With roots in the Burgundy region of France, chardonnay’s popularity has made it the world’s most planted grape. It’s the white grape in Champagne and the wines are in demand because they can deliver whatever style that you prefer.
Oak-aging and other techniques give the wine a creamy mouthfeel with more baked-fruit flavors. Consumers seeking drier wines with more citrus and minerality are drawn to those aged in stainless steel or neutral oak.
There are also those wines that balance the best of both styles.
Many believe that chardonnay is made in the winery because of its receptiveness to different winemaking methods. Malolactic fermentation, the process of converting malic acid to softer lactic acid, sur-lie aging to extract richness, and selected oak barrel aging are all methods used to create a style that is associated with California. Two winemakers recently provided some insight into unique aging techniques that produce a chardonnay that is better than the sum of its parts.
General manager-winemaker Nathan Carlson of the Center of Effort estate in the Edna Valley AVA, south of San Luis Obispo, describes himself as a traditionalist and his associate Kevin Bargetto as the chief instigator of experimentation. Together, they make a good team and are both willing to commit to the detailed work required to create a fine wine.
The intensity of their efforts is on display with the 2015 Center of Effort Chardonnay ($35) where the same clones from the same block were picked on the same day, but aged separately in four distinct vessels before blending into a wine of complexity, depth and length. I recently sampled 2020 juice from each aging vessel before tasting the current 2015 release.
After 100% malolactic fermentation, most of the 2020 vintage is being aged sur-lie in French oak, 25% new and 75% neutral. New 2020 Tremeaux barrels from France add spice elements and a mouthfeel described by Nathan as “like a Creamsicle.” The juice from the neutral barrels delivered more fruit qualities with minimal oak nuance. The barrels also serve to oxidate the wine for a better mouthfeel.
Using a growing trend, 10% of the 2020 vintage is aging in concrete eggs. Unlike stainless steel, concrete is porous to oxygen and preserves a more consistent temperature. The maturing flavors from the eggs were the fruitiest of the four samples with hints of peach, lime zest and tangerine. Advancing a softer mouthfeel, the shape of the egg keeps the lees (dead yeast) in suspension, minimizing the need for stirring.
The small amount of remaining 2020 juice is aging in older acacia wood barrels from France. Nathan and Kevin would not recommend aging completely in acacia barrels, but feel it adds a savory, maple syrup quality which I immediately picked up on.
After 20 months of aging, the juice from each vessel will be blended, bottled and released when it’s time. We can expect the same quality expressed in the current release.
Complexity and balance best described the 2015 Center of Effort Chardonnay that delivered both rich texture and a firm acidity. Citrus and baking spice aromas and flavors led to a lengthy finish. It is an impressive value for the price.
Recent tastings of other chardonnay releases reveal the depth and diversity of California’s wine growing regions. Situated adjacent to the historic Garys’ Vineyard in Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, the Soberanes Vineyard is another joint venture between the Pisoni and Franscioni families who pioneered the local production of fine chardonnay and pinot noir.
Gary Pisoni’s sons Mark and Jeff oversee operations at the Lucia Winery that produced the 2018 Lucia Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay ($65). Citrus and stone fruits aromas open to a bright acidity balanced by a rich mouthfeel and hints of creme brûlée.
Although the Petaluma Gap, part of the Sonoma Coast AVA, is cold and windy, it has become known as a source for distinct pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay.
From an estate vineyard, the 2019 Pfendler Chardonnay Petaluma Gap ($45) exudes a rich mouthfeel with hints of citrus, honey and custard on the nose and palate.
Near the Petaluma Gap lies the Sebastopol Hills neighborhood of the Russian River Valley AVA, where two distinct clones are blended for the 2018 Ladera Pillow Road Vineyard Chardonnay ($55), which has complex aromas of fresh citrus, baked fruit and honey open to lush, fruit-driven flavors and a nice minerality along the finish.
Diversity makes chardonnay the perfect pair with most foods. Selecting the right style for your menu is the only issue.
Guest columnist Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 20 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email mourvedre firstname.lastname@example.org.