In pursuit of balanced chardonnay…
... how low can you go?
Lioco’s Matt Licklider speaks with attendees at this year’s In Pursuit of Balance tasting in San Francisco
For last year’s In Pursuit of Balance tasting at RN74, Rajat Parr (Michael Mina) and Jasmine Hirsch (Hirsch Vineyard) brought together a who’s who of California’s artisan pinot noir producers to raise some questions about what constitutes balance in domestic pinot noir. There was no single principle uniting all the represented wineries, but many of the producers shared an approach that favored lower alcohol and/or traditional Burgundian winemaking methods and/or particularly cool vineyard sites and/or minimal use of new oak.
This year’s tasting, held at the Julia Morgan Ballroom in San Francisco, included chardonnay as well, and while I expected to spend most of my time focusing on pinot, ultimately the chardonnays stole the show. Many of these wines were made from grapes harvested at potential alcohol levels that few would have considered a decade ago. A number of wines had finished alcohol levels under 13 percent.
Rather than being thin and acidic, for the most part these wines were threaded with a surprising richness of texture and fruit. Many were from the cool 2010 vintage, and that’s certainly part of the story. But when I talked to Lioco’s Matt Licklider about the depth I was sensing at this low level of ripeness, he told me that, in general, he believes chardonnay in California reaches phenological ripeness much earlier than most people think.
For Lioco’s 2010 Demuth Vineyard Chardonnay, Licklider and his team decided to pick at 20.3 Brix—their lowest Brix at harvest yet for chardonnay. The wine saw no oak, and finished at 12.3 percent alcohol. While the wine was certainly taut, wiry and acid-driven, it wasn’t all skin and bones by any stretch, flirting with warm tones of honey and marmalade.
Some of the young chardonnays, understandably, were still fairly closed. John Raytek’s 2010 Ceritas Chardonnays from the Porter-Bass and Heintz vineyards in the Sonoma Coast (13.1 and 13.3 percent, respectively) were still loaded with unsettled energy. They shared honeyed undertones suggesting the ghost of a form that hadn’t quite appeared yet. Arnot-Roberts’ 2011 Trout Gulch Vineyard Chardonnay from the Santa Cruz Mountains, a year younger, had a similar feel.
Rajat Parr’s 2010s from the Santa Rita Hills, on the other hand, were already sultry, pungent wines, even though both were under 14 percent alcohol. His 2010 Sandhi Chardonnay from the south-facing Rita’s Crown Vineyard was picked at 22.4 Brix, and his 2010 from the north-facing Bent Rock Vineyard was picked at 22.6. They finished at 13.3 and 13.7 percent alcohol, respectively, and saw 30 percent new oak (François Frères). They were succulent, interwoven with a saline energy that seemed to transmit the region’s persistent sea breezes.
In the end, Gavin Chanin’s 2009 Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay was, in my mind, the wine of the tasting: elegant, savory, crystalline and composed. The last thing I wanted to do with it was start unraveling it into a cocktail of fruit descriptors. The stats? Picked at 22.8 Brix, finished at 12.8 percent alcohol. The grapes came from Bien Nacido’s W Block, one of the oldest chardonnay plantings in Santa Barbara.
The In Pursuit of Balance tasting comes to New York on April 18.