Wish they all could be California ….Chardonnays…?

Written by Reynolds Lake Oconee

Eric Asimov, chief wine critic of the New York Times, recently wrote an article titled “California chardonnay grows up,” in which he makes the case that California is becoming more reserved in its chardonnay winemaking style. Asimov wrote that California winemakers have refined their craft and are producing well-made chardonnays that deserve serious attention.

Several years ago, many wine aficionados banded together and formed their own exclusive “ABC (Anything but Chardonnay) Club.”  These chardonnay haters disliked this ubiquitous wine simply because it was too popular.  Several of these wines did indeed deserve a healthy dose of criticism.

The chardonnay grape is referred to by many winemakers as a blank canvas.  A winemaker can easily manipulate the Chardonnay’s subtle flavor by using several different vinification techniques.

While aging in oak barrels produces some of the finest chardonnays in the world, many California winemakers began to age their wines for long periods in intense, new barrels. It was like a competition to see which California winemaker could stuff more oak flavor into the bottle.  These oak-laden monsters won awards in many wine tastings. The problem with wine tastings is that we don’t typically just taste wines, we drink them. These over-oaked wines became tiresome to drink and were not foodfriendly.

Then there was the battle of the butter. Chardonnays take on a distinct buttery quality, both through oak aging as well as a secondary fermentation that changes the flavors and softens the wine. These wines, while soft and rich, were a bit on the flabby side, lacking that certain lively, crisp quality of a good drinking wine.  (Got milk?)

All great wines have one thing in common: balance.  In moderation a bit of oak and a smidgeon of that buttery quality can yield a wonderfully tasty and nuanced chardonnay.  The key is to bring it all together in elegant equilibrium. There should be a symphony of flavors that support one another without any one component stealing the show.

Chardonnay from Santa Barbara benefits from the cool Pacific Coast breezes, which moderate the Southern California heat and allow the grapes in this area to ripen slowly.  The fruit has a chance to mature and develop complexity, while allowing crisp acids to remain intact.

Our tasting panel blind tasted 6 Chardonnays from this area. There was complete agreement on the preferred wines with the top picks being chosen unanimously amongst the panel. Interestingly the top two wines are both made by the same Winemaker, Greg Brewer. The 1st place choice was a wine he makes at Melville winery and the close second was his own label, Brewer-Clifton.

1st Place Melville 2007 Estate Chardonnay, Sta. Rita, Hills – Deeper golden hues, great balance of subtle pear and oak, very complex rich flavors that became more pronounced with time in the glass. What a wine!

2nd Place Brewer-Clifton 2005 Mount Carmel Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills – Slight gold tone, bold nose of oak, kiwi and lanolin (think wet wool). Very nicely balance with good flavor. Very slightly flat, a touch more acidity may have placed it in first.
Sanford 2006 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay – Slight greenish tinges on the edges, very light nose with just a bit of fruit showing through, it did show a bit more flavor with time in the glass but the panel all agreed that the wine needed a bit more stuffing.
Four Vines 2007 “Naked” Chardonnay, Santa Barbara – The “Naked” means that the wine did not receive any oak aging nor did it go through the acid –softening malolactic fermentation.  The wine was soft, with good acidity and a distinct green apple nose and flavor.
Cambria 2008 Katherine’s Vineyard , Santa Maria – Earthy nose with a distinct oak quality, a distinct caramel flavor was noted by Chef Eric all tasters agreed and this component became more evident with successive tastes. Toasty oak on the finish.
Kenneth Volk Vineyards 2006 Chardonnay, Santa Maria – A pleasant whisper of a spritz was detected along with subtle nuances of oak and honey. Though a bit light on the fruit, the wine was well crafted in a soft and subtle style.

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