I did something last week that I have not done in at least 10 years — I stepped foot into the Family Winemakers of California tasting. Don’t take this the wrong way, some of my best wine friends are family winemakers, I just don’t enjoy the schmooze fest.
That said, it was great to see winemakers working with verdelho, counoise, touriga and other grapes that are not well-known. Even more encouraging is the number of producers making distinctive wines from the grapes we have come to know and love, or for some, hate. One reason for this wide range of reaction is the popularity of “natural winemaking,” and there is no better example of this than chardonnay.
While there is debate over what constitutes natural winemaking and different schools of thought (e.g., biodynamic, organic, sustainable) many producers are going “back to basics” and ecologically friendly methods. I wrote about this a year ago and, broadly speaking, natural winemaking means eschewing the use of chemicals in the vineyard, harvesting by hand and fermenting with native yeasts.
The idea behind natural winemaking is to let the terroir speak for itself, but that does not mean that naturally made wines always taste better. The terroir and how it is suited to a grape varietal as well as the skill of the winemaker come into play no matter what. I’ve had more than a few undrinkable naturally made wines. However, wines that adhere to the basic principles often have a noticeable vibrancy.
The wines recommended today may not fit everyone’s definition of “natural,” yet the producers are trying to make a difference in the wine, and with a grape as ubiquitous as chardonnay, these wines are a most refreshing change.
Del Bondio Oakville Chardonnay, 2009 (Napa Valley): The Del Bondio family embarked on the organic path almost two decades ago, before it was considered chic. It has owned a 20-acre vineyard in the heart of Oakville for more than a century and today makes well-priced wines — high-quality wines that for some reason fly under the radar. Floral with bright acidity, red apples, citrus and a hint of toast, this chard is a bargain. Suggested retail: $15
Navarro Vineyards Chardonnay, 2008 (Mendocino County): You will not find a more reliable producer in California than this 36-year-old winery. All of the wines, from the Alsatian-style Edelzwicker to the flagship pinot noirs, are superb. The Mendocino bottling is one of two chardonnays that Navarro makes, and it is the zestier of the two. With an apple, pear essence and hints of chamomile and buttered almonds, it is a most tasty treat. Suggested retail: $18
Calera Chardonnay, Mount Harlan, 2009 (Central Coast): Winemaker and owner Josh Jensen is a legend. He cut his winemaking teeth in Burgundy, and upon returning to the United States in the mid-1970s, set up shop in Mount Harlan with a big dream and a little pinot noir. In 1984, he planted a 6-acre limestone slope of chardonnay that renders the fruit for his Mount Harlan Chardonnay. As it is still a baby, you will notice the oak right off the bat and there are a lot of bright lemon and apple fruit and a solid base of minerality. If you can wait, Jensen’s Burgundian roots will emerge from the bottle in three to five years. Suggested retail: $28
Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.