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The Benefits of Aging California Chardonnay
At the Tenth Annual Masters of Food and Wine at the Highlands Inn in Carmel, I had the rare opportunity to taste and evaluate seven different vintages from the cellars of the Domaine de la RomanČe-Conti, each representing the product of a specific vineyard. In regal procession led off by the 1993 chČzeaux, there followed '88 Grands chČzeaux, '92 RomanČe-St.-Vivant, '90 Richebourg, '91 La Tche and '89 RomanČe-Conti. As attention focused on each of these red wines, the domaine's co-owner, Aubert de Villaine, explained something of the characteristics of the particular vineyard -- soil, exposure, yield, etc. -- and attempted to relate that information to the resulting wine before the tasters.
The seventh wine then took center stage: the 1986 Montrachet. How was one to properly evaluate this Chardonnay after experiencing six incredibly impressive Pinot Noirs? And what could be expected from a 10-year-old white wine that was two years the senior of the oldest red wine in the tasting?
In fact, the Montrachet was not at all overshadowed or diminished in any way by the red wines. This wine virtually transcended the notion of Chardonnay and, to my palate, was unlike any other wine made from the varietal. Deep scents of toast and hazelnut accented by honeycomb and a certain appealing earthiness defined the nose. On the palate, the wine was mouthfilling and creamy without being ponderous, offering complex, delicious, creamy lemon flavors down the middle of which ran a pure streak of perfect lemon citrus; the pleasantly steely acidity enabled the wine's flavors to figuratively dance on the palate. This Chardonnay was perfectly balanced and stunning in every way. Valued at around $1000 a bottle, it should be.
It was certainly not like this when it was initially released, although I suspect that evidence of its potential greatness could be discerned. If conditions and circumstances are favorable, wines, like people, develop complexity as they mature, and it is complexity that distinguishes a good wine from a great wine.
The notion of cellaring wines for many years to obtain as much potential depth and complexity as possible is primarily associated with reds and fortified wines, such as vintage port. But, as the Montrachet clearly indicates, the process can be applied to whites as well. Some whites, that is.
White wines that demonstrate the ability to age well include, in addition to top-of-the-line white burgundies such as buttery Meursaults, steely Montrachets and nutty Corton-Charlemagnes, grand cru Chablis (perhaps the "purest" form of Chardonnay), vineyard-designated German Rieslings, grand cru Pinot Gris, Rieslings and Gew¸rztraminers from Alsace, Pinot Blanc from old vines and vinified in the Burgundian style (such as Chalone's reserve bottlings) and Semillon from Australia's Hunter Valley. Champagne from the poor, chalky soils of Epernay and Reims may also be said to gain complexity with age, although in many cases the gain is made at the expense of the wine's appealing effervescent quality.
Such limited-production wines are considered collectable and are, therefore, comparatively expensive. New-release grand cru white burgundies commonly start at $40 a bottle and range into the hundreds for certain legendary wines. "Ageing" in the context of white wines means five to fifteen years and more in a cool cellar. Some of the finest 1971 German Sptlese and Auslese Rieslings, for example, finally reached perfection in 1990.
The question of why these whites can be beneficially cellared, while most others are best consumed within the first year or two after release, is not easily answered. Certain factors, however, do figure significantly in the answer: Above-average natural acidity balanced by the right pH factor (the strength of acid is measured in pH units, where the "p" stands for power and the "H" for hydrogen ion concentration; the lower the pH, the stronger the acid); vineyard site and soil composition (involving the subjective notion of "terroir"); climate and microclimate (cool-climate whites have the advantage over those from a warmer growing area); clonal selection and vineyard yield; and oak treatment, both in fermentation and aging before bottling (too much new oak can cause oxidation and premature ageing).
Another factor is malolactic fermentation (this process was explained at length in an earlier column), a secondary fermentation during which sharp malic acids are converted into softer lactic acids. The conversion adds complexity to Chardonnay and softens the wine, yet some argue that it deprives the wine of the vital acidity to age well. On the other hand, long-lived white burgundies commonly undergo malolactic fermentation (ML), and partial or full ML is permitted to occur in some of the great grand cru Rieslings produced by Zind-Humbrecht. The process is very common in California Chardonnay production. Where ML becomes very important is in connection with a Chardonnay that is not filtered. It is absolutely imperative that a Chardonnay intended to be bottled without filtration undergo complete ML; otherwise the chance for spoilage is too great for commercial production.
In view of the prices charged for white burgundy, it is understandable that wine drinkers who love Chardonnay and appreciate the complexity that cellar time does for the wine would turn to acceptable substitutes, such as Chardonnays produced in California and other New World regions. Yet most of these Chardonnays are produced in such a manner as to be immediately enjoyed on release, and little thought is given to their ageing potential.
The exceptions, at least from California, have long been known to collectors: Stony Hill, Hanzell, Grgich Hills, Chateau Montelena and the reserves from Chalone and Simi. Yet, are there other ageable Chardonnays on the market?
That was what the Vintners Club panel wanted to find out when it conducted a special blind tasting of twelve California Chardonnays from the 1991 vintage. While only five years ageing time was involved, the tasting would nevertheless provide some insight as to how the wines had matured and whether there was life ahead for those that had aged well.
The results indicated that there are some producers whose wines can safely be added to the list of ageable California Chardonnays, and that the wines come in a variety of styles. The bottom line seems to be that if the wine was harmoniously made in the first place, with good extraction of fruit balanced with good acidity, it will age well for at least five years even if it was made with 100 percent new French oak and underwent complete ML (the "full blown" treatment). It certainly helps matters if an excellent vineyard was the source for the wine.
1991 ZD Chardonnay, California ($20.50)
This 100 percent barrel fermented wine did not undergo ML and was aged about 10 months in a combination of American and French oak, about a third of which was new. The nose offers fragrant and appealing scents of tangerine and tropical fruit, mingled with minerals and lavish amounts of spicy American oak. Sill juicy and fresh on the palate, the wine's flavors focus on tangerine citrus, pineapple, coconut and a hint of honey richness. Good acid balance and quite tasty. Can age nicely another three to five years.
1991 Acacia Chardonnay, Marina Vineyard, Carneros ($19)
Fifty percent of the wine was barrel fermented and about half underwent ML; it was aged about six months in French oak, half of which was new and the remainder one year old. Pleasant, complex scents of shy citrus, melon and pineapple with a note of fresh, loamy earth. In the mouth, the wine exhibits good acidity and lots of spicy apple, citrus, peachy fruit and a buttery richness. Probably another couple of years left for development.
1991 Guenoc Chardonnay, Reserve, Genevieve Magoon Vineyard, Guenoc Valley ($25)
Completely barrel fermented and aged on the lees for six months in new French oak barrels similar to those used for the famous Montrachet wines, this Chardonnay shows a creamy butter smoothness from 65 percent malolactic fermentation. Quite reminiscent of fine white burgundy with its toasty, smoky, buttery nose accented by a slight, pleasant "barnyard" note (which has developed with ageing and which will be recognized by burgundy lovers) and a hint of grassiness. Rich and complex with persistent flavors of caramel, butterscotch, citrus, pears and toasty oak. Probably at its best now given its just adequate acidity. Try pairing it with rich, flavorful foods like lobster and wild mushrooms.
1991 Matanzas Creek Chardonnay, Sonoma Valley ($20.25)
Completely fermented in barrel, 100 percent ML and aged on the lees in one- to 4-year-old French oak, this Chardonnay offers fragrant, moderately forward, elegant aromas of pear-apple fruit, butterscotch, toasty oak, yeastiness from the lees contact and nutmeg spice. Not as rich on the palate as the preceding wines, offering slightly spicy, citrus-like flavors. Good acidity. The lower fruit level suggests the wine may be declining.
1991 Sanford Chardonnay, Barrel Select, Santa Barbara County ($30)
The barrel-select Chardonnay from Sanford is always 100 percent barrel fermented, 100 percent ML and aged on the lees for eight months in 100 percent new French oak; in all, it spends 16 months in oak and is bottled without filtration. The winery suggested when this wine was released that it would benefit from two to three years of bottle age. To my mind it's done that and better. Forward, very appealing, fragrant nose of tropical (mango-pineapple) fruit, lemon-lime citrus, well-integrated toasty oak and a hint of that attractive "Burgundian barnyard" that also appeared in the Guenoc. Showing great acidity and still brimming with fruit, this very Burgundian-like wine shows every promise of gaining further complexity over the next three to five years; it much resembles the 1988 Barrel Select, which was one of the greatest Chardonnays ever produced in California and which was still drinking superbly in 1997.
1991 Lazy Creek Chardonnay, Anderson Valley ($9.75)
Anderson Valley is one of California's coolest wine growing regions, producing chardonnay grapes that are naturally quite high in malic acid. Winemaker Hans Kobler treated this Chardonnay very gently, fermenting the wine in older barrels without ML (although in some years partial ML is necessary because of high malic content) and ageing it for about ten months in older oak. He allowed a 24-hour skin contact with the juice before fermentation in order to obtain a more intense flavor extraction. Showing the spicy pear-apple fruit indicative of Anderson Valley, the wine's nose also exhibits a bit of mineral or wet pebble scent as well as hints of mintiness and honeysuckle. Adequate acidity and round, supple, fruity flavors indicate the wine has aged as long as it could and will gain nothing from further cellaring.
1991 Chalone Chardonnay, Estate, The Pinnacles, Monterey County ($25.50)
Chalone was one of the pioneer California wineries to employ Burgundian production methods for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The vineyard plantings of chardonnay on sparse soil streaked with limestone are some of the oldest in the state and produce excellent fruit with complex floral aromas and intense flavors. This Chardonnay was completely barrel fermented, underwent complete ML and was aged on the lees in French oak, one third of which was new. In total, it spent nine months in oak. According to winemaker Michael Michaud, this wine followed the path of its predecessors: enjoyable for the first 10 to 12 months after release with youthful fruit and charm, then undergoing a period of dormancy, where the wine is sometimes a bit awkward, then emerging in its third and subsequent years with complex bottle ageing aromas. The Estate Chardonnay will usually reach its peak of development in five to seven years after bottling; the Reserve can age even longer.
Complex, pleasant aromas of butterscotch, tangerine, peach and subtle pineapple accented by toasty oak and shy honey notes. Smooth, moderately rich and buttery on the palate offering good acidity, the wine's flavors focus on mineral-tinged citrus and spicy pear along with toasty oak. Elegant and delicious, this Chardonnay should continue to develop over the next couple of years.
1991 Grgich Hills Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($24)
Winemaker Mike Grgich has been producing consistently excellent, ageable Chardonnays since the 1970s; the 1973 Chardonnay he made while at Chateau Montelena took first place at the famous 1976 Paris Tasting, where a French panel tasting blind judged it to be better than a group of very prestigious white burgundies. The Grgich style is 90 to 100 percent barrel fermentation, no ML and ageing for up to seven months in new to 2-year old French oak. The 1991 Chardonnay is lighter in color than most of the wines in the flight and exhibits elegant scents of comice pears, citrus, honeysuckle and toast, with a hint of green herb. In the mouth, the lively acidity is still quite evident and the flavors are intense, replicating the nose plus a note of mineral. Still several years of ageing potential in front of the wine.
1991 Clos du Bois Chardonnay, Flintwood Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley ($14)
The winery produces two famous vineyard-designated Chardonnays, the Calcaire and the Flintwood, each vinified in a manner tailored to the particular fruit. The Flintwood is completely barrel fermented and undergoes partial ML (up to 60 percent). It's then aged in 50 percent new/50 percent one-year-old French Nevers oak for ten months. This wine was poured from magnum, which meant theoretically that it had aged at a slower rate than all the other wines in the tasting. The nose offers the characteristic Flintwood mineral-wet pebble scents along with clean, fresh citrus fruit and hints of honey and butterscotch. Lots of pure citrus-like fruit in the mouth buoyed by excellent acidity. Several years more of ageing potential in magnum.
1991 Trefethen Chardonnay, "Library Selection," Napa Valley ($35)
This wine is just now being released in the winery's "Library Selection" program. The style here is the complete opposite of the "full blown" approach: no barrel fermentation, no ML, with 65 percent of the wine aged without the lees for six months in 1- to 7-year old French oak. The nose resembles the Flintwood in its pleasant scents of minerals, wet pebbles and shy citrus, plus a green herb component. Reminiscent of a grand cru Chablis with its tight, angular structure, the wine's flavors of lemon-lime citrus are intense. Quite distinctive for its purity of fruit; at optimum drinking point now.
1991 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($23)
This winery's style is much like that of Trefethen: no barrel fermentation, no ML and aged without the lees for six months in French oak, most of which is five years old (5 percent to 7 percent new). In this style of winemaking, the fruit is allowed to sing, which is what occurs here. Forward, fresh, fruity aromas of apple-pear, citrus and mineral lead to generous, complex, citrus-like flavors tinged with minerals. Again, much like a fine Chablis; a Chardonnay that actually tastes like it was made from grapes. Best consumed now.
The last-place finisher was affected by a bad cork and thus is not indicative of the winery's true potential. Under such circumstances, it serves no purpose to identify the wine.
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.