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Tasting Notes

The Central Coast--Our New Chardonnay Country


No one carries on about Chardonnay these days. Pinot Noir and Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel--those are the grapes that dominate conversations about wine and are the leading candidates to separate you from some serious money. Talk about new Chardonnay discoveries to a group of serious wine drinkers and most of them will roll their eyes at the thought of yet another ripe, oaky bottling from yet another winery.

But if you truly care about wine, it is a mistake to dismiss Chardonnay--and not just because of the famous (and expensive) ones from Napa and Sonoma, and not just because it continues to be the most consumed variety of all.

In fact, after tasting hundreds of Chardonnays from California, Washington and Oregon, I found many exceptional wines from California's Central Coast. These have long stood out for their direct fruitiness and exquisite balance. But now, I'm also discovering increasing numbers that also have complexity and ageworthiness.

They are examples of world-class winemaking, and the results of proven vineyards and maturing winemakers. The potential has always been there, and it has not been missed by Central Coast stalwarts such as Au Bon Climat and Ojai, Byron and Chalone. The difference is that today, those revered names are being joined by others who are building on the experiences of those that led the way.

The best of the new breed boast great concentration and plenty of ripeness. They no longer rely on the immediate fruitiness and tropical notes so easily captured in the best locations of the area. Along with their deeper, broader fruit has come fuller-bodied wines and an ability to integrate oaky richness without giving in to the toasty and caramelized vanillin notes that the barrel contributes.

New names like Testarossa and Clos La Chance, Lafond and Varner have joined the ranks of wineries that are creating a Chardonnay dynasty in the Central Coast. Napa and Sonoma no longer rule the Chardonnay roost.

** 2000 Clos La Chance "Vanumanutagi Vineyard," Santa Cruz Mountains, $28. Don't be put off by the decidedly hazy appearance of this wine. It is filled with a rich, complex mix of flavors and aromas: graham cracker, creme brulee and ripe, appley fruit. This is not a wine for those seeking grace and elegance, but it will find willing takers among those who revel in intensity and richness.

$* 2000 Lafond Vineyard "SRH," Santa Ynez Valley, $16. Hailing from the cool, coastal Santa Rita Hills area (hence SRH), this wine adds oaky richness to comparatively compact fruit. It has a lightly smoky aroma and just a touch of dryness in the finish. Overall, a good value.

$* 2000 Rosenblum Cellars "Paragon Vineyard," Edna Valley, $19. This wine and the Vine Cliff below stand as northern winery tributes to Central Coast grapes. Here, Bay Area Zinfandel expert Rosenblum has captured Meyer lemon and pineappley fruit notes to go along with hints of roasted grains and lightly toasted oak. The wine is somewhat oily and round in texture, but balanced with energy and firmness.

$** 2000 Talley Vineyards, Arroyo Grande Valley, $22. This is not the first time I have praised a Talley Chardonnay: They are among the best-balanced Chardonnays in California. This latest effort starts with pleasing aromas of lees, rich oak and ripe citrus and green apple, and follows with deep flavors. It is the biggest and richest of the Talley regular-bottling Chardonnays so far.

*** 2000 Testarossa Vineyard "Bien Nacido Vineyard," Santa Maria Valley, $32. A big and compelling wine in every way, this highly oaked Chardonnay is brimming with honeyed fruit. Yet it also carries near-perfect acidity and never becomes plodding or heavy-footed. A fine example of the new breed; give it a try.

** 2000 Testarossa Vineyard "Michaud Vineyard," Chalone, $34. This wine, from grapes grown in the mountains on the east side of the Salinas Valley in the Chalone district, is the restrained relative to its Santa Maria sibling. It is bright and firmly structured, and reflects its terroir with flavors of minerals, roasted grains, toast and honeyed fruit. In a year or two, it should open up a bit.

** 2000 Varner "Spring Ridge Vineyard, Bee Block," Santa Cruz Mountains, $30. Like so many of the leading contenders from the Central Coast, this wine is no shrinking violet. It is simply overflowing with sweet ripe fruit and extravagant oak, with lemony and herbal highlights. But its plushness comes at the expense of a bit of heat in the finish.

** 2000 Vine Cliff "Bien Nacido Vineyard," Santa Maria Valley, $36. Napa Valley's Vine Cliff has produced a very well-made wine from one of Central California's most exceptional vineyards. Despite a slightly acidic tendency and a touch of finishing coarseness, this deep, ripe and balanced effort mixes bright, rich notes and vital, energetic flavors.

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