KENWOOD, Calif. — Chardonnay has been California's greatest calling card in white wines, with some being compared to the greatest wines of France's Burgundy district. And over the years, California wine makers have fallen over themselves to emulate the techniques of the French region.
The wines that won the headlines of the past, however, were fairly chunky wines, loaded with oak, high alcohol and extract--so-called blockbusters with little finesse.
Last week I went back in time and tasted a few of these wines, all of which were 8 to 10 years old, and found most of them to be rather ponderous oafs with little left except excess. In fact, I knew what I was doing in advance. When I staged this little event, I told the participants beforehand that we'd probably be attending a wake, not a celebration.
California Chardonnay once was made with good intentions but poor methodology, and the result was wine that didn't age particularly well. Not all producers had such bad track records a decade ago, but by and large Californians didn't quite understand how to make wine that not only tasted very good when young, but would last a few years in the bottle.
What Method Can Do
Recently, wine makers agree, they have all been using a lighter hand to make wines that show finesse and fruit, but are far more deep and complex than they appear on the surface. These are not simply simple Chardonnays; they are wines that show a better understanding of method and what method does to make a wine last.
The Chardonnays we evaluated last week were all well received when they were released: 1978 Alexander Valley Vineyards; 1978 Burgess; 1979 Robert Mondavi; 1980 Rutherford Hill; 1980 Chateau St. Jean Gauer Ranch. All but the Alexander Valley Vineyards (AVV) wine were shot, showing far too much bronze color and far too little fruit. Even though the AVV wine was fresher than the rest, it had seen better days.
The tasters for this little exercise were knowledgeable: David Ramey of Matanzas Creek, Max Gasiewicz of Fisher, Charlie Tolbert of Haywood, and Dennis Hill of DeLormier, and formerly of AVV. And all agreed: The wines weren't very interesting.
The discussion that followed gave clues to how these wines were made and how all the above wineries' more recent products are far better than in the past. In capsule form, the wine-making procedures of the past were a blend of the traditional and the scientific and never the twain should meet.
That is, aging of Chardonnay in oak barrels is de rigueur in France, and California's best scientific minds of the 1970s, at UC Davis, said such aging had to be done in as clean an environment as possible. This meant removing the wine from the lees--the used yeast cells and other matter formed during fermentation--before the wine went into the barrel.
Today, the wine makers all said, long vatting in new barrels without the lees can produce a heavy-as-lead oak aroma, but when the lees are left in contact with the newly made wine, the resulting flavors can be harmonious and less oaky.
Skin and the Aging Process
Moreover, science of the 1970s said that leaving freshly crushed grape juice in contact with the grape skins before fermentation allowed the juice to extract flavor elements from the skins to make the wine richer and more complex.
However, Ramey said, "All that did was give the wine more phenols (tannins) that could oxidize the wine more quickly. Skin contact makes full-bodied whites in their youth, but they don't age."
Ramey has been doing research on the aging cycle of California Chardonnay since 1980, working first with Zelma Long at Simi and now at Matanzas Creek. He said his research showed that giving Chardonnay skin contact meant risking its long-term aging potential.
Gasiewicz pointed out that today's Chardonnays are a little more elegant, too, because of more careful use of oak. "Maybe they're perceived as a little fruitier because they're not being masked by oak as much."
Moreover, said Tolbert, in years past, wineries would do certain procedures every year because if it worked one year, why wouldn't it work the next? "But wine makers are gearing the procedures more to the fruit, doing what they have to do each year based on the conditions of the grapes."
Which means, said Hill, more careful attention to how the grapes grow, such otherwise insignificant elements as how many leaves there are in the canopy above the grape clusters.
The result of all this new thinking is Chardonnay that may not be as obviously luscious on first release, but wine that grows in delicacy and harmony over the next year or two and which isn't dead at age 8. Two examples from the participants: 1985 Haywood Reserve ($12.50) and 1986 Fisher ($11), both wines of delicate fruit and rich flavors balanced by high acid to help them grow majestically in the coming years.