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Today's Wine Tasting Note

© Copyright 1998 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

Four Chardonnays from Gallo
It was a pleasant experience to get together in Louisville the other day with Carmen Castorina, the communications director for Gallo Estate Wines, and Dr. George Thoukis, Gallo's vice president and senior wine master, who's been making wine for the Gallos for 38 years.

At 10 a.m. sharp, a mighty early hour to be tasting wines, Carmen poured a round of four glasses of Chardonnays made in Gallo's Sonoma property under four separate labels -- Indigo Hills, Anapamu, Zabaco and Marcelina. I jokingly call these "stealth" labels because they appear to be independent wineries and don't disclose the Gallo connection; and while I've found them sound in past tastings, I haven't been overwhelmed, regarding them as "restaurant wines" designed largely for marketing to the hospitality industry for sales by-the-glass.

The Gallo folks didn't really deny that, but as Dr. Thoukis pointed out, Gallo's marketers consider the restaurant market more sophisticated than, say, the primary audience for table wines like Gallo's "Turning Leaf," and vinify these labels accordingly.

The idea of the tasting, Dr. Thoukis said, was to present the four Chardonnays side-by-side as a vivid demonstration that each has a specific, and different, character imposed primarily by "terroir," as the grapes for each come from distinctive regions:

  • Zabaco, the name of the original Mexican land grant in Sonoma's Dry Creek and Russian River valleys, is made from Sonoma fruit.
  • Anapamu means "rising place" in the language of the Chumash Indians of California's Central Coast, source of the fruit for that label.
  • Indigo Hills evokes the "blue-hued mountains of the Coastal mountain range as seen from Mendocino at dusk," according to Gallo's public-relations material; and it's, of course, a Mendocino wine.
  • Marcelina, finally, is named after Marcelina Dominguez, a 19th century figure said to have been California's first female viticulturist; she, and the wine, called Napa home.

    In contrast with the Gallo Sonoma line of estate wines, which do bear the company's name, these wines are made from purchased fruit, and that's the reason for the distinctive labels. Dr. Thoukis says Gallo has purchased as much as one-third of the California North Coast's fruit since as far back as the 1930s, but until recently blended it into generic wines like its "Chablis" and "Hearty Burgundy."

    The proof of the wine, of course, lies in the tasting, and to my pleased surprise, these Chardonnays were uniformly well-made, balanced, and quite frankly more to my liking than many latter-day California Chardonnays of more exalted reputation and price. Why? A look at the specs began to tell the tale: Unlike even some of the biggest names in Chardonnay, these wines are vinified so close to dryness that they fall well below the threshold of perception of sweetness for most tasters. They lack that shot of sugar that has made most CalChards so popular with the mass market; in its place, they show significant levels of crisp acidity to give them a steel structure against flabbiness, and startlingly high alcohol (in the 14% range). Malolactic fermentation and barrel fermentation are brought to bear; oak and butter are certainly present here. But these modest restaurant wines still show a balance and quality that makes them stand out from the pack of mid-range Chardonnays, a category that, as I said, is normally far from my favorite. Applause to Dr. Thoukis and the folks at Gallo for taking seriously a product niche that many might kiss off with a simple formula wine.

    "There's no need for any sweetness in this product," Thoukis said. "I think they can stand on their own. These are small volume wines, not for the mass market but for a smaller market." He paused, and then with a wicked little grin, added, "And I like a dry wine ... "

    Here are my notes on the wines, along with some details from the spec sheets and comments from the wine maker. The sheets don't disclose suggested retail prices, but I'd expect the first three wines to sell around $10 in most markets, and the Marcelina around $15.

    Indigo Hills 1996 Mendocino Chardonnay
    Very clear brass color, with a pleasant aroma of fresh apples framed by toasty oak. Full, round Chardonnay fruit laced up with ample acidity for structure.

    TECH NOTES: 82% Chardonnay, most of the balance being Chenin Blanc. 87% Mendocino grapes, with 12% North Coast and 1 percent Central Coast. 100% oak, predominantly in American oak. 13.8% alcohol, .30g/100 ml residual sugar, .67g/100 ml total acidity, pH 3.17.

    Anapamu 1996 Monterey Chardonnay
    Transparent brass color, with faint but pleasant green-apple and herbal aroma notes. Good toasty oak adds dimension to fresh fruit flavors.

    TECH NOTES: 97% Chardonnay, 95% Monterey. 98% oak, 66% American and 34% French. 13.9% alcohol, .50g/100 ml residual sugar, .67g/100 ml total acidity, pH 3.45.

    Zabaco 1996 Russian River Valley Chardonnay
    Clear greenish-gold. Rather closed at first, opens up to good apple and tropical-fruit scents. Ditto on the palate, tight at first, showing mostly butter, but opens up to reveal full-flavored fruit. In fairness, this was a "barrel sample," hand-bottled only a week earlier and carried around the U.S. in Castorina's baggage.

    TECH NOTES: 98% Chardonnay, 100% Russian River Valley. 98% oak, predominantly French. 13.9% alcohol, .40g/100 ml residual sugar, .58g/100 ml total acidity, pH 3.54.

    Marcelina 1995 Napa Valley Chardonnay
    Greenish-gold, slightly deeper in color with an additional year in the bottle. Delicious wine, full and round on the nose and palate, oak certainly present but in proportion with tasty apple and tropical fruit, dry and appropriately tart over a full body. Very fine Chardonnay.

    TECH NOTES: 99.9% Chardonnay, 87% Napa Valley, 13% Dry Creek Valley. 100% oak, 100% French. 14.6% alcohol (!), fully dry; .58g/100 ml total acidity, pH 3.41.

    Dr. Thoukis, by the way, is Greek Cypriot by birth, who earned his Ph. D. in enology at the University of California at Davis where Dr. Maynard Amerine (who died recently) was his mentor; he joined Gallo in 1960, worked directly with Julio Gallo for many years, and played a key role in the winery's move from primarily generic jug wines to a serious "varietal program" during the '80s. He's a quiet, modest but very affable and humorous gentleman, a joy to meet and a deep well of information about wine and wine making. If any wine lover has the good fortune to get to meet and talk with Dr. Thoukis, I'd certainly recommend it.

    All my wine-tasting reports are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores.
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