Food & Drink

Winemakers take chardonnay in fresh directions

Laurie Daniel
Laurie Daniel

It’s easy for the “anything but chardonnay” crowd to take their shots. A lot of chardonnay is too oaky or sweet. Expensive chardonnays are often clumsy and heavy, with a burning sensation from high alcohol. And a lot of chardonnay can be downright boring.

But the problem isn’t with chardonnay itself. Chardonnay is the grape used in one of my favorite wines, Chablis, where it is transformed into something that’s fresh and racy, with a lot of minerality. The problem is the winemaking — pushing ripeness, slathering on oak, etc. Still, chardonnay remains popular, the top-selling varietal wine in the United States. Is there any incentive to change?

Happily, there are California winemakers who have taken up the chal lenge of changing the image of chardonnay. A number of them were pouring their wines at the recent “In Pursuit of Balance” tasting in San Francisco. IPOB’s original focus was on pinot noir, but it has been expanded to include chardonnay.

Given the choice of tasting dozens of pinots or a like number of chardonnays, I’d generally choose the former. This year, I wanted to see whether it really was possible to put together a large tasting of fresh, balanced chardonnays. I’m pleased to report that it was.

The best examples were racy and full of character. Some were lithe and sleek; others were richer but still lively and fresh — an attractive yin and yang balance. Many were downright exciting.

One of my favorite wines was from Matthiasson in the Napa Valley. Steve Matthiasson notes that “it’s still easier to sell a big, oaky, buttery chardonnay.” But he says the IPOB vintners are making the wines that they themselves love.

As a farmer, it’s important to him that a wine reflect the site, and he says that “underripe fruit or overripe fruit obscure the terroir.” So does the overuse of oak. His 2013 Matthiasson Linda Vista Vineyard Chardonnay ($27), the only Napa Valley chardonnay at the tasting, displays racy lemon and apple flavors, a mineral note and nice tension. The 2012 Matthiasson Michael Mara Vineyard Chardonnay ($45), which comes from the Sonoma Coast, is richer and more floral.

Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma County is a longtime producer of elegant chardonnays. Winemaker Michael McNeill, who has been there since 2008, is gratified to see the shift toward more restrained chardonnays, although “it’s been a little slower coming than I thought it would,” he says. Thoughtful winemakers, he says, are being more restrained in their use of new oak and paying more attention to the vineyard.

Hanzell’s 2012 Estate Chardonnay ($78), made from vines with about 35 years of age, offers flavors of lemon and mineral with good weight and balance. There’s also a second wine, the 2013 Sebella Chardonnay ($36), made from younger vines; taking a sip of it is like biting into a Golden Delicious apple. Other wineries that showed racy, expressive chardonnays included Calera, Ceritas, Chanin, Copain, Knez, Lioco, Littorai, Mount Eden, Sandhi, Tyler, Varner, Wenzlau and Wind Gap.