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An Unusual Heritage for an Exceptional California Chardonnay

January 26, 1989|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

Owning a major and respected chateau in the heart of Bordeaux and making one of the most desired red wines in the world might seem like the dream of a lifetime, but for Francis and Francoise DeWavrin-Woltner, something was missing.

That something was Chardonnay. You can't make Chardonnay in Bordeaux. At least, French law says you can't. And Francis, in particular, was fascinated with the white grape of Burgundy.

The DeWavrin-Woltners owned Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion and its companion white-wine property, Chateau Laville Haut-Brion, both in the Graves district of Bordeaux. Both the red and the white wines are acclaimed as among the finest in the world. But the white is a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. It is not Chardonnay.

The greatness of La Mission Haut-Brion was achieved between 1919 and the early 1980s. First, Frederic Woltner and then his sons, Henri and Fernand, brought the property worldwide recognition for wine greatness.

The Peak of Excellence

It was while Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion was at its peak of excellence, then being run by Fernand's daughter, Francoise, and her husband, that I met Francis in San Francisco in early 1980.

Francis was simply gurgling about a plot of land he had just visited. "It's on Howell Mountain," he said with a gleam in his eyes. "You know Howell Mountain, on the east side of the Napa Valley. You can produce fantastic Chardonnay there."

I thought it unusual that a man so renowned for the stature of the red wines, and for the marvelous white wine of Graves, would find so fascinating this remote region of the Napa Valley, nearer to a town called Angwin than to more famous St. Helena. In 1980, Howell Mountain had no reputation whatever for white wines.

In 1980, Howell Mountain was gaining fame for its hearty red wines, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Not for Chardonnay.

Little did I know then that Francis was serious about his love for this particular plot of California soil, and for the Napa Valley in general. So serious, in fact, that he bought a 181-acre parcel of land in 1980 and began planting Chardonnay grapes.

Sold to Dillon

Then in 1983, the full impact of our little meeting hit me: La Mission Haut-Brion and Laville Haut-Brion were being sold. The DeWavrin-Woltners were moving to the Napa Valley, but leaving the locks, stock and barrels behind.

And the buyer of the two French properties? None other than an American, C. Douglas Dillon, New York banker; ambassador to France, 1953-57; undersecretary of state, 1958-61, and secretary of the Treasury, 1961-65.

And, incidentally, also owner of Chateau Haut-Brion, the world famous chateau that sits right across the street from the La Mission property.

It is, obviously, ironic that an American would own two such famed French wine-producing houses and that a French family would move to California to make wine. But what's even more of a curiosity is that the property founded here, called Chateau Woltner, now makes the highest-priced Chardonnay yet released in the state.

That fact irks Francis, and he wants to keep everything in perspective: "Our Titus Vineyard wine is only 7% of our production, and we do make a much less expensive wine, too."

Less Is More

A thought well noted, except for the fact that the cheapest of the Chateau Woltner Chardonnays is $24, making it merely the fourth or fifth most expensive Chardonnay in the state.

Costs to make these wines are, however, very high, DeWavrin points out. He notes that the young vines yield only tiny amounts of grapes because they are so heavily pruned. The DeWavrin-Woltner team operates on the theory that less is more. That is, the fewer grapes you get from an acre of land, the more intense the flavors in the wine will be.

The first wines from Chateau Woltner were released in 1985 and they were limited in quantity (just 2,151 cases made of all three designations), they were controversial in quality, and expensive. The 1986s were of significantly better quality, but more expensive still, and now the 1987 wines are ready for late spring release and are even more expensive.

Since supply and price are linked, prices are high. Just 2,150 cases of the Estate Reserve were produced in 1987; only 883 cases of the St. Thomas were made, and 309 cases of the Titus were made.

The 1987 wines are, also, exceptional in quality. But they are not, as you might expect, typical California-like expressions of fruit. There is no banana, apple, pear or peach flavors here. Nor is there the traditional toasty, buttery or butterscotch elements of some California Chardonnays that are chewy and unctuous. Nor are they flabby.

No, instead these wines remind me more of Burgundy than Napa. The scents are distinctly complex and include elements such as juniper and a trace of sandalwood. But trying to compare these wines to other fruits or vegetables simply can't do justice to the fact that they simply taste like great French white Burgundy.

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