California Chardonnay Lightens Up

Poor California Chardonnay. Disrespected, disparaged and insulted, it has retailers in a quandary. Its problems all started as a movement that had its own acronym, ABC, which means Anything But Chardonnay.

But disparaging Chardonnay is sort of like feeling sorry for that millionaire banker whose bank failed, but who owns the largest house in town. Because for all the negatives the grape variety has accumulated over the years, even after all the epithets that have been hurled at it, from cries of “over-oaked” to “alcoholic” to “bland” to “sweet,” it is still the most pervasive wine that California produces, representing one bottle in every five sold, and in its highest form – from cult producers – still commands a mighty fancy price.

Domestic Chardonnay producers know of the drawbacks, however, such as a lot of competition, and they are also aware of the ABC movement, and of retailers’ love-hate relationship with the varietal.

So to deal with Chardonnay’s image problem, many producers are taking steps to fix what ain’t really broken.

Criticizing Oak

The fact is that most wineries perceived that the single greatest problem with Chardonnay was that it was too burdened with oak. Oak seemed to be the most criticized element, and as a result wine makers chose (or were ordered by their marketing departments) to seek alternatives to the oaked Chardonnay that was the suspected target of the ABC people.

As a result, we have heard for more than a decade that Chardonnay has gotten a lot lighter, less oaky and more refined as wineries seek to win a significant spot in the hearts of the great ocean of wine consumers out there as well as to achieve a position of stature with the growing ranks of new wine consumers who find the lighter style of Chardonnay more fascinating than the former fatter, more lugubrious version.

The first evidence that a sea change was occurring in Chardonnay came about 10 years ago, when some winemakers made a rather brash version of Chardonnay they called “unwooded.” The first major strides in this area were actually toes-in-water efforts by wineries such as Groundry and Chapel Hill in Australia, and the novelty of these wines was clearly what sold them at first.

But as American wineries investigated this new style, the commitment to using better grapes and more fresh-inducing winery techniques became the in-thing to do for that segment of the U.S. wine-buying public that was seeking to lighten up without discarding Chardonnay as their beverage of choice.
The entry of Morgan Winery in Monterey County with its Metallico (for all-stainless steel fermentation and aging) in 2001 signaled that the movement was a trend, not a fad. Morgan is one of California’s most respected wineries.
By early 2008, though, it was evident that the movement had become a lot bigger.
Last March, Mountain Spirit Winery in Colorado posted this on its web site:

“Chardonnay without oak? It is true. With all the buzz in California about non-oaked Chardonnay, Mountain Spirit Winery has crafted a few cases of this unique wine, which is really quite delicious and reminiscent of a very fruity dry Riesling.” Almost coincident with that posting was a column by Mike Dunne of the Sacramento Bee that gave solid credence to the trend. Dunne, a quiet man not given to much hyperbole, wrote:

“No producer of Chardonnay without oak is predicting that it will be the next big thing in wine, but all are optimistic. Each of them has been surprised by the reception for unoaked Chardonnay.”

He then quoted from Dan Lee of Morgan Winery: “There are more people looking for this product than I expected, so we’re trying to fill a demand that is much bigger than I thought.”

The Un-Oaked Bandwagon

Many other winemakers are on the oakless bandwagon.

John MacCready of Sierra Vista Vineyards & Winery in El Dorado County makes one. Luisa Ponzi, winemaker at her family’s Ponzi Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, has just released her first oak-free chardonnay.
There is Joel Gott of Three Thieves; in 2007, Valley of the Moon made an unoaked version; long-time wine maker Larry Brooks (Acacia) has a Chardonnay sans oak at Tolosa in San Luis Obispo County. The sparkling wine house Domaine Chandon has one, too. Wente Vineyards, in the Livermore Valley, has released a new Eric’s Chardonnay that uses less oak than either its Riva Ranch or Morning Fog Chardonnays. Fetzer, Sutter Home and many others have also lowered their use of oak.
There is an Oak Free Chardonnay from St. Supery’s winemaker Michael Beaulac. And the beat goes on.

“We made it for the tasting room and our wine club,” said St. Supery’s president Michaela Rodeno, “and the response has been great.”

She added that the trick is that without oak, the Chardonnay fruit has to stand on its own, so such a wine can only be made from great grapes.

So lower oak was the message of the latter half of the 2000 decade, right? Well, not so fast. Was the ABC movement really all about oak? Was this demand to lighten up Chardonnay really all about the fact that it was being put into toasted wooden barrels or aged in contact with wood chips?

Well, that was the assumption a decade ago, and it coincided with the far greater use of oak chips to flavor wines, along with other tactics (such as the use of toasted oak staves that were dropped into fermentation tanks, or oak inserts that were put into older barrels to refreshen the oak character in them).

However, evidence indicates that oak was only one factor in the non-traditional Chardonnay movement. As far as can be ascertained from interviews with various winemakers, a number of other issues were at play here, and one of them is as simple as, well, fruit.

Or the lack of it.

Looking Back

For a long time in the 1970s, most classic Chardonnay (as then made by Trefethen, Chappellet, Chateau Montelena, Robert Mondavi, Far Niente, and many of the other pioneers of the Napa Valley) was a wine that had crisp acidity.

It was also appealing mainly to wine connoisseurs who were willing to pay the rather then-exorbitant sum of $12 to $15 for the best of these wines. And they were designed not to be sipped alone, but to be paired with a meal.

As Chardonnay grew richer and more unctuous and scores for them rose in the glossy magazines, it became clear that the reviewers liked the fleshy, full-bodied nature of these soft wines. This was great for those who preferred the big-is-better style of Chardonnay. But what really happened was that the higher scores for the richer styles of wine were, in and of themselves, fueling a silent educational campaign in which novices with enough money were being taught what “great” Chardonnay was all about.

And the wines that got the higher scores were, in the main, not aimed at the dinner table. These were sipping and blind-tasting wines, not structured to go with food.

Yet some newcomers to wine during the build-up of Chardonnay passions around the country (in the 1980s) believed that these blowsy wines were “as good as” the French versions (when they were aged). After all, they achieved similar scores.
What was “better” about the California version was that these wines were instantly accessible. What about the charge that they were a bit low in acidity? Well, Americans traditionally were thought to talk dry and drink sweet, so this was the best of all scenarios: Chardonnays that were soft enough to be almost sweet. Some (such as Kendall-Jackson and later Rombauer) were said to contain actual residual sugar.

On the East Coast, mature wine drinkers were more used to French white Burgundies. By contrast, California Chardonnays seemed to them to be a bit flaccid. The long-term East Coast consumer, reared with French wine, knew that even after aging, the French wines generally retained sufficient acidity to still work with food.

But as time went on and newcomers to wine began to believe that the scores of the wine experts were fact, not what they really were (opinion), California’s highest scoring Chardonnays took on mythic proportions.

So the move toward lighter styles (and less oak was seen as the avenue to that goal) came as a result of more and more of the newcomers seeking wines that did complement food. And the oakier of the Chardonnays seemed to be the culprits.

And yet, it can be argued, oak was not really the guilty party. Lessening the oak and/or leaving it out of Chardonnay was only one way to lighten the wine. Another was less emphasis on acid-reducing techniques that make some wines really flabby and others smell like buttered popcorn.

Putting Chardonnay through a complete malolactic fermentation (ML), in addition to gaining a more buttery aroma, lowers the effective acidity and raises the pH, both of which make the wines a lot softer, and slightly less likely to work with food.

Less Malolactic

But those who prefer the richer style did not see “working with food” as a primary use for Chardonnay. Selling the wine was, and Americans’ penchant for richness and softness in their Chardonnays led to this trend – faster sales. Richer Chardonnays sold better than crisper wines. So the reduction in oak was not the only way to lighten up Chardonnay. Another way was to make the wine crisper through less use as well as discontinued use of malolactic fermentations.
It has long been known that many older Napa Valley wineries had always eschewed malolactic techniques.
Among these were the aforementioned Chateau Montelena, Mayacamas, Iron Horse, Robert Sinskey, Grgich Hills, Far Niente, and Stony Hill. Not coincidentally, all of the Chardonnays from these producers aged nicely, unlike most other “full-malolactic” Chardonnays.

Add to this a handful of wineries whose ML regimes were only partially used to trim acid levels (such as Trefethen) and you had some wineries leading  the way by keeping lightness in their wines as a key factor for success in the marketplace.
Now the efforts to see better structure, lighter aromas and crisper aftertastes in Chardonnay has led to a number of new wines that display better fruit through techniques and tactics that emphasize better elements for the dining table. Some of these wines may have gone through a complete malolactic, others partial ML, and still others ML-free. But the idea is to make a wine with the lemon/grapefruit/lime aromatics that indicate acidity and actually have the acid balance that makes for a crisper, thus more food-responsive beverage.
One example are wines that have emerged from the last few vintages from HdV, that superb project that’s a joint venture between Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and the exceptional Carneros grower Larry Hyde. The 2004 and 2005 HdV Chardonnays hit a far more delicate target than most blowsy California Chardonnays by emphasizing lees contact rather than oak or ML.

Iron Horse’s 2005 and later Chardonnays all were stellar, none more so than the Rued Clone-designated wine, using a clonal selection that gives a more exotic character. And not incidentally, the wine has elevated acidity to bring food compatibility to the dinner table.

Using a vineyard in Russian River Valley actually called Rued Vineyard, Dutton Goldfield has crafted an astounding 2006 Chardonnay that delivers simply delightful citrusy scents, yet has all the complexity of a French white Burgundy, complete with its acidity.

Silverado Vineyards chose in 2004, 2005 and beyond to make a small amount of a Vineburg-designated Chardonnay that had the perfect complexity from Carneros fruit, and little of the overt buttery scents that mark many such wines.

As you can (correctly) assume, most of these superb efforts are made in smaller amounts. The main reason is that such wines take a lot more effort to make and because there are a minimal number of the artificial (i.e., oak) smells, they require a superb fruit level. And there is only so much superb fruit for use in such wines. Of course, to make them without the best fruit wrecks the concept.
Moreover, making wine with more accessible fruit and lower oak makes economic sense. As the dollar collapsed in the mid-2000s against the euro, the price of French oak barrels rose to nearly $1,000 per barrel, making the wine so much more expensive to produce that wineries sought justification for using fewer oak barrels.
And the result was a lighter style of wine that seemed to be perfectly fine for most consumers, even those who love their oak and don’t mind chewing on a two-by-four.
Will this trend continue? As long as the marketing people of this world can get their message across that the newer style of Chardonnay is better with food than the former soft style, consumers will likely realize that lightening up on Chardonnay means greater enjoyment of this beverage.  And this may well keep Chardonnay as the top-selling wine in the country.    


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