Earlier this year, about three-dozen winemakers and industry pros, including myself, gathered at Chamisal Vineyards in the Edna Valley to blind-taste 27 Chardonnays from the appellation’s 2012 vintage.
In tow were score sheets to tally our impressions of each wine, rating six categories on a 0–5 scale: Tropical, Apple, Pear, Citrus, Floral, Peach and Mineral. This sensory science exercise, which took about an hour and was overseen by vintners Larry Brooks of Tolosa Winery and Fintan du Fresne of Chamisal, was designed to better understand whether there’s typicity to Edna Valley Chardonnay.
The results demonstrated that apple flavors are most common, peach is uncommon and that subjective individual tastes still vary widely, which is no real surprise.
But the real impact was that Edna Valley winemakers—who’ve also recently produced a slick new appellation map—are starting to realize that Chardonnay might be their regional star.
“If we were forced to forget about every other varietal and focus on one, we all agreed it was Chardonnay,” says du Fresne, explaining that the grape takes up about half of the planted acreage. “We’ve done great things with Pinot Noir, Syrah and Grenache, but if we are looking for that consistent varietal that does well year after year, it’s going to be Chardonnay.”
That makes sense, given that the region is cooler than anywhere else in California, even the Fort Ross-Seaview appellation along the Sonoma Coast, according to a comprehensive 2010 study.
“We enjoy the combination of a cool climate, long growing season and a relatively southern latitude, which means lots of sunlight,” says du Fresne. “We retain our acidity, but we have fruit, too.”
The same can be said for Chardonnays from throughout the Central Coast, where balance can be easily found at most price points.
When I started reviewing wines for Wine Enthusiast a little more than a year ago, I feared an onslaught of overly oaked, buttery Chards. For the most part, that hasn’t materialized. Instead, if I had any complaint, it’s the other way around. Some Chards are so austere that they taste like a different grape. The pendulum is clearly swinging in that direction.
For the most part, though, Central Coast Chardonnays, whether from the Sta. Rita Hills or the Santa Cruz Mountains, are lessons in balance. They offer bright if not racy acidity, warmer seared apple notes, fresh citrus (from lemon juice to lime pith) and a properly sized dollop of buttercream.
And while the jury is still out for me on what the low-alcohol movement is doing for Pinot Noir and other reds—where picking early can lead to greener flavors that actually show a dogmatic style more so than oft-lauded terroir—the leaner ripeness works excellently for Chard, which simply needs the right touch of oak to impart richness. Best of all, there is a wide range of styles to be explored.
As du Fresne explains, “We’re not so pigeonholed by what we think is traditional California Chardonnay.”
Because of this, the Anything But Chardonnay movement seems to be dying down, and even trendy restaurants are selling more California Chard.
“There used to be wine lists where sommeliers tried to have as few Chardonnays as they could, like four Albariños and one Chardonnay,” says du Fresne. “I think those days are over.”
Explore the best that Central Coast Chardonnay (and others from around the world) can offer at the International Chardonnay Symposium on May 28–30 at the Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa and The Cliffs Resort in Pismo Beach. Visit thechardonnaysymposium.com for details.