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A Perfect Glass of Wine
by Brian St. Pierre
 
[Note: The following text, with particular focus on California, is excerpted in part from the chapter on Chardonnay. Consult the book for more extensive information on this and other varietals.]

California made its start in the right direction in 1956. In a little valley just north of the town of Sonoma, James Zellerbach, a financier who was also the United States ambassador to Italy, had built a small winery which he called Hanzell. No expense was spared-the winery is modeled on the chateau at Cios de Vougeot in Burgundy-and he decided to carry authenticity all the way when it came to the barrels used for aging his Chardonnay, sending off to France for them In those days, most barrels were made from American or German oak, or redwood, and tended to be larger than the barrels used in Burgundy (the smaller the barrel, the larger the volume of wine exposed to the wood, therefore the more flavor imparted). Zellerbach used to enjoy serving his wine, with the labels covered, to Europeans and watching them try to decide which part of Burgundy they came from. It may seem amazing now, but he had cracked the initial code to elevating California Chardonnay to Burgundian levels.

California winemakers, however, greeted the news with apathy. Hanzell was a rich man's plaything, producing small amounts of wine, and they weren't sure there would be a market for such fancy stuff When Zellerbach died in 1963, the modern era got a jump-start from his legacy—Joe Heitz bought the 1961 and 1962 vintages of Chardonnay from the Zellerbach estate, still in those barrels, bottled them under his own label, and charged some of the highest prices anyone had ever seen for any California wine. He got a lot of attention, and sold all the wine. He kept the barrels, too.

By the mid-1970s, what we used to call the wine boom was on, with an explosion of new wineries and money, some of it corporate, much of it going to stainless-steel fermenting tanks and French oak barrels. The number of California wineries producing Chardonnay had doubled and then redoubled in less than a decade, and comparative tastings with great Burgundies were a fine new entertainment When Sebastiani released a Chardonnay in half-a-gallon jugs for a bargain price, it seemed a boon for all; the wine was fairly ordinary, but dry and tasting of the grape. No one, however, saw the future in it. Instead, many of us were looking to Paris, where the most notorious comparative tasting of all had taken place, sponsored by Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant.

"Blind" wine tastings, for which the labels are hidden, are a good learning experience and can be fun, up to a point At that time, with so many people discovering wine, blind tastings were also a good promotional tool if your wine "won" what is really a subjective exercise. The Wine Institute, the trade association of California wineries, had had great success for years in running large-scale tastings in which French and California wines were compared, but the French could sneer at the results because the tasters were usually novices. Spurrier's tasting was the first on French soil by French tasters who were also professionals. To their great embarrassment, when the wines were revealed, they found that they'd voted California Chardonnay tops: Chateau Montelena of the Napa Valley was in first place, and two other Californians came third and fourth, ahead of several Meursaults and Montrachets The news broke in the summer of 1976, just in time for America's Bicentennial, and literally went around the world. Within five years, the number of wineries in the Napa Valley alone had doubled, and the number in California that were producing Chardonnay had also doubled, and included some of the biggest wineries in the state.

It was a great time to be a Chardonnay drinker. California winemakers were making pilgrimages to Burgundy to taste, march through the vineyards, and soak up information; the French responded to the competition by holding the line on their prices, at least for a while. Vineyards were being planted in cooler areas. The Carneros district, on the northern edge of San Francisco Bay, was making a name for itself, and so were a cluster of wineries in the Alexander Valley and strings of wineries along the Russian River in Sonoma County, in the fog-scoured canyons of Santa Barbara, and in the San Benito Mountains to the east of Monterey. If these were all taking aim at the Cote d'Or, others were at least aspiring to Chablis, with leaner versions which often had the added virtue of being bargains, coming from Mendocino, Monterey, the Sonoma Valley, and the Livermore area.

Around this time, the word Chablis began disappearing from California wine labels, as did the misnomer Pinot Chardonnay, a dubious way of signaling nobility that had been hanging on since the chaos following the repeal of Prohibition. The American wine market, it seemed, had come of age. Other countries took notice, with the Australians leading the charge, which came as a great surprise to many California winemakers, especially when the Aussie wines gained immediate acceptance for their up-front, tropical-fruit flavors and easy softness. Not for them the flinty sharpness of Meursauit or the steely zing of Chablis, not with all that Down Under sunshine and exuberance and gregariousness. If the white Burgundies were a tuxedo, Australian Chardonnays were cutoff Levi's; the French were a kiss on the hand, the Aussies a slap on the back, user friendly all the way. Californians, used to being everybody's favorite alternative, were ruffled.

What had happened was that several trends had converged. The American wine market always had one area of stability among whatever other chaos was going on, which was that half the wine sold was red, with the rest split between white and rose. In the mid-1970s, the balance began to tilt, and by 1984, two-thirds of all wine sold was white, and the best seller among whites was Chardonnay. Grape growers all over the world responded gratefully—trends aren't always this clear. In California, plantings of Chardonnay, already increasing, speeded up-new acreage tripled in four years In the south of France, Chardonnay was planted, and labeled with its varietal name, a major change Chile got on the bandwagon, and Australia was exporting so much they had shortages at home. Even the Italians got into the act.

Anyone who has stood near a bar and heard repeated orders for "a glass of Chardonnay, please," knows how the story has gone. In 1990, a national survey found that nearly 50 percent of all wine sold in restaurants in America was Chardonnay; few other whites were even mentioned in passing. In 1994, Chardonnay outsold White Zinfandel!

All those new plantings of Chardonnay, from Bulgaria to Brazil to the San Joaquin Valley, are not necessarily grown in the best places. Chardonnay is very amenable, will grow reasonably well almost anywhere, and produce a lot of grapes if the vines are encouraged that way, but they will be mediocre at best, in most cases yielding a characterless white wine that bears the same relation to fine white Burgundy or Carneros Chardonnay that Muzak does to Mozart.

There is now something like an excess of democracy when it comes to Chardonnay. On the most basic level are California Chardonnays whose appellation is simply "California," which is usually wine that has been bought on the bulk market from various vineyards around the state and blended (sometimes with a little bit of another variety that has some sweetness). French Chardonnays from Languedoc-Roussllion in the south are usually labeled with the varietal name, made in ultramodern facilities, but still rather variable-the good ones are at least dry and crisp, so ask and taste around. Chilean versions can be a good buy, though their flavor tends to be understated, as do many of the Italians. Price ought to be a consideration on this commodity level.

The next level is pretty much dominated by the Australians, who provide a lot of that tropical-fruit or butterscotch richness and a brash smack of oak for a reasonable price. Many of the popular brands taste pretty much alike, as if there's an "export" style rather than a house style, and the sheer brawn can be overwhelming

Some Monterey and Mendocino Chardonnays provide a quietly straightforward style that's a little leaner and nicely tart. Saint-Veran from France is even leaner and reliably dry, Poully-Fuisse should have some character but is invariably overpriced.

The top level for California is dominated by Carneros. Almost everybody knows it by now, and the prices have been reflecting that, but there it is—the wines are racy, deeply flavored, silky, vibrantly rich, and they age well, undergoing that transformation of maturity superbly. After that, a lot of the other honors go to various parts of Sonoma-Russian River, Dry Creek, Sonoma Valley, and Alexander Valley have their differences in the weight and richness the soils and climate provide, but the best wines made there are certainly the best of their style. Wines labeled simply "Sonoma County" shouldn't be overlooked, either—they're often the best bargains of all. The southern Napa Valley yields admirable Chardonnays, too, as does Santa Barbara. The caveat with theoretically top-class Chardonnay from California and Australia is a tendency for winemakers to over-oak, which is like a cook deciding that if a few cloves of garlic make a stew taste better, then a whole lot will make it taste great; it shows up often in wines labeled "Reserve" or with a color like honey when they're only a few years old.

The top level demand rich food—lobster, any shellfish cooked or dunked in butter, oysters, Dover sole and firm-fleshed fish with rich sauces, salmon prepared almost any way but especially with dill, and seafood mixtures: Anything from a stew to a clambake can be buoyed up by Chardonnay. The plainer sorts of wines, if they're dry, can go with a wide range of plainer food.

A Perfect Glass of Wine:
Choosing, Serving, and Enjoying

An International Guide
by Brian St. Pierre
Photographs by Deborah Jones
Price: $24.95, hardcover
ISBN: 0-81 18-1295-2

Reprinted by permission.


A Perfect Glass of Wine
About the Book
About it's Creators
Chardonnays

 
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