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Mendocino Chardonnays: Effects of Organic Farming
Mendocino grape growers are leaders in California in practicing and promoting organic (sometimes called sustainable) viticulture. This means that a large number of them employ a system of grape-growing that disdains use of industrially synthesized compounds as additions to the soil or vines to maintain or increase fertility, or to combat vineyard pests. In the last decade of the 20th century, organically grown grapes became a major element in the agricultural landscape of the county, with Fetzer Vineyards leading the way initially.
"We originally were very concerned that taking the sustainable approach would escalate our vineyard expenses and reduce our yields," recalled Tom Piper of Fetzer Vineyards at a recent seminar. "Our experience has been that sustainable grape-growing is no more expensive than the more typical -- chemical dependent -- way and that our vineyards yield as much or more fruit -- and better quality fruit -- than before."
Bill Crawford, owner of McDowell Valley Vineyards in inland Mendocino
County, which specializes in Rhone varietal wines, describes organic
farming as having a "seamless quality" -- where one
element of farming interacts with another, like a woven material
with no apparent beginning or end. "It's our intent to
establish an ecosystem that is balanced and can be maintained over the long-term, with the least amount of outside influence or input. One of our greatest concerns is to leave this land richer than we found it for our children and future generations," he emphasized.
Bonterra Vineyards, a brand launched by Fetzer a few years ago,
is one of the largest wineries featuring organically grown Mendocino
County grapes. And a cottage industry of earth-friendly, organic
grape-growing has sprung up, consisting of several other Mendocino
wineries (such as Frey Vineyards, Hidden
Cellars, Yorkville Cellars and Lolonis Winery) and more than two dozen grape growers in the county. More than 25 percent of the county's 13,000 producing vineyard acres are being farmed organically.
In Anderson Valley, a cool corner of the county close to the ocean, a major proponent of organic farming is Navarro Vineyards, one of the best small wineries in California. Co-owner Deborah Cahn admits that "we once declared war and killed off pests. With so much time and money involved in making high-quality Chardonnay, for example, what farmer wouldn't be tempted to massacre critters that love to gobble up grape leaves."
"We came to realize," Deborah continued, "that
using insecticides, organic or not, is short-sighted. A complex,
symbiotic relationship exists between insect species, and we've
been learning how to biologically tweak the balance of nature,
not just spray every creature in sight. Our worst pests are thrips
thrive in cool coastal regions like the Anderson Valley. Interestingly. they also eat spider mites, a more formidable pest that dominates in hotter inland regions. Many beneficial insects have been invited to make themselves at home in Navarro's fields: green lacewings, ladybugs, miniature pirate bugs, predator mites and parasitic wasps."
"Warren, our vineyard manager, is an expert in doing 'bug counts," she explains. "If there is an overabundance of one pest, he goes out and purchases the eggs of the natural enemy. Over time, we have built up a diverse community of insects that keep our grapes healthy and productive."
Chardonnay is planted throughout Mendocino County, with grapes
from the warmer inland regions generally producing fleshy, tropical
fruit-forward versions similar to those coming out of Sonoma County.
In cooler climes, such as the Anderson Valley, Chardonnays tend
to be crisper because of naturally higher acidity in the grapes.
Whether a winemaker uses techniques like malolactic fermentation,
which converts tart malic acid into softer, rounder lactic acidity
for a smoother, richer, sometimes buttery Chardonnay, depends
on the style
desired to be achieved. Use of oak -- new or seasoned -- for barrel fermentation and aging is also a matter of achieving a certain style.
Navarro Vineyards, for example, makes its top-of-the-line Premiere Reserve Chardonnay from the best lots from various favored sites in its estate vineyards. The wine "is aged in our most costly barrels," Deborah Cahn explains. "The barrels are made from oak staves that are air-dried in Burgundy for three years before the casks are formed."
Not all producers in Mendocino have access to -- or want to use -- such oak; some rely instead on older barrels that impart less oak notes in the finished wine. Some tank-ferment their Chardonnay in stainless steel, and use oak -- if at all -- for aging the wine thereafter. The differences were quite noticeable in a recent Vintners Club panel tasting involving 12 new-release Chardonnays from various Mendocino appellations.
1998 Greenwood Ridge Chardonnay, Du Pratt Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge ($24)
The 15-acre Du Pratt Vineyard was originally planted to zinfandel in 1916; chardonnay wasn't planted there until 1980. Located at an elevation between 1200 to 1400 feet in the Greenwood Ridge hills above the Anderson Valley, the Du Pratt Vineyard yields chardonnay grapes that are riper than those harvested from
the Anderson Valley floor because it is above the fog line and receives more sunshine hours. The 1998 Greenwood Ridge Chardonnay offers a fragrant nose of vanilla custard and apple-pear fruit. Big and buttery in the mouth, with layers of caramel and spiced apple fruit.
1998 Fetzer Chardonnay, Barrel Select, Mendocino County ($12)
Fragrant, appealing scents of creme brulee, lemon zest, toasty hazelnut, and ripe pear accented by a tropical pineapple note. Rich and smooth on the palate with good acidity, this bargain-priced Chardonnay delivers full ripe fruit flavors that replicate the nose and delight the palate.
1997 Indigo Hills Chardonnay, Mendocino County ($8)
Fragrant, moderately toasty nose of fresh citrus and spice. Round, smooth and luscious on the palate with good acidity, offering spicy pear-citrus flavors. Very pleasant sipping and easy on the wallet.
1997 Whitethorn Chardonnay, Light Vineyards "Organically Grown Grapes, Mendocino County ($20)
One of the oakiest Chards in the flight, showing lots of smoke from the oak char plus vanilla, with shy citrus fruit tagging along for the ride. Flavors correspond; adequate acid and rich body. For those who prefer an oaky style of Chardonnay.
1997 Handley Cellars Chardonnay, Estate Grown, Anderson Valley ($16)
The Handley estate vineyard was the primary source of grapes for this Chardonnay, sixty-five percent of which was fermented in a combination of French oak barrels and puncheons, and the remaining thirty-five percent in stainless steel tanks. About fifty percent of the wine underwent a secondary malolactic
fermentation. A beautifully rendered wine, elegant and generous at the same time, offering shy oak spice and creamy citrus on the nose, good acidity and rich, deep, creamy flavors of citrus and pear. Excellent concentration; lingering finish.
1997 Bonterra Vineyards Chardonnay, "Organically Grown Grapes," Mendocino County ($11)
Loosely derived from French and Latin, "Bonterra" means good earth and is a proprietary brand for Fetzer Vineyards. Bonterra-designated Fetzer wines are made from 100 percent organically grown grapes from certified vineyards in which no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or synthetic fertilizers are used in the
grape-growing process. Wines made from "organically grown grapes" differ from "organic" wines in that organic wines may not use added sulfites at any point in the grape-growing or winemaking processes. Bonterra wines use very low levels of sulfites during fermentation and aging in order to ensure shelf stability and prevent oxidation. All of Fetzer's Bonterra Chardonnays are aged in American oak barrels handcrafted at Fetzer's own cooperage. Aromas of Mendocino's characteristic green apple fruit are here enhanced by
notes of lemon-lime citrus and coconut. Soft and moderately rich on the palate with bright, delicious flavors unencumbered by heavy oak treatment.
1997 Lolonis Chardonnay, "Organically Grown Grapes," Redwood Valley ($13)
Pleasant scents of gingerbread, citrus and white melon, which are replicated on the palate; good acidity and medium body. More spice emerges as the wine airs in the glass.
1997 Jepson Chardonnay, Estate Select, Mendocino County ($14)
Grapes harvested from the sandy, loamy soils of Jepson's inland-county vineyards along the Russian River make up about half of this wine, with the other half coming late in the season from the winery's Burnee Hill Vineyard, which sits on a small hill behind the winery midway between Hopland and Ukiah. The grapes from Burnee Hill possess a striking balance between the delicate fruit flavors and the necessary grape acid to give life and longevity to Jepson's Chardonnays. The '97 Jepson Estate Select Chardonnay exhibits a smoky nose that masks the fruit to some extent. Modest flavors of white melon and citrus need more bottle age to develop.
1997 Edmeades Chardonnay, Estate, Anderson Valley ($14)
Winemaker Van Williamson explains that the estate grapes for this wine were hand harvested and whole-cluster pressed. "To ensure overall quality, we employed traditional techniques such as barrel fermentation, sur lie aging, oak aging for 10 months and malolactic fermentation. For complexity and texture, the wine was fermented with only wild yeast, and was bottled unfined and unfiltered." Pleasant scents of lemony citrus mingled with pear and shy spice. On the palate, the wine shows deep, extracted citrus fruit and lots of clove spice, plus vanillin oak. A big Chardonnay with a balanced buttery richness and good acidity.
1998 Husch Chardonnay, Estate Bottled, Mendocino ($22.50)
The '98 Husch Chardonnay is a blend of estate-grown grapes from two separate Mendocino growing regions. The grapes from cooler Anderson Valley with its month longer growing season give this Chardonnay its crisp, green apple character, while the grapes from the warmer La Ribera Vineyards on the outskirts of Ukiah impart richness and body to the wine. The resulting combination creates a rich wine with aromas of tropical fruit, pear, green apple and spice, accented by butterscotch. On the palate, those flavors mingle with cinnamon, vanilla and a certain nuttiness.
1998 Lazy Creek Chardonnay, Estate Bottled, Anderson Valley ($13)
Distinctive aromas of tangerine, banana and honey suggest a rich wine. The palate doesn't disappoint, offering rich, lush flavors of pear and citrus unencumbered by heavy oak, although a hint of seasoned oak appears in the finish. A charming, eminently food-friendly Chardonnay.
1997 Steele Wines Chardonnay, Du Pratt Vineyard, Mendocino ($29)
Only rarely does Jed Steele turn out a dud, but this is one of those uncommon disappointments. Sweet-smelling vanillin oak dominates the nose and less-than-adequate acidity can't carry the modest lemon-lime fruit flavors. Heavy and bland.
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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.