Thursday, January 6, 2011

No oak please!

Chardonnay is by far the most popular white wine in California, so it’s no surprise that it’s the most widely planted green grape variety in the state. However, it wasn’t in the past – few grape growers planted this variety in the 1960s, and those who did, were recommended not to. The change came in the 1970s, and even more in the 1980s, when Chardonnay took its first steps to its present glory. Over the years, the oak fermented wine from Chardonnay had become the most typical California white wine. Also, the style changed into something very different from what was found in the rest of the world from this classic variety. The American winemakers had finally defined their own style for the beloved Chardonnay. The wines were now riper (most of them were often harvested at high Brix levels), richer and seasoned with sweetish and toasted oak. At first, everybody seemed to like them, and sales skyrocketed.
In the early 90s, a change came – a movement known as ABC, Anything But Chardonnay, came. More and more, consumers had enough of the sweetish, overly ripe and rich, and oaky chardonnays. In Australia some winemakers started to ferment Chardonnay in stainless steel tanks and labeled the wines as “Unoaked Chardonnay”, a style that over the years gained popularity. In the mid 90s, dry and crisp wines of aromatic grape varieties such as Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and Albariño came in fashion just because they were crisp and always unoaked. More than the ABC movement, this new trend “forced” winemakers of Chardonnay to change their philosophies.
Since then, I’ve seen this change at almost all wineries I have visited. In a long term perspective, vineyards have been planted in cooler areas than in the past to get grapes of this new, more elegant quality. But equally important, grapes are now harvested at lower Brix to retain a fresh natural acidity (and avoid acidification), to get lower alcohol levels, keep more bright fruit flavors and more floral notes, and to give an overall better balance. In the wine cellars, some winemakers started to work with cold soak to extract more aromatic compounds from the grape skins, but more important, the use of vessels for fermentation changed dramatically.
From using one hundred percent oak, and a high proportion of that would be new oak, winemakers moved into more neutral oak (one to five year old barrels) and larger barrels, or even into stainless steel tanks, smaller steel drums or cement eggs. At first, this was only done for wines in moderate price levels, but in the early 2000s, more and more high end unoaked chardonnays (20 dollars, and above) were introduced on the market. At Melville Estate in Santa Rita Hills, winemaker Greg Brewer started to make a very crisp Chardonnay Cuvée Inox, which inspired him to make a series of chardonnays fermented in steel and neutral oak under his own label Diatom. In Russian River Valley, Marimar Torres started to make her Chardonnay Acero, fully fermented in stainless steel. These pioneer wines, and many more with them, are now just part of what is widely seen on the market – fresh, crisp and aromatic chardonnays with no or just little oak.

2008 Chardonnay from Rivino Winery / 88 p
From the 80 hectares Schrader Ranch located between US 101 and Russian River in Redwood Valley in the heartland of Mendocino, Jason McConnell and his wife Susanne Jahnke-McConnell started to make small amount of wine in 2008. The ranch was bought in 1993 by Gordon Jahnke, a law professor from British Columbia in Canada, but he had no intention to make wine. Instead grapes were sold to other wineries, among them Kendall-Jackson. Still around 95 percent of the grapes are sold, but under the stewardship of Jason McConnell, who started to make some wine for fun in 2005, there’s now a tiny production of around 1 300 cases per year.
The grapes, only Dijon clones from Block 2 close to the river, were harvested at 24 Brix, and whole cluster pressed. The juice was then cold settled at 8 degrees Celsius for a few days before it was fermented for almost a month at low temperatures in a small stainless steel tank. There were no malolactic fermentation and no bâtonnage during the ageing, and the acidity feels a bit higher than the 5.6 grams per liter there is. This first vintage is a wonderful effort, it’s totally dry, fresh and ultra pure with notes of brownish-green pears (just like you’ll find in white burgundies), lemon and almonds as well as the steel itself. It's a very attractive wine.
Drink it 2011-2014.

2007 Chardonnay from Roederer Estate / 87 p
No wonder Roederer Estate in the cooler northern part of Anderson Valley is one of the best sparkling producers outside of Champagne. The climate is considered cool by Californian standards, but not as cold as in Champagne, still this wine shows a quite European structure and fruit flavor. Grapes are all estate grown, harvested at low Brix in mid September and then pressed in whole bunches. After débourbage, the juice is transferred into stainless steel tanks (80 percent) and neutral French oak barrels to ferment. The latter fraction goes through malolactic fermentation, the stainless steel one not. Tasted completely blind, one would never put this wine in California – unless you have tasted a Californian wine like this before. It’s more like the wines of Mâconnais in the southern part of Burgundy, well, not totally. It doesn’t have that kind of minerality. There’s not a single note of oak, just that fine texture that the ageing in oak, on lees, results in. It’s delicious, light and fresh, a bit short, but very elegant. The only sad thing is that production is only 200 cases, and that the wine only is sold in the tasting room at Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley. And when you are there, take the opportunity to buy some of their great sparkling wines!
Drink it 2011-2014.

2008 Chardonnay Del Lago from Ceago Vinegarden / 87 p
Ceago Vinegarden is the new home for Jim Fetzer, past president and co-owner of Fezter Vineyards before the family sold it to Browne-Forman. In 2001 he bought a 66 hectare walnut ranch close to Clear Lake in Lake County. Here he cleared land to plant 20.25 hectares of vines and made his first wine (a Cabernet Sauvignon) in 2005. This is Sauvignon Blanc and red wine country, but this wine is proof of the potential of Chardonnay. Grapes are whole cluster pressed, and the juice is the completely fermented in stainless steel tanks, but left on the lees for some months to gain texture. It’s a lovely unoaked chardonnay – very pure, crisp and fresh with notes of lemon (almost sweetish lemons) and Granny Smith, it has that typical steely character, but also some complex notes of almonds that don’t come from oak – it’s either terroir or the effect of the lees. The finish is long, and very elegant.
Drink it 2011-2013.

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