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California Chardonnay vs. White Burgundy
It doesn't often happen that Burgundy and California both have excellent harvests in the same year. 1995 was such a year, and it was a long time coming. The last time there were parallel great vintages was 1990, when white Burgundies achieved ripeness levels that made for rich, flavorful wines and California's producers took advantage of a particularly favorable growing season to turn out rich, ripe, concentrated Chardonnays.
As great as the 1990 harvest was, however, it pales in comparison to that of 1995. Weather is always unpredictable in the northerly wine region of Burgundy; and when it's bad, it's really bad, but when nature smiles, the results can be fabulous. Nature wore a big, broad grin in 1995, and while there was some rain in the C┘te d'Or during the two weeks just before harvesting began, the grapes mostly came in fully ripe and clean. Yields were down because a cold spell in June had impacted flowering. Additionally, careful selection during picking -- discarding any grapes that had developed rot from pre-harvest precipitation -- brought the tonnage even lower. Low yields are a vital element in the Burgundian quality component.
In California, Chardonnay has never before had such a great vintage as 1995, although 1994 was close. Throughout the state, from Mendocino in the north to Santa Barbara County in the south, quality-conscious wineries turned out ripe, rich, luscious Chardonnays that exhibit finesse and structure, and veer away from the "fruit bombs" of the past. In some areas, however, high quality came at a cost of substantially diminished yields.
The Vintners Club jumped at this uncommon opportunity to compare French and California Chardonnays on a level playing field. For this occasion, it was determined to focus on the Chardonnays of the South Central Coast to compare against the wines of Burgundy's C┘te d'Or. Santa Barbara County and the coastal vineyards of southern San Luis Obispo County have consistently produced Chardonnays that are immensely popular with the Vintners Club panel as examples of generous wines with excellent structure and complexity. Many of the California wines included in this tasting were pre-release samples, which will certainly be even better on and after their release. This column thus offers its readers quite a scoop, since most of the wines won't be reviewed elsewhere for quite some time.
Focus on the South Central Coast Harvest
The 1995 harvest in the South Central Coast was a disaster in terms of quantity, but a glorious success in terms of quality: a grower's nightmare and a winemaker's dream. Unusual springtime cold coupled with lots of windy, wet weather just as the vines were flowering dramatically reduced the size of the crop to less than two tons per acre in most vineyards. According to Ken Brown, the winemaker at Byron Vineyard and Winery, chardonnay production throughout the Santa Maria Valley was off by as much as 50 percent. This was a reduced crop on account of poor berry set, however, and not washed out vineyards as happened in 1989 throughout the North Coast. According to Brown, "the reduced crop fostered extraordinary concentration and intensity in the fruit. Ideal weather conditions during the maturation and harvest season also contributed to the exceptional quality of this vintage." Brown's comments are echoed by Brian Talley at Talley Vineyards in the Arroyo Grande Valley growing area. Here, Talley says, "wet weather that persisted into mid-April and early May during flowering adversely affected pollination, resulting in many shot (unpollinated) berries and a yield of only 1.87 tons per acre. Weather during the summer was sunny but cool, ideal for perfect ripening." Because of these conditions, Talley was able to produce only 68 cases -- 816 bottles offered in 136 six-bottle boxes -- of its top-of-the-line Rosemary's Vineyard Chardonnay.
This in-depth focus on the South Central Coast is called for given the results of the Burgundy-California Chardonnay face-off. Of the six top-ranked wines, five were from Santa Barbara County, with only fifth place going to a Puligny-Montrachet from Colin-Deleg╚r. Granted that white Burgundy generally is less showy on release than California Chardonnay, this grouping of very impressive Santa Barbara County wines is significant.
New Product Facilitates Storage in Limited Spaces
In spite of their paltry production, South Central Coast Chardonnays from 1995 are still priced pretty much at the same level as in previous vintages. This means there are some great values on merchants' shelves just now, especially compared to the price levels of white Burgundy -- starting at about $35 and swiftly climbing upwards. For those whose buying enthusiasm is tempered by cramped storage room, a new product has come along that will ease matters. The "Smart Wine Rack" is a vertical hanging storage system made of strong mesh material with an individual pocket for each of the twelve bottles it will hold. When hung by its hanger-like hook in a closet, it will properly hold a case of wine using only four inches of horizontal space down the length of the closet. The rack also folds in half and holds 12 bottles side by side to fit in a small pantry or cupboard. The product is strong, portable and requires no assembly, and at $19.99 makes a perfect gift for the space-challenged wine lover. After all, the experts uniformly agree that if you don't have a climate-controlled wine cellar, the next best place to store wine is a cool, dark closet. The Smart Wine Rack is just the thing for this purpose. Check out their web site at www.smartwinerack.com or call (415) 962-1063 for more information or to order.
1995 Byron Chardonnay Reserve, Santa Barbara County ($24)
One of California's premier Chardonnay producers, Byron Vineyard has created a stunning wine with the 1995 Reserve Chardonnay. Most of the grapes for the wine were hand harvested from Santa Maria Hills, one of Santa Maria Valley's finest cool-climate chardonnay vineyards, and were pressed as whole clusters, with the juice then gravity fed to French oak barrels for fermentation. The wine underwent complete malolactic fermentation and was aged on the lees in French oak barrels (35% new) for a total of 10 months. While ageing on the lees, the wine was hand stirred weekly, a technique known as "batonage," which promotes depth and longevity.
Wonderfully fragrant, complex nose of ripe, juicy tropical fruit (pineapple, mango) plus creamy citrus and pear, enhanced by toasty oak, freshly baked bread scents from the batonage, a hint of honey, vanilla and warm spice. Rich, creamy, luscious and smooth in the mouth with deep, concentrated flavors that replicate the nose and finish long and delicious. Excellent acid balance. A superb wine in every way and a terrific bargain at $24. 3800 cases were produced.
1995 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay Reserve, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley ($35)
Pleasant, somewhat nutty nose of apple-pear, apricot and tropical fruit, sweet, toasty oak, vanilla, caramel and allspice. Soft and oily on the palate with complex, honey-tinged flavors of tangerine citrus and tropical fruit, vanilla and smoky oak. A powerful wine with good acidity.
1995 Sanford Chardonnay Barrel Select, Santa Barbara County ($30)
Forward aromas of very toasty oak plus yeasty notes, along with shy fruit that develops with airing and shows up more in the flavors, which focus on ripe pineapple, pear and lemon citrus enhanced by nutmeg-like spice. Buttery and moderately complex, the wine is still just a youngster and needs more time to knit. Quite an impressive ranking under the circumstances. The barrel select Chardonnays from Sanford are always not filtered.
1995 Zaca Mesa Chardonnay, Chapel Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($18)
Moderately forward, very fragrant toasty-leesy nose of tropical fruit plus creamy citrus, butterscotch and vanilla. Rich, smooth and creamy in the mouth offering a seamless texture and ripe tropical fruit-citrus flavors. A delicious, classy wine with good acidity. 1762 cases produced.
1995 Puligny-Montrachet "La Truffi╦re," Premier Cru, Michel Colin-Del╚ger ($79)
Wonderfully fragrant nose of ripe, juicy tropical fruit, honeysuckle and lemon-lime citrus without much oak intrusion. Generous and delicious, offering lots of ripe citrus, apricot, pear and honey flavors plus an intriguing mineral note and some yeasty scents; concentrated and complex with good acidity and a long finish.
1995 Cambria Chardonnay, Katherine's Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley ($20)
Pleasant, appealing scents of hazelnut, lemon-lime citrus, pineapple, apricot, oak char and a hint of botrytis honey. Still somewhat tight in the mouth showing toasty-leesy notes, lemony fruit and sweet vanillin oak.
1995 Talley Chardonnay, Rosemary's Vineyard, Arroyo Grande Valley ($30)
Fragrant and appealing nose of toasty new oak, ripe citrus and pear fruit and a hint of mineral. Smooth, unctuous and juicy in the mouth offering deep, ripe citrus-pear-kiwi fruit, lightly toasty oak and vanilla. Complex and extracted, this unfiltered Chardonnay is worth every penney of its $30 price tag. Produced from the best three barrels of Chardonnay from the vineyard, each bottle bears a special hand-numbered label. As noted above, this is an extremely limited-production wine; 68 cases made.
1995 Puligny-Montrachet "Sous le Puits," Premier Cru, Verget ($47)
Forward, fragrant, distinctively Burgundian nose of stone fruits (peaches, apricots), apple, white melon and wet pebbles, tinged with a note of honey. On the palate, the wine is still quite tight, showing ripe citrus and spice, plus the mineral note. Very good acidity. This Burgundian youngster need a couple of years yet to show its true potential.
1995 Chassagne-Montrachet "Les Macherelles," Premier Cru, Guy Amiot ($57)
Very fragrant and distinctive almost Viognier-like aromas comprised of lemon-lime citrus, ripe, juicy peaches and pears, wet pebbles, wild flowers, botrytis honey, nutmeg and a curious red berry scent. Again resembling Viognier in flavor and texture, the wine offers a round, smooth texture with pleasant viscosity, and flavors that replicate the nose, accented by a slight earthy scent. Adequate acidity.
1995 Chassagne-Montrachet "La Roman╚e," Premier Cru, Verget ($36)
Shy scents of pineapple, citrus and green apple fruit are enhanced by notes of mineral and spicy oak. On the palate, however, the wine is fairly brimming with ripe, juicy, creamy citrus and butterscotch flavors, and impresses with its buttery richness and lemon zest finish.
1995 Puligny-Montrachet "Les Folatieres," Paul Pernot ($50)
Very impressive nose of roasted grain or piecrust yeastiness, ripe tropical fruit mingled with tangerine citrus and honeysuckle, plus vanilla and a hint of waxiness sometimes associated with Semillon. Soft, round and smooth on the palate, the wine exhibits layers of fruit that replicate the nose with evident toasty oak; the fruit is quite concentrated and delicious; good acidity.
1995 Chassagne-Montrachet "Les Caillerets," Premier Cru, Jean-Noel Gagnard ($57)
By far the palest wine in the group, the Gagnard Chardonnay offers subdued scents of peaches, green apple, grapefruit citrus and minerals, accented by ginger spice. Quite closed in at this point, the wine is austere in the style of Chablis, and will require patient cellaring to develop its flavors that now hint of citrus, tropical fruit and minerals.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.