What the !@#$%^&*!? has happened to California Chardonnay? (A rant) - Printable Version

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- Bucko - 07-15-1999 11:49 PM

Take one part acid, 3 parts oak, two parts fruit, shake it up and let it go through 100% MLF, bottle it in an odd-shaped bottle and charge big bucks - voila - CA Chardonnay. Do any of the winemakers actually drink this swill? Are there any guilty consciences out there? What has happened to individuality? Yikes!!!!

I just tasted my way through 37 1997/98 Chardonnays, ranging from $7 to $45. Oak, oak, oak, flab, flab, flab...... I actually preferred two low-end wines over the big bucks Chards, probably because they did not use 100% new French oak to overwhelm the wine with, and the wine did not go through 100% MLF.........

1997 Husch Chardonnay, Mendocino, $12.50, current release. 95% BF, 15% MLF. This wine is ready to drink now, has adequate green apple fruit and modest oak for those who do not like overoaked wines. This wine will work well with light chicken dishes.

1998 Hawk Crest Chardonnay, California, $10. Yes, Hawk Crest -- An overachiever for the price class, this balanced wine has nice apple and grapefruit flavors, minimal oak and crisp acid that will make it a great food wine. This is a case buy value.


- Jerry D Mead - 07-16-1999 01:38 AM

Bucko....That's why they make Sauvignon Blanc!


- Bucko - 07-16-1999 08:28 AM

That is why I have been drinking a lot of Sancerre lately.


- Jason - 07-21-1999 06:44 PM

Yes, the Chard situation is pretty bad. No, no one in the industry drinks the stuff, but it does pay their mortgage month after month. The public has spoken and it says the status quo is pretty darn good.
As long as this is the case, the rest of us can keep drinking great little (obscure) whites for short money. Long live Vouvray.

- Randy Caparoso - 08-03-1999 09:11 PM

Hate to say it, but you guys are being a little mean about this. You know darned well that as a grape Chardonnay is something of a tabula rasa (not like a Capa-rasa). The wisdom of 100% barrel fermenting, ML-ing, natural yeasting, unfined, unfiltered, unnothinged Chardonnay was originally uncovered by the Burgundians (dose wily French) precisely for that reason. Meaning: it brings out the best in that grape.

I won't argue the point that many California Chardonnays taste less of the grape than the oak and winemaking process. Nevertheless, I'd argue that the wines would probably be less interesting (and certainly less profitable and satisfying as a winemaker's art form) if it were done plain, plain, plain. Like chocolate chip cookies without the chips (even those things started out like that before someone got wiser).

Of course, if you can get past it, there's no questin in my mind that in spite of all the excesses California Chards are better than ever. Why? Because they are more supple, more elegant, and more multi-layered than ever. I think you guys are just tired of drinking the stuff. Too much of a good thing. Or am I the miscreant? Or as that guy Bobby (de Niro, not Kacher) says, "analyze this"... not ya'll.

- Bucko - 08-03-1999 09:47 PM

The French do BF, but you left off the fact that they do not do it in 100% new French oak. They use a LOT of 2-3-4 year-old, even neutral barrels. In CA the mentality is 100% new French oak = quality. I find that it = oak juice. Let the fruit shine through.......


- Jerry D Mead - 08-03-1999 10:41 PM

Sounds like Randy and Jerry vs Bucko and that other famous anti-oak advocate...Dan Berger.


- Bucko - 08-03-1999 11:28 PM

Not anti-oak, just anti-OVERoaked. Oak adds dimension and character to a wine, but there can be too much of a good thing, and all too often there is........


- Randy Caparoso - 08-03-1999 11:42 PM

Like I said, I won't argue your point about excessive use of new oak, Bucko. That's why my own ultimate favorites are the more subtle (but still 100% barrel fermented/ML) styles of producers like Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara, Chalk Hill in Sonoma, and Ken Wright in Oregon. They're oaky, but the oak just pushes forward the natural fruit and minerality.

But still I think about about how so many other Chardonnays would be just plain boring without the complexities of new oak; and when I do, I have to conclude that things are at least a little more interesting than before; and when there was little to distinguish between a run-of-the-mill Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc or even Pinot Blanc.

- Thomas - 08-04-1999 08:04 AM

Just last night I had an Albert Pic Chablis. Yards in front of California Chardonnays, for its simplicity and affinity to the veal Milanese I prepared. The oak was there, but ever so subtle behind fruit, fruit, fruit.

- Bucko - 08-04-1999 08:16 AM


- Randy Caparoso - 08-04-1999 05:57 PM

So all Chardonnays should be like Chablis? Try telling the vintners in Chassagne and Puligny that. There's no question in their minds that not only should Chardonnay be generously oaked, but with lots of new oak, too. Why? Because new oak happens to make their wines taste better.

There's no consistent measuring stick out there, gentlemen. We shouldn't begrudge anyone who is trying to not only make a Chardonnay taste better, but also more commercially appealing. And insofar as food, I can think of just as many dishes to go with a richly oaked Chard as a lightly oaked Chard. There's something out there for every dish, and every taste; and no single one "better" than the other.

Besides, I think you guys are overreacting. Seven weeks ago in my own town I sat on a small panel of professionals judging 136 commercially available Chardonnays (divided in three price categories) for a big event called Taste of Honolulu. Out of all of these, I think there were probably only about a dozen that one might technically (and objectively) call "over oaked" -- and even then, it was still a matter of taste. If anything, the problems (when they came up) was more of a matter of fruit depth, intensity and balance. But if anything, qualities derived from barrel fermentation, barrel aging, ML, etc. added, rather than detracted, from all that, filling out the gaps where they existed.

But if it's not for you, as Curmudgeon put it, that's why there's Sauvignon Blanc -- and Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, et al. Why knock Chard for being what it wants to be?

- Thomas - 08-05-1999 07:22 AM

Chardonnay for being what it wants to be? Or is it Chardonnay for being abused by those who want it to be something it is not?

Randy, the point is balance. I do not think I ever said that all Chardonnay must be Chablis. I simply pointed out a wine (happens to be a Chablis) that I believe did not become abused, letting the fruit shine through, the oak and acids balance, and the food with which it paired sing in tune. That is balance!

I would, however, love to see your food recommendations to pair with over-oaked Chardonnay. I haven't been able to come up with one I like.

- Randy Caparoso - 08-05-1999 03:56 PM

"Abused?" Truly, we are at some odds. Surely, thousands of producers, and tens of thousands of consumers, can't possibly be that wrong about this. Namely, the fact that the qualities of Chardonnay are enhanced by the generous use of oak, new and old. Maybe my mind is overly constrained by the realities of market. But I don't think so. I may not drink a lot of Chardonnay, but my palate and instinct tells me that I'm probably right.

And just because well oaked Chardonnay doesn't go great with oysters, or pan roasted trout, doesn't mean it's wrong. Cabernet Sauvignon tastes horribly with that, but it's still a decent wine.

In food contexts, the qualities of full scaled Chardonnays entail not only the creamy/vanillin and toasy/smoky/charred flavors of oak, but also a fleshier, more amplified sense of body and texture, in addition to a small degree of tannin. It is as easy to pair such wines with food as, for instance, a Cabernet Sauvignon. Foods, in fact, which would be far better off with a generously oaked Chardonnay than a lighter, purer fruit style Chardonnay.

Take simple, everyday roasted chicken, for instance, with its dripping oils and buttery, fleshy flavors. American households are far more apt to be serving the unbiquitous roaster than raw oysters, trout or veal. Add a pungent herb like tarragon and thyme, and you definitely have a dish that is far better with a full, viscous, butter/creamy oaked Chardonnay than a light, lemony Chablis. In respect to other birds, I don't know what you drink for Thanksgiving but when it comes to wood smoked turkey with rich stuffings (sage, oysters, nuts, sausages, whatever), a charred, smoky Chardonnay beats any other white (if you're having white) any time.

Other food contexts in which generously oaked Chardonnays outshine other whites include osso buco style veal (in white wine veal stocks studded with one green herb or another), sweetbreads, lusher white fish like Hawaiian snapper (opakapaka), white seafood sausages (especially when truffled or with pistachios), and even things like stuffed poblanos with tropical fruit salsas. In any "white wine dish" that include mixes of pungent mushrooms (shiitakes, chanterelles, etc.), or the slight bitterness and charred aromas of wood grilling or wood smoking, generously charred Chardonnay simply make a lot more sense than wines without that influence. Recently a bunch of us were absolutely shocked, in fact, during a meal prepared by a master sushi maker when we found that a smoky Chardonnay went a lot better than a Riesling and Champagne (also on our table) with certain courses served with earthy ponzu and creamy white moto sauces, and especially sushi with aromatic, black, toasted sesame seeds. In retrospect, it made sense, but it was certainly unexpected.

I could go on and on, but I'm already belaboring the point: heavily oaked Chardonnay is not only not such a bad thing, it can be very good!

But the use of oak is not only relegated to Chards among whites. Murphy-Goode, for instance, has been making unabashedly oaked, and undeniably superior, Sauvignon Blancs for years. So has Mondavi. Three weeks ago I was in Baden, and was absolutely floored by a set of generously oaked, barrel fermented Pinot Gris and Pinot Blancs crafted by Joachim Heger. How can you argue when the traditional oak regime brings out far more in any grape in respect to breadth, feel, intensity, and yes, even balance and harmony? The food affinity part, I never worry about. Like I said, it's easy enough to find something for everything.

- Jason - 08-05-1999 07:29 PM

I think its safe to say that the Cali Chard producers do not subscribe to the "less is more" approach. One fact which has gone unsaid is the inherent difference between France's and our own climate. Our industry jumped on the 100% ML bandwagon because it was the "Burgundian" thing to do.
The problem starts when our wines are starting with much more fruit and much less acid. When you put 100% of the wine through ML, your acid is reduced by 50%, thus producing a super creamy, flabby wine. This is where the balance issue starts from.
Instead of thinking independantly and modifying the methods to meet our own climate, we blindly followed tradition from the Old World.
I think the reason it stuck (commercially) is cultural. Europeans rarely drink wine without food, so their wines are generally higher in acid, lower in fruit.
Americans, however, were not brought up on wine and regularly drink it by itself, which works in favor of the Cali style.
I am surprised that no one has commented on the marketers gettings their hands on Cali Sauv Blanc. Since truer examples of this grape did not fly in the 80's, we have tweaked it to taste like Chard wannabe.
Taste Chalk Hill SB and then a Sancerre and tell me we have not used some poetic license with this grape. Talk about out of character.
Run into one of the full bore ML examples from Cali in a blind tasting, and you'll know the meaning of confusion.

- Bucko - 08-05-1999 09:37 PM

There are some good CA SBs out there, but you are right, there are a lot of Chard wannabes in the crowd. WA is really coming on in the SB department. A good, cheap one is Hogue. In CA, Geyser Peak is a nice one.

This has been a really good thread, and I thank you all for the debate, not a flame war -- a big difference. Lots of intelligent, well thought out replies. Of course they are all wrong unless they agree with me..... <vbg>


- Randy Caparoso - 08-05-1999 10:14 PM

I'm sorry, Jason, but I hardly think that winemakers, and the consumers who appreciate their products, have been going into Burgundian methods "blind." Like I said, tens of thousands can't be wrong. Whatever you may think, this so-called "flabby" style really is what people like. They call it "smooth." Given the choice between this and, say, the lighter, more acidic -- and usually pricier -- styles of France, it's usually no contest. Heck, that was the message brought home way back in the Paris Tasting of '76.

How many of you folks remember the late '70s and early '80s when many California Chardonnay producers, in response to criticism by writers like Frank Prial, tried to produce "food" style Chardonnays -- with lower alcohol and higher acids. Boy, were those wines panned. Thank goodness, the industry quickly backed away from that idea. As well they should have.

In relation to this, your point about blindly following the French when it comes to Chards, in fact, hardly follows if you try to apply it to Sauvignon Blanc. One one hand you're trying to say that we're veering away from a "true" (i.e. Sancerre-like) style of Sauvignon Blanc, but grousing over the fact that we're trying too hard to emulate white Burgundy when it comes to Chard. You can't have it both ways.

Besides, who's to say what is "true" about anything? They certainly don't treat Sauvignon Blanc the same way in Bordeaux as in the Loire, just as Chablis is a world apart from Meursault, and Napa, and Santa Barbara, and Washington St., ad infinitum. It's my contention that your "marketers" have little to do with this. The ultimate judges are always the consumers; and it's a smart vintner indeed who can figure out exactly what the consumers want.

Finally, the issue about "acid" in wine when it comes to food: Acidity is good for food, but not in all food contexts. In many, many instances -- like chicken served in a buttery or creamy sauce -- a low acid Chard is a lot better than a high acid one. Just as a high acid Chard is probably better with plain oysters than a low acid Chard. Some of the greatest food wines in the world, to take this further, are the decidedly low acid white and pink wines of Southern France. This is what Mediterranean style food and wine is all about.

I know you must be sick of hearing this, but my point is there's something for everything; and nothing is probably "better" than something else. Just different.

[This message has been edited by Randy Caparoso (edited 08-05-99).]

- Jason - 08-06-1999 09:03 PM

You have many points here that I would love to berate you about, but the bottom line is are these wines good? And if so, I simply can not wait to have a bottle of Turning Leaf Chard at a Roy's location in the near future. What's the proper garnish, a 2"x4"?

- Bucko - 08-06-1999 10:00 PM

I simply can not wait to have a bottle of Turning Leaf Chard at a Roy's location in the near future. What's the proper garnish, a 2"x4"?
And Jason comes out swinging in round 5, landing a hard right to the jaw....... [img][/img]


- Randy Caparoso - 08-07-1999 12:34 AM

Ouch. But I didn't say I personally drink Turning Leaf. Here's how our wine list in Honolulu reads on this night of August 6:

1997 Woodward Canyon "Celilo" Chardonnay
1997 Ken Wright "Celilo" Chardonnay
1997 Ken Wright "Dijon Clone" Chardonnay
1997 Fess Parker Santa Barbara Chardonnay
1997 De Loach Russian River Valley Chardonnay
1997 Landmark "Overlook" Chardonnay
1996 Murphy-Goode "Island Block" Chardonnay
1997 Chalk Hill Estate Chardonnay
1996 Chalk Hill "Estate Vineyard Selection" Chardonnay
1997 Neyers "Thieriot" Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
1996 Ramey "Hyde" Carneros Chardonnay
1995 D'Arenberg "The Olive Grove" McLaren Vale Chardonnay
1996 Sandalford Western Australia Chardonnay
1997 Roy's (Au Bon Climat) Santa Barbara Chardonnay

No more, no less. Are these wines oaky and filled with maximum lactic acid? I'm ashamed to say -- across the board, yes. Are they smooth as pie? You betcha! Do they go with even Asian spiced fish in butter sauces? What's not to like?

Furthermore, we've gotten along quite fine without grotesquely overpriced Chablis, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, etc. over the past five-ten years. Tens of thousands can't be wrong!