A Contrast in Chardonnay
At a recent trade tasting sponsored by The Wine Source, a Washington-based distributor, I was lucky enough to be hit full in the palate with a contrast of two California Chardonnays made so diametrically differently that they provided a textbook lesson in how this grape can perform with or without heavy oak treatment.
The good news is, both of these wines were wonderful.
My lesson occurred by happenstance, or I might have tried the wines in the opposite order. But I was chatting up Bruce Neyers, the jovial proprietor of Neyers Vineyards, who was pouring a selection of Kermit Lynch wines (which he also represents). When I stuck my schnoz into a sample of Bruce's own Napa Chardonnay 1999, I was instantly transported back to childhood, when the toaster would malfunction and the bread would get a little too dark and my Dad would grab it and say, "I'll eat it. I like it burnt."
On the nose and palate, this Chardonnay pushed the toast treatment to the limit and stopped just short of falling over the edge. After caramelizing the sides of my tongue, the toasty flavors slowly receded to reveal wave after wave of roasted stone fruits, hazelnuts and almonds. The wine did not want to stop.
At the next table, a Wine Source rep offered me a taste of Stony Hill Chardonnay 1997, also of Napa Valley appellation, but made with very little oak. According to the winery spec sheet, the juice was fermented and aged in 5- to 25-year-old French barrels, with no malolactic fermentation. This was rock-em-sock-em fresh fruits - peaches, apricots, nectarines, one after the other like a sugar daddy peeling C-notes from his bank roll.
Both wines would retail at about $36 in the D.C. area. Which is better? My personal preference would be for the Stony Hill because of the fresh flavors, but that is purely subjective. Both wines are fascinating examples of their type. And both Chardonnays.
The Stony Hill has apparently always been made in a low-oak style, using used barrels - or as the PR euphemism now goes, "seasoned" barrels. (Why not? A "certified pre-owned Lexus" is a status symbol, after all, and at my age, I'm beginning to feel a little "seasoned" myself ...) There is a mini-reaction afoot against over-oaked Chardonnay. All the better, I say, if only because this gives us more variety.
Some to look for:
Kim Crawford Marlborough Unoaked Chardonnay 2000, about $17. Combines the ripe tropical flavors we've come to expect from down under with the softness of full malolactic fermentation. An enjoyable Pacific Rim wine ideal for Pacific Rim cuisine.
Breaux Vineyards "Madeleine's Chardonnay" 1999, Virginia, about $16. Little or no oak treatment here, just delightfully enjoyable fruit; ripe, medium body, green apple, pear and some tropical notes. This winery is one of Virginia's up-and-comers, though the whites far excel the reds. Their Viognier is not to be missed.
Gordon Brothers Family Vineyards Chardonnay 1999, Columbia Valley, Washington, about $15. To be honest, this wine is barrel-fermented and aged, though I suspect "seasoned" barrels, because the oak is content to play second-fiddle to the fruit. Only about 25% of the wine gets malolactic, which also helps. This is not quite as vibrant as the 1998, but it stands a cut above most of the competition in this price range.
"Wine is like sex in that few men will admit not knowing all about it"
- Hugh Johnson
Here are two wines that would make excellent "house" white and red for Spring and early Summer, both around $10. If you can keep them around that long:
Dry Creek Vineyards 1999 Fumé Blanc. A no-brainer. Text-book Sauvignon Blanc, with another welcome retro-trend: back to nature. No attempt here to cover up the "grassy herbals" with oak and making an ersatz Chardonnay. I was looking for a Sancerre one day, couldn't find one, so picked this up instead. Vive les Americains!
Castel Montplaisir Cahors 1997. Simply delicious, with all the high-toned blueberry notes of Malbec (usually called Auxerrois in Cahors), but not as beefy as some of the Argentine examples.
Copyright 2001 by Dave McIntyre
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