Sunday, December 13, 2009

Chardonnays from De Tierra Vineyards

The question will be asked over and over again, and there is not really one true and adequate answer to it. Could, or even should, a Californian chardonnay taste like white burgundy?

Well, to be honest, the monks of Burgundy didn’t invent quality, nor did they apply for a patent on terroir or mineral notes in wine. However, the general assumption is that white burgundies are lighter and less oaky than most Californian whites, and that might be true in 99 percent of the cases, but it's not true that one couldn’t find terroir and true quality in California. I could easily give dozens or even a hundred examples on that – and for sure I will – but this time I stay with one, the small but impressive one-man-show of De Tierra Vineyards in Monterey.
This small winery produce just 5 000 cases per year, and the mind behind is the talented David Coventry (he is co-owner with Tom Russel, owner of a huge vegetable operation). His taste is more driven towards finesse, high acid, lower alcohol and a moderate use of new oak, and above all of that – the expression of the wines birthplace. Or terroir, my dear Francophile friends!
The range includes Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and even Merlot, and some small lots of outstanding sweet wines. And I really like them all!

2008 Tin Man Chardonnay / 90 p
This wine is a great example on what Chardonnay will taste like when the winemaker relies on what so popular is called a “hands off winemaking”. However, David doesn’t go all in for stainless steel fermentation, like so many other winemakers do today. Instead the gentle whole cluster pressed juice is fermented in a combination of steel drums and neutral French oak barrels, and the wine is then transferred to another set of neutral French oak barrel for nine months. There is no lees stirring here – therefore the wine has a fine, dry and crisp structure.
What is just great with this wine is that the steely and neutral character is combined with a silky and slightly richer texture from the oak fermented fraction of the wine, but there is no actual taste of the oak. Another thing that has added some complexity in this steely chardonnay is the ageing on the lees. Most steel fermented wines lacks complexity due to a too short ageing. This doesn’t. It’s a very fine example of a modern, well made and perfectly balanced almost lesser oaked chardonnay. Drink it 2009-2011.

2007 Chardonnay Coast View Vineyard / 93 p
Okay, let’s make a statement here. There are normally no relationship between Californian chardonnays and white burgundies, but here you have one! Still young, the color is of course very pale with a greenish rim, not golden like many oak fermented whites so often are. Then we have the nose, and tasted at “normal” serving temperature (10-12 degrees Celsius) it shows just lovely, with a just a slight touch of the oak and a ripe but cool climate scented fruitiness. But what struck me, was the mineral notes on the nose. They really reminded me on what is to be found in premier crus of Puligny-Montrachet from producers such as Domaine Louis Carillon and Château de Puligny-Montrachet. Tasted almost two hours later, at 20 degrees Celsius, the wine was even more burgundian in style. Not many Californian chardonnays will do that – they will taste flat and oaky (exceptions are the ones from Kistler, Marcassin, Kongsgaard, Stony Hill, and Chalone).
On the palate, it’s completely dry, very fresh with a notable high acidity (although full malolactic fermentation) and the mineral notes are even more expressed throughout the long taste. It’s truly a great wine, at least if you believe in terroir, and like it. I guess Robert Parker and James Lauby will be of a very different opinion, but who cares?
The grapes are sourced from the highest elevated vineyard of Monterey, on the eastern slopes of Gavilan Mountains, some 45 kilometers north of from Chalone. The soil is almost pure limestone, hence the exceptional mineral notes, and the wine has been fermented in French oak, mostly Francois Frères and Seguin Moreau, but only 40 per cent new barrels. No malolactic fermentation and no lees stirring. And that recipe results in a great wine! Drink it 2009-2013.

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