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Mendocino's Distinctive Chardonnays
About a hundred miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge lies one of California's most bucolic wine regions, a county rich in diversity, serenity and nature's bounty. Unlike a visit to the comparatively well-to-do Napa Valley, a trip to Mendocino's wine country requires an investment in time and mileage -- it's a destination, rather than a one-day excursion for the Bay Area wine lover. And therein lies its particular charm.
Once visited, Mendocino thereafter exerts a subtle, but constant, pull on the urban-weary psyche to come north for a time of relaxation and renewal -- to roll back the years to a quieter, less hectic era, when people slowed their pace and appreciated the beauty and marvels of nature surrounding them.
A large, sparsely populated county, Mendocino offers a majestic coastline dotted with charming, rustic villages reminiscent of New England, tranquil river valleys, cathedral-like stands of ancient redwoods, and some of the best wine produced anywhere in the state.
Beginning in the south county near the inland town of Hopland, most of Mendocino's vineyards stretch north and east to the warmer sub-appellations of Ukiah Valley, Redwood Valley, Potter Valley and McDowell Valley, which are mostly planted to zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, Rhone varietals (such as syrah, grenache and mourvedre) and sauvignon blanc. There's also a fair amount of chardonnay planted in the eastern part of Mendocino, which, when made into wine, resembles the kind of Chardonnay one associates with neighboring Sonoma County -- rich, full-bodied wine that offers generous fruit.
The remainder of the county's vineyards are coastal. Northwest of Hopland and west of the ridgecrest of the coast mountains, on either side of Highway 128, the Anderson Valley opens to the ocean, drawing fog and marine breezes atop the waters of the Navarro River often as far east as Hopland, resulting in cool-climate growing conditions that particularly favor pinot noir, gewurztraminer and riesling.
This northernmost stretch of the state's North Coast winegrowing region produces a distinctive Chardonnay that on release is typically angular and in need of aging. It characteristically exhibits wonderful acidity -- resulting from the long, cool growing season -- and delicate, elegant, apple-pear fruit flavors tinged with citrus. When barrel fermented, Anderson Valley Chardonnays exhibit a pleasant buttery richness.
The notion of aging white wine may seem strange to some consumers who are used to buying a bottle of new-release Chardonnay on the day it's to be enjoyed with a meal, but some whites definitely improve and gain complexity if allowed to age in a cool, quiet storage area for a few months or even a couple of years. Anderson Valley Chardonnays are good examples of white wines that benefit from aging, as are some much more expensive French Chardonnays, German and Alsatian Rieslings, barrel-fermented, oak-aged Pinot Blancs and Semillons. Examples of white wines that are best consumed within a year of release are Viognier, Chenin Blanc, French Colombard, dry Muscat, most American Rieslings, fruity Sauvignon Blanc and White Zinfandel.
As a general rule, if a white wine is (1) expensive and/or (2) barrel fermented and oak aged or (3) has high natural acidity, it can be aged in the bottle. A wine that's fruity is best consumed while the fruit is still fresh and generous. End of wine lesson.
Recently, the Vintners Club brought together twelve new-release Chardonnays that all came from Mendocino County. Most were from the 1993 vintage, which was marked by a long, cool growing season that produced chardonnay fruit with wonderfully developed flavors and intensity. Significantly, the prices would put most of the wines in the best-buy category, offering great value at around $10-$12.
The two most expensive Chardonnays in the tasting were a reserve from Gabrielli Winery at $20 and the Du Pratt Vineyard bottling from Steele Wines at $24, both of which finished in the top rankings. At $13.50, the first-place wine, 1993 Jepson Estate Select Chardonnay, offers terrific value for the money, and is clearly a wine worth the search.
1993 Jepson Chardonnay, Estate Select, Mendocino ($13.50)
Grapes harvested from the sandy, loamy soils of Jepson's inland-county vineyards along the Russian River made 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 '93 Jepson Estate Select Chardonnay is a perfect example of Mendocino Chardonnay at its best. Fresh, clean, fruity aromas of ripe pear and tropical fruit are accompanied by just a hint of oak and a pleasant spicy note. It's wonderfully fruity in the mouth with crisp acidity carrying the citrus-green apple flavors to the entire palate. There's more evidence of spicy oak in the flavors than is suggested by the nose, but never so much oak as to dominate the fruit; beautifully balanced and elegant. Ninety percent of the wine was fermented in French Voges and Allier barrels and there was a partial (78%) malolactic fermentation. Sixty percent of the blend was aged for seven months on the lees (sur lie) in barrel. Superior quality at a bargain price.
1993 Steele Chardonnay, Du Pratt Vineyard, Mendocino ($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 valley floor because it is above the fog line and receives far more sunshine hours.
A completely different style of Chardonnay than the Jepson, the '93 Steele Chardonnay from the Du Pratt Vineyard is full-blown, pull-out-the-stops, exuberant, Burgundian-like Chardonnay that will appeal to those who like plenty of new oak in their wine. It exhibits lots of smoky oak in the nose, accompanied by attractive scents of vanilla, toast, oatmeal or roasted grain, guava-tropical fruit and shy citrus. Rich and creamy on the palate with mouthwatering acidity, this Chardonnay performs a breathtaking high-wire act in keeping the gobs of oak, citrus-tropical fruit and butteriness from malolactic fermentation in excellent balance. Not for the faint of heart. Malolactic fermentation is discussed below in connection with Navarro's Chardonnay.
1992 Navarro Chardonnay, Premiere Reserve, Anderson Valley
Navarro Vineyards is best known for its benchmark Gewurztraminers, Rieslings and Pinot Noirs, but this small, perfection-oriented winery does very well with virtually every kind of wine it produces, including wines made from grapes grown outside its home base in the Anderson Valley, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Navarro Vineyards has also begun production of a limited amount of Pinot Gris and has plans for planting syrah in the hillside vineyard behind the winery.
The '92 Navarro Premiere Reserve Chardonnay was made entirely from Anderson Valley grapes and, as in the past, was blended from the best barrels of Chardonnay that had gone through malolactic fermentation (often referred to as ML), which gives the wine a rich, creamy mouthfeel. In previous years, Navarro blended in a little non-ML wine to balance the fruit with the oak and butter, but for the first time with the '92 Premiere Reserve, the winery's tasting panel preferred a blend of barrels that were 100 percent ML without the addition of the non-ML lots.
To better understand ML, one needs a quick lesson in wine chemistry. Wine is the product of fermentation, as everybody knows, and in the primary or initial fermentation, yeasts convert grape sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. At the winemaker's option, wine can also undergo a secondary, malolactic fermentation, in which bacteria convert the grape's malic acid (very tart) into carbon dioxide and lactic acid (soft and buttery). Because of the high natural acidity in Anderson Valley fruit, Chardonnays from this chilly growing area are ideal candidates for ML treatment, whereas chardonnay grown in warmer microclimates can become flabby and fall apart with the deacidification that occurs during the ML process.
Navarro's '92 Premiere Reserve Chardonnay is a textbook example of a Chardonnay that exhibits all of the positive aspects of an ML wine -- creamy mouthfeel, soft, smooth textures and buttery richness -- and none of the negative aspects, which can include too much butter character and lack of structure because of deacidification. This is a rich wine with appealing aromas of spicy, baked apple-pear and citrus fruit, toasty, roasted almond flavors from the new French barrels that do not overpower the generous, ripe apple-pear-citrus fruit, and a mildly buttery-yeasty depth from extended yeast lees contact (sur lie aging) and the malolactic fermentation. The wine was a gold medal winner at last year's Mendocino County Fair's wine competition, in which I enjoy participating as a judge year after year.
Navarro's wines are primarily available at the winery and by mail order. To receive their current offering newsletter, call 1-800-537-9463 or (707) 895-3686.
1992 Gabrielli Chardonnay, Reserve, Mendocino ($20)
Made in the same big, Burgundian style as the Steele Du Pratt Vineyard Chardonnay, the '92 Gabrielli Reserve Chardonnay exhibits full-blown richness, medium-high char French oak and creamy lemon flavors. The fruit for the wine came entirely from warmer, inland Mendocino County where the warm, as opposed to hot, 1992 vintage produced grapes of excellent concentration and ripeness. The toasty oak in the nose and on the palate is the result of total barrel fermentation in French oak, almost thirty percent of which was new barrels, with the remainder being one- to three-year old Billon, Sirugue and Demptos barrels. The yeast used in making the wine is one that promotes spontaneous malolactic fermentation, which accounts for the rich, creamy textures resulting from total ML treatment.
The aromas focus on fresh apples, pears and tropical fruit accented by a roasted grain or nutty scent from the oak. Round, rich and delicious, offering creamy lemon citrus flavors accompanied by lots of oak. Like the Steele wine, the Gabrielli is beautifully balanced, with a long, lingering finish.
1993 Husch Chardonnay, Mendocino ($11.50)
As the first bonded winery in the Anderson Valley, Husch Vineyards has the distinction of pioneering early development of some of this cool, coastal region's most distinguished varietals, namely pinot noir, gewurztraminer and chardonnay. As third-generation farmers, the H.A. Oswald family purchased the winery in 1979 and has continued the tradition started in 1971 by Tony and Gretchen Husch. All of Husch's wines are made from grapes grown in the Oswald family vineyards, including not only Anderson Valley grapes, but also sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, chenin blanc and some chardonnay grown in the family's La Ribera Vineyards located along the Russian River in the warmer Ukiah Valley in inland Mendocino County.
The '93 Husch Chardonnay is a blend of estate-grown grapes from Mendocino's two separate 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 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.
Most of the wine (88%) was barrel fermented, left on the lees and aged for six months in French oak barrels. The lees were stirred every two weeks, adding a silky, creamy texture. A small percentage (12%) underwent malolactic fermentation (see the discussion of malolactic fermentation above in connection with Navarro's Chardonnay).
1993 Fetzer Bonterra Chardonnay, Mendocino County ($9)
Few wine drinkers need much introduction to Fetzer Vineyards, one of Mendocino's largest wineries, but some may like to know something about their Bonterra program. Loosely derived from French and Latin, "Bonterra" means good earth and is a new proprietary brand for Fetzer. Bonterra-designated Fetzer wines are made from 100% 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 and Cabernet Sauvignons are aged in American oak barrels handcrafted at Fetzer's own cooperage.
The '93 Fetzer Bonterra Chardonnay was made entirely from organically grown grapes from southern Mendocino County vineyards. This rich, dry wine was fermented and aged four months in new and older American oak barrels; forty percent was aged on the lees (sur lie) stirred twice each week and completed malolactic fermentation (see the discussion of malolactic fermentation above in connection with Navarro's Chardonnay).
Aromas of Mendocino's characteristic green apple fruit are here enhanced by notes of tropical fruit, lemon zest, butterscotch and coconut. Soft and creamy-rich on the palate with delicious flavors, it's a real bargain at $9.
1992 Saint Gregory Chardonnay, Mendocino ($12)
Domaine Saint Gregory produces only about 3,000 cases of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, handcrafted by winemaker/owner Gregory Graziano, who also makes wine for nearby Hidden Cellars in Ukiah. Under his Monte Volpe label, Greg offers Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Pinot Bianco, Moscato di Mendocino, Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Tocai Friulano and other Italian-inspired creations from his 20-acre estate vineyard.
1992 was a relatively cool growing season in inland Mendocino County, resulting in a Saint Gregory Chardonnay that was slightly less rich and luscious than previous efforts. Thirty-five percent of the grapes came from a vineyard in the eastern hills of Ukiah Valley, forty-one percent came from a high-altitude vineyard in the hills above Potter Valley, and the remainder were grown organically in the Tillman Vineyard in Redwood Valley.
Completely barrel fermented in French oak that was thirty percent new, the wine was aged on the lees (sur lie) for eleven months and hand stirred twice a month without the use of sulfur dioxide. Eighty percent of the wine underwent malolactic fermentation (see the discussion of malolactic fermentation above in connection with Navarro's Chardonnay).
On the nose, the '92 Saint Gregory Chardonnay has appealing aromas of tropical fruit, citrus, butterscotch and yeasty notes reminiscent of freshly baked bread. These flavors are replicated on the palate, enhanced by a creamy mouthfeel and a nuance of orange peel; fine acidity and a very long finish.
1992 Handley Chardonnay, Anderson Valley ($11)
An unusually warm spring led to a very early bloom at the outset of the 1992 vintage in Anderson Valley. The summer temperatures were moderate and allowed for a consistent ripening with full development of varietal flavors. 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 (see the discussion of malolactic fermentation above in connection with Navarro's Chardonnay).
The '92 Handley Chardonnay offers aromas of ripe apples, shy citrus and toasty oak, accented by mineral notes. On the palate, spicy apple flavors have a slightly honied richness leading to a lengthy finish in which the mineral component again appears.
1993 Lazy Creek Chardonnay, Anderson Valley ($9.75)
Just down the road west of Navarro Vineyards, a mailbox on the right-hand side bearing the name "Kobler" is the only clue as to the location of Lazy Creek Vineyard, a small (4000 case) production winery established in 1973 by Swiss-born Hans Kobler and his wife Theresia. The narrow, unpaved road leads back into the property across two wooden bridges that cross over the meandering creek that gave the winery its name. Twenty acres of the 90-acre ranch are planted to grapes, tended by the Koblers' son, Norman. Hans' true love is his gewurztraminer, which is among the very best produced in Anderson Valley. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are also produced in Hans' tiny, crowded winery just behind the ranch house.
Hans does not usually put his Chardonnay through malolactic fermentation, so the winery's style is crisper and fruitier than most other Chardonnays produced in Anderson Valley. The '93 Lazy Creek Chardonnay is atypical for the varietal, suggesting more Gewurztraminer than Chardonnay by its fragrant pineapple, muscat-y, spicy apple aromas. The almost salmon hue also suggests gewurz (could Hans have inadvertently mixed in some of his beloved gewurz when making the final blend?). In any event, the wine is delicious: fleshy and fruity, with lots of spicy apple and gewurz-like fruit, rounded out by a hint of residual sugar and kept in place by crisp acidity.
1993 Hidden Cellars Chardonnay, Mendocino ($10)
Hidden Cellars is a 20,000-case-production winery located near Ukiah. Grapes for the '93 Hidden Cellars Chardonnay came from vineyards located in each of Mendocino's microclimates. Forty percent of the wine was barrel fermented and aged on the lees (sur lie) for eight months in French oak, which accounts for the wine's creamy richness. The sixty percent fermented in stainless steel brought pure chardonnay fruit flavors and aromas to the blend.
Shy scents of pear, lemon and peaches are accented by notes of honey and nuttiness. Soft and round in the mouth, the flavors replicate the nose, with particular emphasis on the pear-like fruit. Adequate acidity. A pleasant sipping wine with no pretensions of greatness.
1993 Claudia Springs Chardonnay, Anderson Valley ($10)
Claudia Springs Winery was established in 1989 in the hills marking the western edge of the Anderson Valley. One of the valley's smallest wineries, Claudia Springs produces about 1500 cases of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel from purchased grapes. Owners Robert Klindt (the winemaker) and Warren Hein and their wives, both named Claudia, are so proud of their wines that they offer a money-back guarantee printed right on the labels, along with an 800 telephone number, should a consumer be dissatisfied with the quality.
The '93 Claudia Springs Chardonnay exhibits pleasant scents of green apple and tropical fruit, mingled with spicy oak. Crisp and slightly tart in the mouth, the flavors focus on spicy apple and citrus. Good acidity.
One of the two bottles the panel sampled of the wine that finished in last place was corked, and it would serve no purpose to identify the wine under these circumstances. A "corked" wine is one that has been tainted by bacteria from a bad cork, resulting in musty smells and flavors.
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.