The Chardonnay Chronicles!

If you’re a reader of this blog, you may have noticed my penchant for utilizing chardonnay as a primary example of the “blaming the varietal for the method” syndrome. Basically, this is a situation in which a perfectly fine varietal gets unduly denigrated because of a preponderance of poorly crafted offerings.

Chardonnay was certainly getting the bum’s rush in Laurie Daniel’s article in the San Jose Mercury News yesterday; specifically, Californian chardonnay. Here is her opening stanza:

“SOMETHING NEEDS to be done about the sad state of California chardonnay. I sample several dozen of them every month, and I hardly ever find one that’s truly interesting or distinctive. A lot of the wines are downright undrinkable, with noticeable alcoholic “heat,” too much residual sugar and/or oak that’s way too aggressive.”

Certainly no mincing of words afoot here. “The sad state of California chardonnay.” Strong words, to say the least. My interest here, however, is not to lobby either for or against her opinion per se, rather, I’d like to (surprise, surprise) talk Ridge chardonnay for a moment, hopefully with the goal of showcasing how attention to site, and the methodologies that should accordingly and logically follow, are capable of producing everything Daniel says most Californian chardonnays do not exhibit; Daniel writes “that too many California Chardonnays are simply boring. In some cases, one bottle is virtually indistinguishable from the next.” What I hope to show here is that, if growers and producers adopt different methodologies both in the vineyard and in the winery, with primary emphasis being put on issues of site-specificity and micro-climatic sensitivity, the resulting wines can potentially show tremendous complexity and individuality. I believe this is what Ridge does, and I think the results speak for themselves.

As a quick aside, I would like to reference a post by Steve Heimoff, who was writing in response to the Daniels article, and who very astutely pointed out matters related to issues of location and methodology. He wrote,

“Someone or something has to take the blame, but who or what? Well, first of all, there are places Chardonnay simply shouldn’t be grown because it’s too hot. I’ve seldom encountered a great Chardonnay from Paso Robles or Lodi, although there are other factors in those places that limit the wine’s potential. Large tracts of central and northern Napa Valley also are unsuitable, as is Sonoma Valley as you move north from the Carneros.”

As with Daniels, I am not interested in arguing for or against his stand here, but I did appreciate Heimoff’s comments for two reasons; 1. He very quickly focuses in on the issue of location, and 2. Steve is actually a self-avowed chardonnay fan, and as such, I think his commentary is all the more poignant. (“I’ve said many times that I’m a Chardonnay lover. Never have been an ABC guy, never will be. And when I say Chardonnay, I mean Burgundian Chardonnay: barrel fermentation, new oak, sur lies and battonage, the whole works.” –Steve Heimoff)

And one last thing to note; Ridge was not mentioned in either the Daniels article or the Heimoff post. I am simply hoping to spin off their writings as a mechanism for discussing the singular hows and why of Ridge chardonnay, and why I think these methodologies, properly deployed, can potentially serve to avert in some fashion the downward reputational spiral that Californian chardonnay seems to be on.

Before putting my own two cents in, I’d like to begin with a little outside affirmation that what Ridge is doing with the Chardonnay program seems to be of some value in the wine world at large. Not that reviews from the wine media are necessarily any sort of be-all/end-all proof of quality, but again, I do think they constitute a certain degree of external confirmation, and are accordingly of a reasonable degree of merit. So, that said, I am very happy to note the following as regards recent vintages of our chardonnays:

–2007 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Chardonnay:
93 points, Wine Spectator
Year’s Best, Wine & Spirits

–2006 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Chardonnay:
90 points, Wine Spectator
90 points, Wine & Spirits

–2005 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Chardonnay
#2 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 of the year, 2007

–2006 Monte Bello Chardonnay
“Best of the West” Sunset Magazine

–2000 Monte Bello Chardonnay
90 points, Robert Parker

More than ratings and awards, however, I’d like to highlight the sorts of descriptors that are used in the tasting notes for all the above:

“…elegant, delicate mouthfeel, showing deep layers of ripe fig and green pear…”
“…balanced, focused, pure and lingering…”
“…a sleek, high-altitude white…”
“…layers of spice, fig, honeysuckle and honeydew melon. Clean and refreshing, with light oak shadings…”
“…plenty of rich, vibrant, smooth and concentrated pear, fig and melon flavors…”
“…pineapple notes intermixed with hazelnuts … with enough underlying acidity to provide delineation…”

And so on. Mainly, no sign of buttery popcorn and the like …

Anyhow, on to my two cents:

First, site-specificity. Our chardonnays are mountain fruit, grown in an ostensibly cool climate milieu, below a fog line. This singular combination of high heat in the days, but cool weather at night, makes for both substantive ripening AND natural retention of acidity. The result? A full-bodied, viscous mouthfeel that nonetheless manages to be vibrant, crisp, and expresses both lively citricity and weightily playful tropicality.

Next, as a sub-factor to site-specificity, soil type. Per winemaker Eric Baugher’s notes, what we have here is “Decomposing Franciscan green stone mixed with clay/loam over fractured limestone sub-soils.” Meaning, our chardonnays express a complex array of mineral components not normally seen in flatland/warm climate chardonnays.

Next again, yeast. Our chardonnays are wild-yeast fermented, relying entirely on natural yeasts present in the vineyards for both primary and secondary fermentation. The result, rather than the predictable mono-dimensionality that can often afflict inoculated chardonnay, is a veritably potpourri of yeast influences that add again to the overall complexity on offer.

And next again, yields. With a fully hand-harvested/primarily dry-farmed model in place, our vineyard yields are down around the 2.5 ton/acre realm; a model that consistently favors quality over quantity; concentration and character over dissipation and dilution.

And on to harvesting; in order to tap the full spectrum of singularities on offer in the peculiar topography of our vineyards, we sub-divide the property into much smaller parcels, each of which is harvested and fermented separately, allowing for the final assemblage of the wines to be a parcel-assemblage. Again, more complexity is the result.

And how about barrel program? All of our barrels are air-dried, with two goals in mind: elimination of the more aggressive tannins, and the absorption of site-specific microbial content. Add to this the deployment of a diverse selection of barrel ages (for example, the 2007 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Chardonnay aged in the following: 29% new, 43% one and two years, 28% three, four and five years old barrels), and yet again, more opportunities to tap and exploit available complexities.

Lastly, filtration. Or, in the case of our chardonnays, the lack of it. The premise being, if I may be so blunt, is that if you take something OUT of the chardonnay, you’re taking something OUT of the chardonnay!

So there you have it, at least in brief. A short chronicle of site-specific and site-sensitive methodologies designed to naturally tap what is naturally on offer in a property that is a natural for producing complex and singular chardonnay.

Or so I think. One man’s semi-humble opinion, as it were.

And to close, a hearty cheers to chardonnay! I don’t know as I’d go so far as Heimoff does when he writes, “Chardonnay is the world’s greatest white grape …”, but it’s certainly one of the finest!

Oh, and just one last thing to note: as part of our Monte Bello flight, we regularly pour the Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Chardonnay in the Monte Bello Tasting Room, and currently, in honor of its astonishingly culinary companionability with the archetypal autumn table (think Thanksgiving Dinner; root vegetables, starches, poultry, gravy-based dishes, sage, rosemary, etc.) we are pouring the very new and very wonderful 2006 Monte Bello Chardonnay! So come up, come in, and let’s talk chardonnay!


Categories: Chardonnay, Press Reviews, Tasting Notes, Varietals & Blends, Vineyards, Wine Blogs, Winemaking

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3 replies

  1. It does seem odd that someone writing for the San Jose Mercury News can find examples of distinctive, interesting Chardonnays from all over the state, but apparently can’t cite any from the AVAs that she can see from her own front door.

    The state may be awash with boring, formulaic examples, but few if any are coming from here.

  2. SameOl…SameOl…
    I generally like Laurie’s writings. But this one is just the same old tired rehash of a common theme that probably every wine writer in the country has written on in the last few yrs. They’re too alcoholic…they have too much oak…they taste like buttered popcorn…yada yada yada.
    My response to the time-worn diatribe is “If you think Calif Chard is so bad…then you’re drinking the wrong Chards”. I find that there are plenty of formulaic Chards out there, but it doesn’t take much searching to find one that is interesting and tasty. The Ridges, of course….but there are plenty of others as well. And…some even from…gasp….Lodi.
    Part of the problem is that Chard is really a rather neutral grape. I don’t think it reflects much the terroir, despite SteveHeimhoff’s statement. And when all the winemakers use pretty much all the same winemaking techniques..voila..they often taste much the same.
    I find the claim by many of the wine writers that all Calif Chards taste the same as rather amusing. But, then, these very same wine writers decry the poor sales of Calif Syrah as being due to the great range in styles and character they display..that the poor/dumb consumer never knows what to expect when they open a Calif Syrah, they get so confused and, therefore, don’t buy them.
    So…which do they want??
    End of rant on wine writers!!!!

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