TASTING TOP-SHELF CHARDS
California Chardonnay is being priced as if it were liquid gold. Does it measure up?
California Chardonnay is being priced as if it were liquid gold. Do the most recent vintages measure up?
It's hard to separate the image of California—the Golden State—from Chardonnay, America's favorite white winegrape. There's a comfortable resonance between the yellow-gold color and lively fruit flavors of the wine and the sun-drenched demeanor of this country's largest wine-producing state.
But prices for California's top Chardonnays have zoomed skyward in recent years, casting a shadow over sunny remembrances of tropical fruit flavors accented by creamy oak. Can the wines really be that much better than the midpriced Chardonnays we reviewed last June? Are they qualitatively on par with the great Cabernets we tasted from the 1997 vintage?
To answer these questions, we collected bottles of California Chardonnays that retail for $30 or more and tasted them blind in our New York offices. We tried more than 150 wines from almost every part of the state, from Monterey to the Sierra Foothills and Santa Barbara to Mendocino. Prices ranged up from $30—a special occasion bottle for most enthusiasts—to a heady $85, which is roughly parallel with prices for white Burgundies from premier cru (and some grand cru) vineyards.
Here's our shoot-from-the-hip report on the vintages and regions, flavors and textures, and the ever-important "bang-for-the-buck" factor.
|With few exceptions, all of the wines we tasted came from the 1998 and 1999 vintages. Although both vintages started out late, with bud burst occurring an average of three weeks later than usual, the cool El Niño-influenced 1998 season created difficult ripening conditions in many locations, while 1999's warm September and October meant full ripeness for patient vintners. Would 1998's tough weather depress the scores across the board?|
Not so. We found several wines that rated 92 points or higher (though, admittedly, there were a few more 1999s than 1998s in the lot). As always, attentive viticulture, stringent winemaking and good luck—as any winemaker will tell you—yielded some impressive wines. Among the wines rated 91 points or higher, the 1999 vintage holds a decisive margin (24 wines, to 13 from '98), which indicates that 1999 provided, on the whole, better raw material to work with. However, the presence of so many fine 1998s says much about the skills of many winemakers, the possibilities of cooler-climate Chardonnay, and the many exceptions to any rule (especially the vintage rule) in the world of wine.
Location, Location, Location
Strong performances by Sonoma, Napa and the South-Central Coast confirmed their deserved reputations as California's quality leaders for Chardonnay. Of our "Dazzling Dozen"—wines rated 92 or higher—six were from Sonoma, five were from Napa and one was from Santa Barbara County. But expanding the range to encompass wines that scored 91 or higher yields a more balanced geographical selection: 15 Sonoma wines, 11 Napa wines, and nine from the South-Central Coast region between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.
Other regions produced shining Chards as well: Standards of excellence for Monterey were established by Lockwood's 1998 VSR, Talbott's 1998 Diamond T Estate and Carmel Road's 1999. Guenoc's wine from its historic Genevieve Magoon Vineyard demonstrates the potential of their eponymous northeast-of-Napa AVA, as does Calera's 1997 Mt. Harlan, also a one-winery appellation. Thunder Mountain's 1999 De Rose Vineyard showcases the virtually unknown Cienega Valley.
Mendocino contenders from Steele's Du Pratt and Lolonis Vineyard bottlings and Ici/La Bas's Phillipine—all '98s—testify to that northern county's tremendous potential. They highlight the potential of cooler climate (or vintage) Chardonnay and further prove that 1998 provided some quality wines.
Flavor and Texture
For the most part, the wines fall into one of two broad fruit-flavor profiles: crisp, slightly tart green-apple and citrus on one hand and full, slightly sweet-tasting, tropical-fruit and melon on the other. Many of the top-scoring wines draw elements from both ends of this flavor spectrum, while the very best achieve a pleasurable tension and contrast between elements, and show great nuance and sophistication.
Atop the underlying fruit, California winemakers continue to fire a full arsenal of flavor-enhancing techniques at high-end Chardonnays. Barrel fermentation, a healthy percentage of new French oak, full malolactic fermentation and extended lees contact are techniques widely employed among this group of wines.
That said, California winemakers seem to be acknowledging more and more that it is the balance between these elements that matters, not simply the amount of one or the other. There are still plenty of oaky wines, but we found many of them more delicious and in better balance than in years past. We also noted more Burgundian-style extended lees contact (yielding nuttiness and a fuller, perhaps more granular, texture) and an increase in mineral flavors.
The amount of malolactic fermentation (a process which yields a fatter, creamier mouthfeel and buttery flavors) in the wines we tasted ran the gamut from none to 100 percent. So many people love fat and unctuous Chardonnay that it seems unlikely producers will steer away from this widespread market preference for full-malo Chards. Still our panel detected a trend toward slightly leaner, more structured wines. Winemakers also seem to be more aware than ever that a wine's acidity matters.
What Price Quality?
|With producers asking ever-higher prices for their wines, it's only natural to ask, "Are these wines really worth it?" Price escalation of top-end Bordeaux, super-Tuscans and the like has created headroom, allowing prices of other wines, including Chardonnay, to rise. Consumers are now making more money than ever, and more people are willing to spend money on their pleasures. Bluntly put, "The fair price of something is whatever it will fetch," said Marcus Samuel, the founder of Shell Petroleum.|
The justification of these lofty prices is a different matter. Some wines are pricey because their total production is so limited, making economies of scale impossible. Others are costly because they were made in a time- and labor-intensive manner, with extreme care and attention to detail.
On the other hand, some are expensive because they are lavishly packaged. Of this group some packages are commendable, some not so commendable. Never have we seen so many heavy, deep-punt (the indent in the bottom) bottles, fancy labels and a general sense that "this wine is serious, just look at it (or hold the bottle)." It is as if quantity needs to be reinforced with heft, a syndrome not limited to wine.
To the Wine Enthusiast tasting panel, some of these wines are worth the price of admission and some aren't. Our scores and tasting notes are there for readers to consider. Personal preference weighs very heavily here—so heavily, in fact, that it's important to read the notes, not just glance at the numbers. A high numerical rating is no guarantee that everyone will like the wine. The Chardonnay may be well-rendered, but well-rendered in a style that does not appeal to you.
We tasted many excellent (90-93 points) and a large number of very good (87-89 points) wines. The total percentage of wines tasted that were rated in these ranges far exceeded what we found in last year's $15-30 Chardonnay tasting. Still, no wine rated 94 or higher. The top end—except for price—wasn't quite so high-end. Chalk it up to a still-increasing learning curve, or to the quality of the vintages. Or maybe the present quality ceiling of California Chardonnay is in the low- to mid-90s, as it is for most other wines around the world. That is nothing to be ashamed of.
Viticultural and winemaking skills will progress, familiarity with vineyard site will increase and more vines planted in the 1990s will mature. If Mother Nature—and the economy—cooperates, we predict a long, healthy run for top-end California Chardonnay, with an increasing number of wines of character, personality and finesse…and maybe even scores in the high 90s.
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