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Tom Hill

A self-admitted wine geek, Tom lives in Northern New Mexico and works as a computational physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory doing numerical neutron transport & large scale code development. He has been tasting wines since 1971, participates locally with a couple of large tasting groups in his area, and is practically a fixture at most California wine festivals, such as the Hospice du Rhône, Rhône Rangers, and ZAP. Other interests: Tom is heavily into competitive sport fencing (foil & epee), biking, cooking, basketball, skiing, backpacking, mountain climbing.

    Revisiting California Chardonnay - July 20, 2006

For many wine aficionados, their tastes in wine and drinking patterns undergo a continual evolution. Wines they first fell in love with when they started their journey now seem simple and unthrilling. As they try new wines, like from Slovenia or Slovakia, their eyes may be opened to some new vinous thrills.   

Certainly, that was the case in my continuing wine journey. I started with the classics of Burgundy and Bordeaux. But, primarily because of their ballooning prices (EiYiYi... Chateau Latour just jumped to $22 a bottle!!), I dropped them years ago and haven't looked back. Admittedly, a great Red Burgundy is an ethereal experience that still makes me swoon from time to time. But they just no longer excite me enough to be part of my buying regimen.   

And so it was when I first moved to New Mexico and could buy great California wines in Colorado. Cabernet and Chardonnay was where the action was. Syrah or Mourvedre or Viognier didn't even exist. Though I still buy some favorite Cabernets, like Ridge Monte Bello, California's Chardonnays gradually fell out of favor with my palate.   

As in any of life's journeys, it's worth taking a look back at one's roots and revisiting old haunts. And so it has been with me over the last few months with Chardonnay. And I'm seeing a lot that I like.   

is one of the huge success stories for the California wine industry. Back in the '50's and '60's, plantings of Chardonnay were minuscule. The wines were labeled as Pinot Chardonnay, even though it's not part of the Pinot family. The wines were (so I'm told) simple and fruity, unexciting and unthrilling. The variety, which is responsible for the great white wines of Burgundy, was not associated yet with Chardonnay in the minds of the consumers.   

But things would change. In the late '40's, Fred and Eleanor McCrea, lovers of great Burgundy, planted Chardonnay on their very rocky soil in the Napa Valley, and started producing the wine under their Stony Hill label, with no preconceived notions as to what great California Chardonnay should resemble.   

Shortly thereafter, James and Hanna Zellerbach founded Hanzell Vineyards in the hills above the town of Sonoma, devoted to producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that rivaled their beloved Burgundies. They imported, for the first time, French oak barrels; rather than use the cheaper American oak barrels that were afterthoughts of Bourbon production.    When people tasted these first two Chards (as they're commonly called), they were astounded by their quality, probably the first truly great California white wines ever made. And a revolution in California was launched.   

Through the '60's and '70's, the Chard output rapidly increased. The use of (more expensive) French oak became the norm. Other French Burgundy winemaking practices were embraced, like malolactic fermentations (the bacterial fermentation that transforms malic acid to softer lactic acid), extended lees contact (leaving the gross lees, or dead yeast cells, in contact with the wine after completion of fermentation) and battonage (stirring up these lees to increase their contact with the wine). Techniques that were developed for Burgundy's growing conditions were not necessarily apropos to California, though.   

The wines were harvested at riper and riper levels, so that 15% alcohol Chards became commonplace. One particular abomination was instituted by Kendall-Jackson Winery, that of leaving a small amount of residual sugar in the wine (0.5%-1.5%) to increase the "fruitiness" and consumer acceptance.   

By the late '80's, the California Chards had developed a sameness from producer to producer. They became tiring to drink with a meal beyond a glass or two. They were nice to taste, but at table, they induced palate fatigue. They became more of a cocktail libation than an accompaniment to food.   

The ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement developed. Sales started to slacken, though never actually declined. Although California Chard became America's most popular wine, it began to be shunned by serious wine connoisseurs. This was about the time that I totally lost interest in those wines, looking to other countries for whites with more acidity and minerality.   

Through the '90's, many California Chardonnays became almost a grotesque caricature of their former self. Many wine writers, a group for which I feel little affinity, would smugly dismiss the genre as "big, oaky, buttery" Chardonnays not worthy of a serious connoisseur's attention. The phrase was glibly repeated so often, in print and on the Internet, that I begin to question its accuracy.   

Thus, of late, I've been making a more concerted effort to taste California Chards, particularly from producers whose Pinots I especially like. And, I'm finding...voila... that all Chards are NOT those "big, oaky, buttery" wines of which I tired years ago. Perhaps my tastes have changed, but I'm finding that there is much more diversity in winemaking style and much more interesting Chards than I ever recall.   

Though the oak is regarded by most as an important component in the complexity of Chard, I'm finding an increasing restraint in the use of new oak in the wines. Indeed, there is a small trend towards so-called "Inox" Chards, wines that are fermented and aged totally in stainless steel tanks. In some cases, the malolactic fermentation is blocked to yield a crisper, brighter wine.   

Probably the biggest change is the seeking out of small micro-climates where Chardonnay can best show its potential. In areas such as the Santa Rita Hills, western Russian River Valley, and the frigid climes of the far western Sonoma Coast, winemakers are crafting wines that show brighter acidity, yet the richness and texture that makes Chardonnay such a special white. The winemakers love to chant the mantra of "terroir". By reducing their manipulations in the cellar, they're allowing the terroir to show through in many of their wines.   

That Chardonnay is California's greatest and most ageable white wine is pretty much unquestioned. It seldom shows the minerality that you find in France's great White Burgundy. But the quality of Chardonnay coming from California has probably never been greater.   

So... if California Chardonnay has fallen from your good graces over the years, it might just be a good idea to revisit them. I think you may be surprised. 



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