between crispness and suppleness, and all feeling a little too correct and by-the-numbers, especially for the price. 13.4 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $28.

On the other hand, I found in the white wine fridge this wine’s version from 2012, and it’s a winner. Again, this wine saw no oak and no malolactic fermentation. A year or two burnished the effect, leaving this rendition richer, spicier and nuttier, but gently pronounced, and with wonderful purity and intensity on the palate, with a glow of citrus and stone-fruit flavors and an almost talc-like texture riven by arrow-straight acidity and scintillating limestone minerality. If you find a retail source for the Wente Eric’s Chardonnay 2012, snap it up and drink through 2016. 13.7 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $25.
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The Wente Single Vineyard Riva Ranch Chardonnay 2013, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County, offers a pale but sort of star-bright gold hue and subdued but enticing aromas of ripe and spicy pineapple-grapefruit permeated by notes of mango, almond skin, jasmine and lilac. This wine was 90 percent barrel-fermented in new and second-year French and American oak and aged eight months; 10 percent was treated in stainless steel. This is certainly a reticent oak regimen, but from mid-palate back you feel the whisper and then the clamor of that wood resonate through the lush cushiony texture and into the spice-drenched, slightly creamy finish. I would say that this chardonnay needs another year to find its balance and core principles. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $22.
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In making the Charles Heintz “Searby” Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Coast, the Wine of the Day, I don’t mean that you should rush right out and buy a case or even a bottle, because the production was very limited. I know, that’s not fair. On the other hand, I don’t mind using this venue or series of posts to inform My Readers of the wines that are out there in the world and available with a telephone call or a visit to a website. The family has owned Heintz Ranch, atop the second ridge back from the Pacific Ocean, since 1912. Charles Heintz is in charge now, growing chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah grapes that he sells to a handful of highly regarded producers, reserving some for his own wines, usually fewer than 1,000 cases annually. Consulting winemaker since 2012 has been Hugh Chappelle, winemaker at Quivira and former winemaker at Flowers Vineyard and Winery. The Charles Heintz “Searby” Chardonnay 2013 was made from grapes grown on 42-year-old dry-farmed vines; it’s the first stainless steel-fermented chardonnay produced at Heintz, and it reveals the delightful, fresh and engaging qualities that such a wine can possess, while offering, in this instance, plenty of depth and dimension. After fermentation, the wine undergoes 11 months of aging in French oak, 35 percent new barrels. The color is pale-straw-gold with a glint of leaf-green at the center; the entry is incredibly clean and attractive, with notes of spiced pear, green apple and lime peel; a few minutes in the glass bring in touches of pineapple and grapefruit, a hint of almond blossom and a slight edge of limestone. Propelled by purposeful acidity and scintillating flint and limestone minerality, the wine nonetheless flows gently and brightly on the palate, its citrus and stone-fruit flavors (deepened by hints of ginger and quince) enhanced by a lively yet supple texture lent subtlety and sleekness by the deft wood influence; this is a chardonnay that illustrates what I frequently say about the relationship between wood and wine: “Oak should be like the Holy Spirit, everywhere present but nowhere visible.” 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Production was 50 cases. Excellent. About $44.

A sample for review.

The primary sparkling wines that issue from Schramsberg Vineyards are vintage-dated, I’ve just been tasting the releases from 2012. The venerable winery, founded in 1965, also offers a non-vintage sparkler called Mirabelle, a product that has steadily improved — and increased in price — over the years. The current version of the Scramsberg Mirabelle Brut is a blend of 83 percent 2011 and 17 percent reserve wines held back from previous years. The designation is California, because grapes are drawn from these counties: Sonoma, Monterey, Mendocino, Santa Barbara and Marin. It’s a combination of 52 percent chardonnay and 48 percent pinot noir. The color is medium straw-yellow, enlivened by a potent upward stream of finely honed bubbles; aromas of green apples and lime peel open to notes of quince and ginger, with hints of lightly buttered cinnamon toast and limestone; the overall effect is savory and saline, like heather, marsh grass and seashells. Squinching acidity contributes crispness and animation to this sparkling wine, which delivers flavors of roasted lemon, toasted hazelnuts and a touch of toffee; it’s quite dry and seems not to attempt the ethereal and elegant realms that Schramsberg’s vintage sparklers do; instead, this is about substance, moment and momentum on the palate, with a lively and dense character. Alcohol content is 12.6 percent. Drink with a variety of flavorful appetizers, especially revolving around grilled shrimp, smoked salmon and crab. Excellent. About $27.

A sample for review.

Rully is one of the villages of the Côte Chalonnaise entitled to its own appellation. Named for the town of Chalon-sur-Saône, the region is part of greater Burgundy, lying between the southern tail of Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune and Mâconnais. As with its more important cousin to the north, the grapes in the Chalonnaise are chardonnay and pinot noir, except for the commune of Bouzeron, dedicated solely to the aligoté grape. Surprisingly, for its relatively minor status, 23 climats or vineyards in Rully are entitled to Premier Cru designation. The commune contains about 357 hectares of vines — 882 acres — of which 2/3 are devoted to chardonnay. Our Wine of the Day, No. 39, is the Rully Les Cloux Premier Cru 2012, from the distinguished firm of Olivier Leflaive. This estate owns vines in a magnificent roster of Côte de Beaune powerhouses, including Grand Cru and Premier Cru settings in Meursault, Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet, as well as interests in Chablis and the Chalonnaise. As we would expect from Olivier Leflaive, the wine is treated carefully, aging six to seven months in oak barrels, never more than 15 percent new and then resting in stainless steel tanks for nine months, resulting in a wine of great freshness and direct appeal. The color is very pale gold; aromas of lime peel, orange blossom and slightly candied grapefruit are twined with a distinct loamy-briery character that segues seamlessly to the palate, where the wine exhibits a lovely, almost talc-like texture and bright acidity that lends liveliness and tautness. A few minutes in the glass bring in a tide of scintillating limestone minerality as well as a freshening swell of slightly exotic spice and floral elements. The importer’s website indicates that this 2012 is the vintage currently in the U.S. market, and while the wines of the region are not intended for laying down, this should certainly retain its attractive nature through 2016 and into 2017. Alcohol content is 13 percent. A chardonnay of terrific presence and integrity. Excellent. About $26, a local purchase that’s a bit below the national average price.

Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.

Oh, what the hell, let’s have a bottle of sparkling wine! Surely you can come up with something to celebrate. Or not. I would just as soon drink Champagne and other forms of sparkling wine for any purpose, any whim, any occasion, even if it’s merely standing around the kitchen preparing dinner. For our category of sparkling wine today, then, I choose the Domaine Chandon Étoile Brut Rosé, a non-vintage blend of primarily chardonnay and pinot meunier grapes with a dollop of pinot noir, the sources being the Carneros regions in Sonoma County (58 percent) and Napa County (42 percent). The wine rested sur lie — on the residue of dead yeast cells — five years in the bottle after the second fermentation that produces the essential effervescence. The color is an entrancing medium copper-salmon hue riven by an upward-surging torrent of glinting silver bubbles. Notes of blood orange, strawberry and raspberry unfold to hints of lime peel, quince and ginger, with, always in the background, touches of limestone, lightly buttered cinnamon toast and orange marmalade; think of the tension and balance between the subtle sweet fruitiness and bitterness of the latter. On the palate, this sparkling wine works with delicacy and elegance to plow a furrow of juicy red berry and citrus flavors — with a bit of pomegranate — into a foundation of slate and limestone minerality and lively acidity for a crisp, dynamic texture and long spicy finish. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $50.

A sample for review.

For a guy who doesn’t much cotton to chardonnay wines, I have probably been paradoxical in my inclusion of chardonnays in this “Wine of the Day” series, now at its 22nd entry. I won’t bother to extemporize upon the manifold ways in which I think chardonnay wines can be over-done, over-blown, exaggerated and over-oaked; I have done that more than a sufficient numbers of times on this blog. I will say, however, that when I try a chardonnay that seems to touch on all the points of perfection that I will clasp it to my heart as not only an exemplar but a talisman, and I will shout its virtues from the roof-tops. Such a one is the Amapola Creek Jos. Belli Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. This wine was made by Richard Arrowood, and if ever a winemaker in California deserved the accolade “legendary,” he is certainly at the top of that brief list. Joseph Belli’s certified organic vineyard lies at the extreme western edge of the Russian River AVA in Sonoma County, where the land begins to slope gently upward. Facing east, the terraced and well-drained acreage receives full sunlight in the morning and early afternoon but is shielded by the hills from the harsh light of late afternoon. The color is pale gold with a faint green cast; the entire impression is of a chardonnay that is clean, pure and fresh, balanced yet forward, fervent, almost emphatic in its intensity; classic notes of pineapple and grapefruit are layered with hints of cloves, yellow plums, baked pear and undertones of ginger, quince and damp limestone; a few moments in the glass bring in touches of jasmine and lilac. The wine flows on the palate with sleekness and subtlety, in a texture almost talc-like in its packed nature yet riven by resonant acidity and a brisk chalk-and-flint mineral quality; though quite dry, it offers juicy, spicy and engaging citrus and stone-fruit flavors that lead to a finish finely-sifted with fruit, acid, oak and minerals. The wine went through barrel-fermentation and aged 11 months in a combination of new and used French oak barrels; its presence is apparent as a shaping element, and its tangible influence emerges primarily through the elegance but powerful finish. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 475 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $45.

A sample for review.

Faithful readers of this blog — bless yer pointy little heads and may yer tribes increase! — know that California chardonnay and I have an uneasy and sometimes contentious relationship. I find too many of them over-blown, buxom, viscous and stridently ripe and spicy. On the other hand, chardonnays that display florid ripeness but manage to maintain an edgy balance with racy acidity and striking mineral elements can be not just delicious but exciting, even risky. Such a one is the Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands. The winery was founded by Dan Morgan Lee and his wife Donna in 1982; winemaker since 2005 has been Gianni Abate. The Lees purchased the Double L property, at the northern end of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, in 1996, planting the following year. At present, the vineyard consists of 48.52 planted acres: 27.99 acres planted to pinot noir, 18.45 acres of chardonnay and minuscule amounts of syrah and riesling. The vineyard is certified organic. The Morgan Double L Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 aged 10 months in French oak barrels, 30 percent new, the rest one- and two-year-old barrels. This is a golden and glittering chardonnay, offering a mild medium gold hue and forthright aromas of baked pineapple and caramelized grapefruit entwined with notes of jasmine, smoke, cloves and heather, spread on a background of damp crushed gravel. It’s indeed a sizable wine, quite dry but ripe and juicy with spicy citrus and stone-fruit flavors and animated by shattering acidity and dusty, scintillating limestone minerality. Oak provides a finely sifted and supple framework and foundation; a few minutes in the glass bring out hints of lemon balm and walnut oil. The finish is dense yet nimble, serious and exquisite together and radiant with chardonnay’s purity and intensity. 13.9 percent alcohol. A chardonnay this rich and layered, though elegantly (and dynamically) balanced, requires dishes of utmost simplicity; ultra-rich fare would compete with and clash with the wine. Something like grilled trout with brown butter and capers or roasted chicken with tarragon would be perfect. Drink through 2018 to 2020. Production was 530 cases. Exceptional. About $42.

A sample for review.

Fellow toilers in the fields of wine-writing, blogging and journalism will understand that sometimes bottles get forgotten in the mounting backlog of samples. Such was the case with the Hestan Vineyards Chardonnay 2010, San Francisco Bay. On the other hand, the winery’s current release chardonnay, according to its website, is the 2011, so there’s not much of a lag. Obviously proprietors Stanley and Helen Cheng like to hold their chardonnays a bit longer than most producers do, evidenced by the fact that most California chardonnays on the market now are from 2012 and ’13. Winemaker for Hestan is Thomas Rivers Brown, who invests the estate’s cabernets and chardonnays with plenty of heart, size, structure and flavor. Though the winery’s principle vineyards lie up-valley, the chardonnay grapes come from a 2.5-acre site near the mouth of the Napa River, hence the San Francisco Bay appellation, approved as an AVA in 1999, amended in 2006. The Hestan Chardonnay 2010 displays a bright medium gold hue with a slight greenish cast; aromas of peach and baked pineapple are imbued with notes of cloves, bay leaf, heather and touches of peach-pit woodiness and pine; a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of quince and crystallized ginger. This is a strapping chardonnay, supple, lithe and silky, almost muscular; despite the ripeness of its citrus and stone-fruit flavors, it’s quite dry, alight with blazing acidity and anchored by prominent limestone minerality, two qualities that save it from opulence and flamboyance. Also blessedly absent are any traces of the tropical, the creamy and the buttery. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 350 cases, so mark this Worth a Search. Drink now through 2018 or ’20. Excellent. About $50.

A sample for review.

Here’s what I decided to do, after posting a few days ago that this blog would take a hiatus until the cast came off my broken arm and I could write easily again. I don’t actually want to have a long gap in posting, so I will begin today with one brief review of a bottle of wine and continue in this manner every day until the arm heals and I can write more extensively again. This scheme forgoes my preferred method of comparing wines — six Napa Valley cabs, say, or pinot noir and chardonnay from the same producer and so on — but it keeps my (left) hand in and lets My Readers know that I’m still here.

So, first in this temporary series is the Matanzas Creek Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma County. The winery falls under the Jackson Family Wines umbrella. The color is shimmering pale gold; this is a clean and fresh chardonnay, eloquent in its expression of green apples and peaches under classic notes of pineapple and grapefruit, all wreathed by hints of jasmine and crushed gravel. This chardonnay is dense, almost talc-like in texture, but enlivened by brisk acidity and a burgeoning limestone element; the spicy qualities, centered on cloves and ginger, increase through the crystalline, faceted finish, where a touch of oak holds everything together. A wine of lovely balance and animation. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with grilled salmon, tuna or swordfish. Excellent. About $26.

A sample for review.

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