Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Austerity is in for Napa Carneros Chardonnay

Remember when Carneros Chardonnay was buttery? Those days are mostly over.

Recently I took part in a private tasting of more than 30 Napa Carneros Chardonnays under WSET rules, which I wrote about here. I was supposed to be paid (check IS in the mail, right), but the downside of that is, I couldn't keep my notes. All I have is the general impression, but it's a powerful one.

Austerity is in for Napa Carneros Chardonnay.

None of the wines we tasted had the rich, buttery taste Rombauer has made famous. (Note: We didn't actually taste Rombauer, though most of its grapes come from Carneros.)

Even more surprising, very few wines tasted of French oak. Sometimes people put "oaky and buttery" together as a descriptor, but they are very different. Malolactic fermentation that causes butteriness is often prevented in the world's greatest Chardonnays, whereas toasty oak is more often a welcome component. But most of these wines tasted of citrus fruit, alcohol and acidity.

At the end of the tasting, I wondered if this is the best path for Carneros Chardonnay.

These were not cheap wines. The ones I recognized after the tasting were all over $35; some were over $50. In between flights, I discussed these wines with the sommeliers around me. We found most of them surprisingly similar. I graded most of the wines between 86 and 88 points and so did the sommelier next to me. It's not a bad score, but it doesn't indicate the kind of wine you seek out at that price either.

Imagine trying to make very ripe Chardonnay grapes into a Chablis-style wine. That's what many of these taste like. The problem is the alcohol is apparent, with no toast or butter to cover it up. And I would bet that many of the wines have added acid, because the acidity also stood out in a way that you don't expect from big-bodied wines.

I hadn't tasted a lot of Carneros Chardonnays together in a decade, and the last time I did, the wines were boozy and buttery as a group. Now they're just boozy. Granted, personally I'd rather drink that.

But I wonder what the Carneros Chardonnay consumer wants. Rombauer's fans are some of the best-informed wine drinkers in the U.S. They know what they like, and they know Rombauer makes it. Maybe there isn't room for competition in that space.

However, oak and malo are NOT the same. Carneros Chardonnay may not be right for austerity. Don't throw the barrels out with the bacteria.

UPDATE: I still don't have a check, but I did get a list of my scores, and here are the Napa Carneros Chardonnays I most liked. It turns out they're more expensive as a group than I thought:
Hudson Estate Chardonnay 2014 ($65) Buy it here
Bouchaine Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 ($50) Buy it here
Artesa Block 92 Chardonnay 2015 ($55; can't find it online yet)
Patz and Hall Hudson Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 (price n/a)
ZD Reserve Chardonnay 2015 ($62) Buy it here

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Melanie said...

Can you list the wines that you tasted? Or maybe direct me to the list? Just wondering.

Man About Wine said...

Blake, how good do you think you are at detecting added acid? No I am not being snarky. Every taster has strong and weak points and I have learned to be real good at some but not all. I think I am good at acidification and TCA for instance but not as good on lacticity. To coin a new word.

W. Blake Gray said...

Melanie: It was a blind tasting and they took my notes. So, no. But I sure hope that check is in the mail.

Man: It's a good question and one I haven't investigated in a controlled double-blind format (Where's Adam Lee when you need him?) I believe I am good at tasting added acid, but I cannot say that with certainty. It seems to stand out to me. That said, I don't want to sound like I'm campaigning against adding acid; the opposite, in fact. If a wine needs acid, the winemaker might as well add acid. Picking earlier would have been better but sometimes the barn door is already shut.

I am not as good on TCA as other tasters and frankly I think my life is better for it, as I have enjoyed some wines that others at the table said were slightly tainted.

Man About Wine said...

Thanks. Hey I was perusing and found your 2011 article on Mourvedre in Paso Robles. How about an update? Who, what, how good etc. growers, wines, etc? I love Mourv. Had a Clautierre Paso 2005 Mourv about 2 yrs ago. Quite nice. Found it on a grocery store shelf in El Cajon, suburb of San Diego. And speaking of east county San Diego, how bout you come to SD county to taste in AVA Ramona and in the Hwy 94 Campo route? Lots of good hot weather reds not just Cab Sauv. And being hot, some smoking good Moscato whites.

Bob Henry said...


I recently attended the 2017 Rhone Rangers tasting in Los Angeles.

These exhibitors were listed as pouring Mourvèdre.

2011: Derby Wine Estates

2012: Kenneth Volk Vyds

2013: Alta Colina, Seven Oxen Estate Wines, tercero wines

2014: Adelaida Vyds & Wine, Andrew Murray Vyds, Crux Winery, Martian Ranch & Vyd, Sculpterra Winery, Tablas Creek Vyd, tercero wines, The Withers Winery, Zaca Mesa

2015: Martian Ranch & Vyd

2016: tercero wines

The grape variety just doesn't get much traction in the retail marketplace -- hence your best bet is buying directly from the wineries.

(Aside: I spent the day sampling the white Rhone varieties and blends, so I cannot help you with a Mourvèdre suggestion or recommendation.)

~~ Bob

Bob Henry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob Henry said...

[Deleted and reposted to correct for a typo.]

Those of a certain age group with l-o-n-g memories will recall the much acclaimed 1985 vintage California Cabernets.

Vintners took a page out of the UC Davis playbook and added acid to their wines. In their youth, you didn't perceive it.

But with time in the bottle (I'm talking decades here), they evinced a mean streak of unnatural acidity.

(Aside: Robert Benson talked with winemakers from that epoch about acidification in his great interview book titled "Great Winemakers of California.")

Unknown said...

As you know, there is fashion and there is style. I’ve grown older and fuller, and the styles now in fashion in the New York Times Magazine don’t look good on me. Thus, I choose a more classic style of clothing.

The same can be said with Chardonnay. The fashion may be for austerity, but if your fruit doesn’t look good in it, explore what works. Coco Channel said it best, ‘mode (fashion) passes; style remains.’