Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In Pursuit Of Balance In Chardonnay Wines

Rajat Parr, Matt Licklider, Bob Varner, Gavin Chanin, Jon Bonné
Is Chardonnay wine out of balance in California?  It may seem an unnecessary question, but a seminar held in conjunction with the In Pursuit Of Balance wine tasting event in West Hollywood attempted to answer it at The London Hotel on February 6, 2013.

The seminar offered an exploration - with examples - of what constitutes balance in California Chardonnay.  The panel was moderated by Jon Bonné, wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.

From an essay in the event program, by Wolfgang Weber:

"Balance is the foundation of all fine wine.  Loosely speaking, a wine is in balance when all of its components - fruit, acidity, structure and alcohol - coexist in a manner such that should any one aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed."

Sonoma County wine businesswoman and co-founder of this event, Jasmine Hirsch, kicked off the seminar with a few quick comments and turned things over to Bonné and his winemaker panelists.

Bonné got things rolling with a brief history of Chardonnay in California.  "Around 1981, Chardonnay went from being a specialty grape to being the grape the state is known for."  He turned to Gavin Chanin (right, Chanin Wine) for the question of whether winemakers work with Chardonnay because they want to, or because they have to.

"Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are arguably the two best grapes for showing the terroir of specific vineyards," said Chanin.  "It's a neutral grape.  It adapts itself to winemaking technique, but it also can represent the terroir very easily.  Chanin warned against using winemaking technique to "fix" a wine.  "The trick is not to try and make the wine do what you want, but to find a site that mandates what you want."  For site-conscious winemakers in California, there are few better places to go for fruit that the Santa Maria Valley's Bien Nacido Vineyard.  Chanin's Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 has a nose of minerals, green apple and caramel, all taking their turn appearing.  Great acidity and savory fruit flavors mark the palate.

Matt Licklider (left) served on the panel, with his LIOCO partner, Kevin O'Connor in the audience.  Licklider reminisced, "We bonded while tasting wines in the alley behind Spago, spitting in the drain."  He said they formed LIOCO out of a desire to "identify sites that truly have a vocation for the variety."

When the talk turned to the use of oak barrels in ageing Chardonnay, Licklider claimed, "Oak, to wine, is like salt is to meat.  It brings out the flavor of the meat, but you shouldn't taste the salt."

The LIOCO Hanzell Vineyard Sonoma Valley Chardonnay 2011 has a light, smoky nose, savory fruit and a nutty finish.  Hanzell is a warmer site.  While Licklider and O'Connor prefer cool sites, they felt this vineyard was special.  "We worked for years to make a deal to get these grapes," said Licklider.  "The vineyard contains the oldest continuously producing Chardonnay vines in North America."

The other co-founder of IPOB, sommelier and Sandhi winemaker Rajat Parr, admitted that Chardonnay was his "gateway grape."  "It was the one that got me thinking about what can be done with a specific variety.  You know it had an effect on me - I make 80% Chardonnay."  Parr likes the exuberance of the grapes from the north-facing, cold, foggy Sanford and Benedict Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills.  The Sandhi Sanford and Benedict Chardonnay 2011 offers a tangy nose with a hint of funk and a sour apple palate.

Bob Varner grows his grapes in the northern part of the Santa Cruz Mountains.  His property faces the bay and sits just below the fog line, benefitting from that cooling influence.  His Varner Home Block Chardonnay 2011 is creamy in the mouth and spicy on the tongue.

Anthony Filiberti (left, Anthill Farms, Knez) says the Demuth family had their Chardonnay planted before planting Chardonnay was cool.  Intended for sparkling wine use, they were all set when California Chardonnay hit it big.  "At 1,700 feet, the vines are above the fog, but still cooler than the rest of the Anderson Valley."  The Knez Demuth Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 offered the fruitiest nose of the five samples, with a delicious, slightly sour palate and a nutty finish.

All five wines are truly extraordinary - and balanced - examples of California Chardonnay, and all are barrel fermented.  None, however, have oak as its calling card.  None are lean or austere, either.  Bonné wondered aloud if the winemakers had left the spent yeast cells - lees - in the ageing wine to give a bigger, fuller mouthfeel.  He asked, "Are lees your friends?"  All the winemakers nodded and said, "Yes, best friends."

After the main presentation concluded, a question came from an audience member regarding the potential of classifying Chardonnay in the same way as Riesling.  Bonné quips, "We'll make Chardonnay as popular as Riesling,"  which elicited a good round of laughs from the audience.

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