A Chardonnay Renaissance?
Once upon a time, chardonnay was a minor grape variety in the United States, even in the vineyards of California. Then, along came the likes of Richard Arrowood, Gary Farrell, Steve Kistler and Chuck Ortman, and chardonnay took off. Comparisons to white Burgundy were inevitable.
Today, it is the most widely planted white-wine grape in California and maintains a firm grip on its market share. But chardonnay is not without controversy. Somewhere along the way, winemakers diverged from the lean, mineral-driven model of white Burgundy and pushed the limits of ripeness, often accompanied by massive amounts of oak.
That style is exemplified by the rich, unctuous, oak-drenched chardonnay of Rombauer. To be sure, there is a vibrant market for the Rombauer style. At the same time, there is significant resistance, personified by the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement.
There have been signs in recent years that the white Burgundy model is making a comeback. Winemakers Christian Roguenant (a native of France's Burgundy region, as it happens) and Merry Edwards have been at the forefront of the crowd that champions elegance and finesse in chardonnay over massive fruit and oak.
More evidence of this new direction emerged at the 17th annual Critics Challenge International Wine & Spirit Competition, staged June 20-21 in San Diego. At this competition judged exclusively by wine journalists, two chardonnays -- the Kenwood 2018 "The Barn" ($65) and Palazzo 2018 "Master Blend" ($45) -- tied for wine of the year with stunning scores of 98 points each.
What makes this news significant, other than the rarity of a California chardonnay besting a field of very impressive red wines, is the stylistic bent of both wines. The Kenwood chard, sourced from Sonoma Coast vineyards, is fruit-driven yet impeccably balanced, remarkably complex and beautifully constructed. The Palazzo chardonnay, a Napa Valley product, is mineral-driven with stony complexity, fresh acidity and an undercurrent of fruit just ready to blossom with a bit more age.
They are both beautiful wines that have the potential to change the narrative on California chardonnay. More like these, please!
Complete results of the 2020 Critics Challenge can be found at CriticsChallenge.com.
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.
Gamble 2016 'Paramount,' Napa Valley ($89) -- The Paramount is a Bordeaux-style blend that, in this vintage, is almost equal parts cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot (with a splash of petit verdot). It is a hefty Napa Valley red that can easily play with the other big boys. But it's about more than power and heft, showing complex layers of blackberry, raspberry and black cherry fruit, with hints of mocha, fresh coffee beans and a generous touch of oak vanillin. Drink now if you must, but this is a keeper that will easily improve in a temperature-controlled cellar over the next 20 years or so. Rating: 96.
Goldeneye 2017 Pinot Noir, The Narrows Vineyard, Anderson Valley ($86) -- Goldeneye continues to demonstrate emphatically that Anderson Valley pinot noir rivals any produced in the Russian River Valley, Oregon's Willamette Valley or Monterey's Santa Lucia Highlands, just to name a few of the most prominent pinot noir regions in the United States. This vintage from The Narrows Vineyard is lush and rich, with impressive palate length and layered aromas of cherry, raspberry and strawberry. Goldeneye doesn't overwhelm its pinot noir with massive oak, respecting the fruit instead, and the result is a red wine that possesses just the right touch of oak spice. Rating: 96.
Tinto Figuero 2016 Tempranillo, Vinas Viejas, Ribera del Duero, Spain ($67.99) -- This vintage of Vinas Viejas ("old vines") exhibits impressive power and depth, showing layers of ripe black fruits and chewy tannins, with an overlay of oak vanillin. It's a serious candidate for additional cellar time to tame the raw power now on display, though drinking now is an option, especially if decanted and hour or two prior to serving. Rating: 96.
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