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Napa's Wiry Whites

The Chardonnays of upper Napa Valley disdain the usual oaky, buttery California style.


Chardonnays from the upper Napa Valley are some of California's most distinctive wines. Unfortunately, like most good things, they're in short supply.

Chardonnay was substantially displaced from the upper valley in the 1990s during massive replanting (up to 75% in many vineyards) forced by the phylloxera infestation. The valley's winescape has been dramatically rearranged, with red grapes dominating the upper valley and virtually all Chardonnay concentrated well below Yountville. In that process quite a few former up-valley Chardonnay producers, such as Groth, Chateau Montelena, Grgich Hills, and Sterling (Diamond Mountain Ranch), have largely or completely replanted to red grapes and secured Chardonnay sources farther south.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Most of the upper valley is simply too hot for Chardonnay. And after all, there are luscious Chardonnays from Carneros that combine bright acidity with the broad, soft textures from malolactic fermentation (which softens wine by converting the sharp malic acid component to gentler lactic acid).

There are also more direct and substantial Chardonnays from the lower valley proper around Napa and Yountville, with their fatter, apple/pear-inflected fruit and denser feel on the palate. Fruit from both of those areas is often blended to make Napa Valley Chardonnays that attempt--with considerable success--to be all things to all Chardonnay fans.

Still, against all odds, a dozen or so extraordinary Chardonnays are produced from vineyards in the upper valley and its defining mountainsides. The roster includes Stony Hill, Long, Chappellet, Mayacamas, Newton, Smith-Madrone, Green & Red, El Molino, Chateau Woltner, Forman and Freemark Abbey. These are powerful, rich, often steely Chardonnays with clean floral high notes and a deep savor of minerally soil, reminiscent of Chablis. Such wines express the nature of specific places; they don't necessarily please all the people all the time, but each has its ardent following.

Stony Hill Chardonnay, from the slopes of Spring Mountain above St. Helena, is one of the Napa Valley's most venerable wines. The first vintage was 1950. It has never conformed to the established California style of pedal-to-the-oak Chardonnay. Rather, it is typically a crisp, lean, concentrated wine that ages beautifully for 10 years or more.

At its best (and '97 is a good example) Stony Hill Chardonnay seems like a mouthful of golden light that glows long after the actual liquid slips down one's throat. With age it reveals a delicate perfume that is not quite floral and not quite mineral and yet is of the earth and things that grow in the earth, somehow evoking the giant redwoods and Douglas firs and madrones that frame the estate's various vine blocks.

Fermentation in neutral oak puncheons (some of which have been used in every vintage since 1963, says winemaker Mike Chelini) serves to round and temper the deceptively gentle power of this Chardonnay fruit--but there is no flavor of wood, certainly none of the overt oak flavor that a generation of consumers has come to identify as the flavor of Chardonnay itself. Chelini states that his intention is to make wine that tastes like Chardonnay grapes grown in a particular place on Spring Mountain. "I try to make the wines to remind people of what our vineyards are like, and we won't change styles," he says.

He probably couldn't change the Stony Hill style if he wanted to; his constituency wouldn't stand for it. "In 1980 I bought about 10 new barrels, and longtime customers complained about the taste of oak," he told me. "We could make wine with more oak and do a little better in ratings--we've actually been told that if we want better ratings we should make them fatter with more oak--but the wines wouldn't age as long, and our customers wouldn't like it. Anyway, I think people are getting sick and tired of oaky, buttery character."

What makes Stony Hill Chardonnay work in Cabernet Country is that it's a relatively cool spot in a generally warm area. Abundant ground water (the pioneers didn't call it Spring Mountain for nothing) allows dry farming, which enhances the fruit's capacity for expressing both terroir and vintage. The northeast exposure is open to morning and midday sun, while the high peaks west of the vineyard block the late afternoon inferno. And the altitude, approximately 600 feet off the valley floor, provides relief from the heat spikes that forge some of the valley's best Cabernets lower down.

Surprisingly, though, some of the upper valley's best Chardonnay is grown down there, at the foot of the mountains on the Rutherford Bench. Chardonnay and Cabernet grow side by side in the 60-acre vineyard called Rutherford Star. The vineyard is owned by veteran Napa Valley winemaker Ric Forman, proprietor of Forman Winery, and Reg Oliver, the winemaking partner at El Molino Winery in Calistoga.

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