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California Chardonnays Getting Benefit of Technology


More experimentation has been undertaken in California with the Chardonnay grape in the last decade and a half than all other grape varieties combined.

Using trial and error and some modern technology, wine makers have tried one procedure after another to extract the most from this Burgundian variety, and some have improved their technique significantly. Among the beneficiaries of this tinkering are such old hands as Chateau St. Jean and Louis Martini.

The 1987 Chardonnays from St. Jean and Martini are impressive, and structured quite differently from past efforts. Both Dick Arrowood, wine maker at St. Jean in Sonoma, and Mike Martini, wine maker for his family-owned Napa winery, admit that they didn't make particularly great Chardonnays until recently.

To hear that admission from Martini is no shock: the Martini Winery has, for the last half century, been known largely for its age-worthy red wines. (I have loved a lot of Martini's white wines, notably the Gewurztraminer and Chenin Blanc, but others were less successful.)

Known for Chardonnays

But for Arrowood to admit that his latest releases are significantly better than his wines of just a few years ago is quite something. Through the 1970s, Chateau St. Jean was considered the foremost producer of exceptional Chardonnays. Yet tasting the latest St. Jean wines, from the 1987 vintage, it's clear that Arrowood has changed for the better.

"If you don't keep an open mind in this business, you're dead," said the bearded Arrowood at lunch at Kenwood Bar and Grill, just down the road from his Sonoma Valley winery.

He said that as he tasted some of his older vintages, he noticed that some of them weren't aging particularly gracefully. The wines of the late 1970s, for example, were falling apart.

I had also experienced that within the last two years. I found a number of perfectly stored bottles of 1978 and 1979 St. Jean Chardonnays overwhelmingly disappointing. They were all but undrinkable at eight years of age.

Knew 'Something Was Wrong'

Arrowood explained the apparent paradox of being considered a great Chardonnay producer but one who knew something was wrong: "Our wines (Chardonnays) were very flattering up front, right after release," he said, and he acknowledged that because some fermentations never fully finished, some wines actually had traces of residual sugar, "and that made them very likeable."

Yet as he tasted his older wines, he saw changes that only someone who works for the winery can see, for only they have the opportunity to taste perfectly stored bottles of the same wine often.

The wines were fading faster than anticipated.

For one thing, the overt buttery components that were so attractive when the wines were young gave way to a slightly plastic aroma as the wines aged. And oxidation was more rapid.

One culprit was skin contact--the act of giving the grape juice contact with the grape skins for 12 hours or more right after crushing.

Avoid Premature Aging

"By 1982, we realized we had to change things, to get away from the premature aging we were beginning to see," Arrowood continued. But the early years were hard ones financially for St. Jean, even though it was considered one of California's top producers. The equipment Arrowood wanted, to make better wine, was simply too expensive.

It was then not known for sure what factors were at play, but work done by Zelma Long at Simi Winery and others showed that if a winery wanted to leave the must--the fermenting grape juice--in contact with the skins for added flavor, it had to be done at very cool temperatures.

To do this required a "must chiller," a piece of equipment that costs roughly a quarter of a million dollars. St. Jean didn't have that kind of money until the founding Merzoian family sold the company to Suntory of Japan in 1984.

Purchased by Suntory

Suntory provided the funds for the must chiller in 1985, and that was the first year Arrowood had the luxury of making better wine. It gave him the flexibility to try other techniques too.

Today, his 1987 Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay ($16) offers more fruit than oak, more citrus than pineapple, and is simply a more complete wine. It may not be as rich or obvious a wine as in the past, but it's clearly better balanced.

Arrowood credits Henry Dick and his son, Ron, who run the Belle Terre Ranch in Alexander Valley. Arrowood says they rank with the best growers in the state for delivery of clean, bright fruit.

Also better than past vintages is St. Jean's 1987 Chardonnay from the Robert Young Vineyard ($20), a more forceful, apple/peach sort of wine with a load of depth. Again, the wine is marked by better balance than in the past.

Martini never has done as much to extract deep concentrated flavors from his Chardonnay, but when I tasted his 1987 (released six months ago), I was intrigued enough to call Mike and ask him, "What did you do differently?"

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