I wonder how many of you were shocked last week to read that many of those oaky tasting Chardonnays from California never see the inside of a barrel but get their flavor from oak chips, tossed into the wine like a teabag into hot water. We’ll talk more about California Chardonnay today, and maybe we’ll uncover a few more little secrets and clarify a few more misconceptions.
Since alcohol is produced through fermentation, when yeast converts sugars into alcohol, grapes with a high level of sugar can, potentially, make wine with a high amount of alcohol. Most of the Chardonnay vineyards in California are considerably hotter than Chardonnay’s European home turf of Champagne and Burgundy. If you look at a map of the world, you’ll see that the vineyards of Monterey lie on almost the same latitude as Casablanca, Morocco, much closer to the Equator than either Beaune or Rheims. The grapes grown here will be higher in sugar and, when fermented “dry”, can often have alcohol levels of 14.5 to 15.5 percent. Many people will argue that Chardonnay, originally a cool climate grape, simply does not have the structure to carry all of that alcohol. It’s like trying to haul furniture with a sports car. Randall Graham of Bonny Doon Winery looked at the overall conditions of Monterey, Sonoma and Napa and came to the conclusion that Chardonnay just shouldn’t taste the way it does when it’s grown there, and he uprooted every one of his Chardonnay vines years ago, replacing them with Rhône varietals such as Marsanne, Rousanne and Viognier. Championing these grapes has earned him the nickname “the Rhône Ranger”.
Some wine makers try to compensate for the high amount of sugar present at harvest by having their grapes picked before they fully ripen, when the sugar levels are lower. This is foolish. Does any fruit taste good before it is ripe? Peaches, strawberries, bananas... and grapes... don’t taste nearly as good before they ripen. These winemakers are often among those who mask the taste of their wines by putting the wine through Malolactic fermentation and then adding oak chips. Does good wine need this?
My good friend Clark Smith has created a Napa Chardonnay called “Faux Chablis” that handles the high alcohol problem and results in a delicious, very well balanced wine. Clark insists on fully ripened grapes and ferments out almost every bit of the natural sugars in the grapes, resulting in a very dry wine, but too high alcohol. Using reverse osmosis, he filters out some of the alcohol, until he hits what he calls the wines “sweet spot” where the amounts of fruit, acidity and alcohol are in balance. I find it ironic that a columnist in the Wine Spectator labeled (libeled?) Clark “the Antichrist of Wine” for this practice, yet has written extensively on Burgundy, praising wines that were made through Chaptalization: adding sugar to the unfermented grape juice in order to make more alcohol!
The process of adding sugar to unfermented “must” is forbidden by law in California and, in truth, it really isn’t needed. Rumors still spread about some wineries adding sugar, but the explanation for the sweet tasting Chardonnays that make up much of the mass market for this varietal can be attributed to specific strains of yeast used in wine making.
Different yeasts react differently during fermentation. Some will die off once the alcohol level reaches a low level, leaving behind more residual sugar than others. Some yeasts add more flavors than others, and wine makers can take advantage of this by aging the wine for a time on these dead yeast “lees”, resulting in toasty aromas, separate from the toasted vanilla notes that come from charred oak. Most of the wine makers in California buy their yeasts, and many of the openly brag about where they originate from, while many of the finest wines made throughout the world use only wild yeasts native to the vineyard where the grapes are grown. This is one of the cornerstone practices of Biodynamics, and wine makers who insist on native yeasts will tell you that it is crucial if you want to make a wine that expresses the terroir of the vineyard. When I began to learn to taste wine critically, we often tasted wines “blind”, without knowing anything about them, having only the wine to speak for itself. We would first try to determine if the wine was from the old world or the new. Old world (Eurpoean) wines almost always had the emphasis on terroir, while new world wines (North & South America, Australia and New Zealand) normally were fruit-forward, exhibiting little, if any, sense of terroir.
This lack of terroir has long been one of the flaws that critics of California Chardonnay have long pointed an accusing finger at. “Fruit Bombs” is the usual derisive name for these wines, and many of them do go way over the top, smelling more like a fruit salad than a glass of wine. Over the past twenty years, I have witnessed the good news that more and more California wines are being driven by terroir and are getting their fruit into balance.
Thirty years ago this past May, in 1976, the wine merchant Steven Spurrier held a famous tasting in Paris that pit some of the finest wines from France and California against one another. The nine judges, all food and wine professionals, tasted the wines blind and rated them. The world of wine was rocked to its foundations when the white wine that scored the highest was Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from California. Every one of the judges gave his highest score to a California Chardonnay: either Montelena or Chalone, California Chardonnay took three of the top five places and has never had to apologize for itself since then.