Thursday, May 3, 2012

Chardonnay round table: On oak, alcohol and more

Check out that alcohol percentage
In June, Santa Barbara County will host a Chardonnay symposium, moderated by Steve Heimoff. I had the opportunity recently to bring together some of the principals behind the symposium to talk about Chardonnay.

I'll be honest: I couldn't resist the opportunity to present Heimoff's seminar nearly two months before he does.

So here's a round table discussion about Chardonnay from some of the leading producers in Santa Barbara County. We tasted a lot of their wines while talking, and I'll have a surprisingly strong statement on that next week, but not today.

Laura Booras-Mosheni, Riverbench: I think Chardonnay got a bad rap. People were used to that oaky, buttery Chardonnay. But when you hit that balance perfectly, it's such a good wine.

Dieter Cronje, Presqui'le: Left alone, Chardonnay's a really good indicator of terroir.

Matt Murphy, Presqui'le: If you pick at the right time from vineyards that have been farmed right.

Gavin Chanin
Gavin Chanin, Chanin Wine Co.: There's a way to make Chardonnay that's so hands-off. Back in '92 a bunch of winemakers did a signature series at Sanford & Benedict, where they all made wine from the same vineyard. The ones that did the simplest winemaking were the ones that aged the best. As winemakers we always want to do something. Fighting that urge is a good thing. Thinking a couple steps ahead is really important. When I rack, I'm thinking about bottling, even though it's six months away ... When I first started working in the valley, people talked about winemaking all day long. Now they talk about vineyards. The future of the county is vineyards.

Me: What do you think of natural wines?

Chanin: I try to portray myself as vineyard-driven rather than natural wine. There's so many natural wines I can't drink. I think I'm a very natural winemaker. But I do it to make better wine. I don't do it to make natural wine.

Me: How important is the influence of critics' scores for Chardonnay?

Chanin: Jim Clendenen made the first vintage of Au Bon Climat "Nuits Blances au Bouge" because he was upset at big Chards getting high ratings. He was making high-acid wines and he put on the label that this wine was for high scores. Sure enough, it got the highest scores. He discontinued it in '05 but brought it back by popular demand in '08.

Me: How is the unoaked Chardonnay trend going for you?

Dick Dore, Foxen: We make an unoaked Chardonnay for our tasting room and it sells out.

Mike Brughelli, Kenneth Volk Vineyards: We make 2000 cases of unoaked Chardonnay. We started with 300 cases. Meeting the demand is difficult.

Booras-Mosheni: It depends on the state. Missouri is one of our best states for unoaked.                          

Chanin: We go to extremes in this country, and this is another one. Unoaked Chardonnay is another extreme.

Me: How do you feel about malo? Personally I like Chardonnay with a touch of French oak, but I'm not a fan of the buttery taste of malo.

Jenny Dore, Foxen: We're all doing less. There's a swing from the '90s when everything was leesy and there was not enough acidity.

Booras-Mosheni: It can be deceiving. Everybody thinks malo can be too rich. I think the big enemy was overoaking. If used correctly, malo can be a great enhancer of Chardonnay. I think oak can be the enemy of Chardonnay.

Dick Dore: When I go out into the market, I go into a retail store and before I leave there's three old ladies who want to buy Rombauer Chardonnay.

Jenny Dore: In this county you have to talk about balance. We have very high acid so you have to get the fruit a little riper to get balance. Our Sea Smoke vineyard is the only one that we don't have control of. It's our highest alcohol wine. It's our most expensive and it gets our highest rating.

Dieter Cronje
Nicholas Miller, Bien Nacido Vineyards: We had a customer (Sans Permis) who only picked on pH. Didn't pay attention to brix at all. His wines had this silky mouthfeel. He got some of that dusty flavor I love. He was shooting for 3.3 pH or higher. Most of the wines here come in at 3.1 (pH). He got great scores. He went out of business for other reasons.

Jenny Dore: It's hypocritical. Buyers say they want lower alcohols but they really want our Sea Smoke Vineyard (wine).

Chanin: Once a wine passes a certain percentage of alcohol you lose the expression of the vineyard.

Me: Does the market for the wine affect the style you make?

Brughelli: I think you have to have your house style.

Miller: I think you just made the case for why we should have the Chardonnay symposium. Somebody out there is paying top dollar for Kistler. The face of what we see of the Chardonnay crowd is the Rombauer crowd. There has never existed a community to take Chardonnay seriously.

Jenny Dore: Chardonnay got a bad reputation and deserved it, by and large. A lot of East Coast buyers will say, I'm so tired of California Chardonnay. Rather than with restaurant buyers, I see it more with retail types. These are the people I love pouring for.

Cronje: Chardonnay might be the most brand-loyal variety out there.

Booras-Mosheni: I think millenials are a little turned off because their parents drink it. But I think it'll come back.

Tell Steve you heard it all before; you just came for the wines.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Blair said...

I went to this last year. The Heimoff panel was one of the better one's I've sat in on....bested maybe only by panels Meadow's does at WOPN. Cool event, pretty well organized and the food was more than they usually have at these events. Felt like I got my money's worth, but if you stay in Santa Maria, hotels are slim pickin'.

Suz said...

True about S. Maria hotels...but the the event is pretty cool. Great panel discussions. Definitely going again this year.

Jessie said...

Sounds like a great event! I think I'll check it out this year!

Greg B. said...

It was a really cool panel discussion moderated by Heimoff and I'm glad to learn that attendees felt the same way. I wish I had been invited back as I would have loved to participate again.

Anonymous said...

Hope to see Greg B.'s wines at the Grand Chardonnay Tasting this year! Following the panel session with Steve Heimoff is a unique opportunity to taste Chardonnay's from over 50 quality producers, along with food pairings and chef demonstrations. Great event and there are actually plenty of hotel rooms within quick driving distance. Definitely going back this year!

Anonymous said...

Glad to see Chardonnay is once again getting the respect it deserves. Thak Blake for bringing this to our attention.

Somoma wine guy said...

Folks talk unoaked. But poured back to back with a subtle new/old oak chard with about 33% ML...guess what? They buy the 'oak' and 'ML' one about 90% of the time. Most customers are burned out on 'critter' and 'wedding' chards and think that is what chardonnay tastes like.

David Vergari said...

"...There has never existed a community to take Chardonnay seriously." Actually, there was an effort made to do this by Sonoma-Cutrer with the "Focus on Chardonnay" seminars in 1986 and 1990, which seems like a millenium ago.

Anonymous said...

The comment about Missouri liking unoaked chard is curious. For better or worse, I live in that state right now. Even fairly sophisticated, engaged wine drinkers love their woody whites here. I would like to see some data on that.

Man About Wine said...

Very nice. Good reading. Since there are so many Chard drinkers, there are so many "communities", or none in fact. People just want to drink good wine, not "belong" to a market segment. I dislike most Calif. Chards and can't afford the 1er Cru Puligny's that I like, but I have started to drink more cheap French Burgs. Maybe not typical behavior, but people are always changing.

Anonymous said...

My statement was the one about Missouri. I was simply referring to it being a great place for unoaked chard for my particular winery's sales (Riverbench). I wasn't speaking for the overall trend in Missouri. Thanks for requesting clarification!

OhioWineGuy/!/Vinewerks said...

Thanks for the commentary. My wife and I love a chilled Chard for summer sipping with light fare. She prefers a lightly oaked variety and I enjoy the different nuances of unoaked versions. We found one we both like from Australia as a "general purpose" or table wine. I like many varieties of wine, but Chardonnay is just a good traditional variety that keeps delivering on a hot summer day.

W. Blake Gray said...

Ohio: Funny, that's not when I want Chardonnay. I love it with rotisserie chicken -- and we have a killer Jordanian chicken place in our 'hood -- but I don't like it super-cold because that kills the nuances. Plus, outside of Chablis it's not a high-acid wine, which is what I want on a hot day.

Personally I like Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, rose, Vinho Verde, other high-acid wines on really hot days. But to each his/her own.

Gillian Conway said...

In many markets in the US, California wines generate strong sentiments from buyers regardless of varietal. While there are a few who don't like California Chardonnay because of how it has been made in the past, I think there has been a shift in buyer mentality recently. They are becoming aware of Chardonnays being made in a style they like or "approve of" (and their eyes are turning more often to the Central Coast). There is an excitement about this shift in style. Chardonnay Symposium is a great opportunity for exposure to these wines, and the producers on the Central Coast who are making excellent, balanced Chardonnays.