Sunday, February 23, 2020

West Coast Chardonnay

A few years back, at the height of the wine craze, the antis dreamed up a catchy slogan for those wine drinkers who didn't particularly like a certain white wine. They called it the "ABC's"... Anything But Chardonnay.                                            

The catchphrase has mostly faded from the wine conversation, but demand for Chardonnay has not. In fact, Chardonnay continues to hold the dominant position as these recent numbers of Chardonnay acreage in California, Washington and Oregon, clearly show: California is the leader with 93,000 acres of Chardonnay planted, although the
white grape just edges out Cabernet Sauvignon by a few hundred acres, Pinot Gris, is a distant second with 17,000 acres, then Sauvignon Blanc, 15,200 acres; Washington state has 7,400 acres of Chardonnay, with Riesling second at 6,000 acres; Oregon is the only west coast state where Chardonnay comes in second with 2,000 acres behind Pinot Gris, showing a total of 4,800 acres.

Not long ago, Pinot Grigio from Italy was a trendy white wine, but now, I'm surprised to see that Pinot Gris is so widely planted in Oregon and California.

Even with challengers like Pinot Gris (and Sauvignon Blanc), the sustaining popularity of Chardonnay doesn't wane. Name the major wine region in the world and you'll find Chardonnay. Even in those traditional areas where only native varieties were permitted (and preferred), Chardonnay has made inroads. And that reminds me...

(Before his now famous Gaia & Rey Chardonnay stunned the wine world for its quality
(and price, $193), especially coming from a place where red wine is the tradition, Angelo  Gaja told me about planting the unauthorized Chardonnay in Barbaresco and that his father not only didn't want to hear about his son's non-traditional venture, but it took a long time before the father consented to taste the son's wine.)

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Angelo Gaja and Gaia & Rey Chardonnay

Gaja's father was a man of his generation, a staunch believer of only Nebbiolo and only Barbaresco in his northern Italy wine region. That attitude represents what is accepted as Old World, meaning anywhere in Western Europe. The opposite position is New World or everywhere else. 

Although Chardonnay is grown throughout the Old World, the world market sees the white wine as mostly French white Burgundy. The focus here, though, will be on Chardonnay along the west coast of North America, especially California, Oregon and Washington. There are, of course, other places in the United States where Chardonnay is grown, such as New York state, Virginia, Michigan and some places in New England and Pennsylvania.

California, one might say, is awash in Chardonnay. The variety is planted in every wine region in the state, from Mendocino and Lake counties in the north, Monterey County and  Santa Barbara County in the south. Enterprising growers have found pockets to nurture Chardonnay in the Sierra Foothills, Livermore, San Diego and in the warmer Central Valley, a source of Chardonnay for jug wines. 

The most desirable Chardonnay is grown in coastal areas, where the vines are cooled by fog off the Pacific. This moderating influence allows the grapes to develop flavor ripeness, balanced by good acidity. Sonoma's Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley and Carneros, along with Napa Valley, Mendocino, Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County, Santa Maria Valley and Santa Barbara County, are prime spots for this style of crisp focused Chardonnay.

In the 1990s, the main gripe about California Chardonnay was too much oak, too much alcohol and too much over-the-top fruit. "Fruit bomb" was the derogatory term often heard. Winemakers eventually backed away from that style, allowing for more balanced wines, although some say that alcohols are still too high. Today, Chardonnay from the cooler parts of California emphasizes citrus and ripe apples, while warmer areas show more honey and ripe pear. French oak is preferred, for barrel fermentation and aging, with the best wines using oak as a component part and not the dominant flavor. 

Washington Chardonnay is, perhaps, more Burgundian in style, than California. Growers  in the vast Columbia Valley have long experimented with Chardonnay clones, and unlike Oregon where the preference is for French clones such as Dijon, Washington has relied on clonal materials from California's UC-Davis that were developed for Washington's unique growing conditions. Although parts of the Columbia Valley are high desert, there are cooler places, such as the Wahluke Slope, Cold Creek, Canoe Ridge, where Chardonnay fits in. 

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Texture in Washington Chardonnay is defined as leaner, less vanilla cream than California Chardonnay. Fruit notes tend to be green apple and citrus, with mineral accents. Add a touch or two of toasted oak and it becomes a different wine. It's worth noting that a number of Washington wineries make an unoaked Chardonnay, as well as an oaked version. 

Oregon wine has traditionally been known for two things: a marginal growing climate for wine grapes and an affinity with Burgundy. Because growing conditions are more marginal and wetter in Oregon, growers and winemakers have always had to work harder than their colleagues in Washington and California. But they have adapted, producing world famous Pinot Noir and building a reputation for other wines such as Chardonnay. 

It hasn't always been easy for Chardonnay in Oregon, mainly some say, because it was planted in the wrong places. To compensate, wineries began to promote Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. Now, though, crisp, well balanced lightly oaked Chardonnay has come into its own.

If you've been swayed by the "ABCs," it's time to give Chardonnay another look, especially West Coast Chardonnay.


Next Blog: Rediscovering New York wine

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