Saturday, January 29, 2022 Jan 29, 2022
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California chardonnay mellows out
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CALIFORNIA chardonnay isn’t what it used to be – but I don’t mean that it isn’t as good, and 1 don’t necessarily mean that it’s better. I just mean that, in general, this finest and most famous American white wine has undergone a change of personality in the past 10 years or so.

The big-name California chardonnays of the early Seventies tended to be formidable beasts. The most impressive were big, rich, thick, alcoholic, grapey and, above all, oaky wines -wines you didn’t argue with. These were the chardonnays that won all those France vs. California blind tastings -even the ones judged by the French. These were the wines, in fact, that actually made a lot of skeptics in France, America and elsewhere take California viniculture seriously for the first time. Some of the chardonnays in question, of course, were overstated and clumsy; some fell apart too soon like aging muscle men suddenly dissolving into flab. But the best of these wines -of which there were quite a few -were complex, luscious and deeply, dramatically beautiful.

I’m using the past tense here not because wines of this kind are no longer being made in California -they certainly are, by new and old wineries alike -but this style can no longer be called the dominant one in California as it once was. Wine makers in the state no longer automatically accept that a good chardonnay demands an excess of fruit, wood and alcohol; they’re finally admitting to themselves and their customers what they have surely known all along: that intense chardonnay flavors and oaky richness are parts of a wine and not wine itself. In this context, it’s interesting to note that makers of chardonnay wines in some parts of Burgundy sometimes say pejoratively of a wine that “II chardonne” (“It chardonnays”) – that it has too much chardonnay character. This is not a concept most California wine makers or wine drinkers would have understood five or six years ago.

Many of the newer chardonnays on Dallas wine shop shelves today -specifically those of the very good 1980 and ’81 vintages – give ample evidence of this Cali-fornian change of heart. Individual differences of style and regional character are as pronounced as ever, and there are still some old-fashioned monsters lurking here and there -but overall, these ’80s and ’81s seem more elegant, subtler and better balanced than their predecessors. Some are more obviously in the French idiom; others remain steadfastly Californian in style, but aren’t quite as florid with the rich vanilla-like smell and taste of oak and aren’t quite as fat with alcohol and have a more appealing acidic sharpness. In short, they’re more sensible and more readily drinkable.

What’s going on in California? Why are some older wineries apparently forsaking the kind of chardonnay that won them so much praise in the first place? Why do so many of the newer ones seem to be more interested in emulating Puligny-Mon-trachet, say, than Martin Ray? (Styles have also changed in cabernet sauvignon and other serious California wines, but the changes seem to have shown up first in chardonnay.) 1 can think of at least three reasons for this change of emphasis:

First, California’s wine makers have learned a lot during the last 10 years or so (as they will often be the first to admit). During the late Sixties and early Seventies, many of today’s California vignerons were still comparative novices and were breaking new ground (sometimes literally, as they planted vines in areas previously better known for asparagus, tobacco, dairy cows or whatever). When these talented beginners found that they could usually obtain ripe, flavorful, high-sugar grapes, they acted, understandably, a bit like kids in a candy store: They gorged themselves with quality, pushing their beautiful produce in the vineyards, then extracting every conceivable bit of character from it in the winery. In quite a different and more serious context, Lewis Mumford has written eloquently about mankind’s tendency to push technology to its limits regardless of the outcome – about mankind’s temptation to believe that because something is possible, it must be done. To trivialize his observations, I think California wine makers have frequently done the same sort of thing: Their fruit is so glorious, their technology so good, their enthusiasm and skill so boundless that they have gone all the way with it, putting as much of everything into their wines as possible -without choosing to ask themselves if more was necessarily better. Sometimes, admittedly, it was. Today, as both the modern California wine industry and its masterminds have matured, many of the better wine makers and winery bosses in the state seem to be taking time out to examine their successes and failures, to think calmly about what they’re doing and how else they could be doing it. Having shown the world that they can make blockbuster wines, they are now saying to themselves, “Well, what else can we do? Can we get elegance, suppleness and delicacy, too?”

Then there’s the consumer -who has been maturing as well. In late 1981, New York Times wine writer Frank J. Prial published a controversial and ultimately extremely influential column in which he proposed that California wines. of the younger generation were made for tasting, not drinking -“for competition and . . . not . . . for family dining.” Of chardonnays specifically, he wrote, “They were meant to go with meals, but many of them do not. Like overbred dogs, they have gone beyond their original purpose . . . . They are showoff wines made by vintners who seem to be saying, ’I can out-chardonnay any kid on this block.’ ” Prial struck a nerve among California wine makers, some of whom loudly denounced his opinions and then quietly set out to make more reasonable wines. More to the point, he expressed in print what more than a few wine lovers had already started saying to themselves. They, like the wine makers, had now seen what California could do; they, too, had experienced huge, overpowering wines and had often enjoyed them; and they, too, were beginning to wonder if California wine wouldn’t – couldn’t – be just as wonderful in a less aggressive way. Funny you should mention that, the wine makers replied….

Finally, there was Mother Nature. The 1980 harvest was an atypical one in California: warm enough to sufficiently ripen – but not overripen – grapes in most areas, and at the same time cool enough to stretch the growing season beyond its normal limits. As a result, grapes hung on the vines longer than usual, developing more varietal complexity and, more important, good acid levels. The year remained reasonably dry, too, so there was little mildew or rot on the grapes. The chardonnays made by most wineries in 1980 were noticeably lighter than the ’79s had been – maybe in some cases because wine makers had made a conscious decision to lighten them, but probably because that’s what the grapes produced. Surprisingly, alcohol remained high in most of the ’80s despite the comparatively low sugar of the grapes, but the unusually good acid mitigated some of the alcohol’s sharpness and middle-of-the-mouth bulk, and the fruit was well-rounded but almost never rai-siny. In short, accidents of climate had helped push California wine makers toward a style of wine that they (and consumers) seem to have been leaning toward already. After the more conventional harvest of 1981, at least some producers deliberately initated the characteristics of their ’80s, even though they didn’t have to. (When the ’80 chardonnays were first released, many received bad notices from reviewers on the grounds that they were too acidic, too green. Today, though, they are showing beautifully, as are the ’81s.) During a two- or three-month period, I’ve tasted about 75 California chardonnays from the ’80 and ’81 vintages. Below are brief notes on 20 chardonnays that I particularly liked -all of them currently available, or about to become available, in Dallas (prices may vary).


Beringer (Napa, $9). A nice surprise, with a light but pronounced chardonnay aroma and a crisp, clean quality on the palate. Not a lot of personality, but very agreeable.

Jekel (Monterey County, Private Reserve, $15). At first approach, an exception to the rule -a loud, demonstrative, alcoholic chardonnay in what might now be called the old style. But the acid, the complexity of flavor and the understated but vivid fruit are all there. I suspect that a lot of the wine’s brashness will fade with age. Anyway, it’s just plain good wine.

Landmark (Alexander Valley, $10). Fresh and lively, with lots of fruit. Not exactly an elegant wine, but nicely dressed. For its acidity and sharp-edged flavors, I’d say it would go particularly well with most spicy foods.

Robert Mondavi (Napa Valley, $14). A good standard for quality chardonnay in California, and a good example of intelligently restrained wine making. The bouquet comes out of the glass nicely, the fruit and acid are good and the medium-rich body of the wine fills the mouth but doesn’t make the teeth grate.

Monticello (Napa Valley, $11). A first-time wine for a new winery, actually made under the supervision of Phil Baxter, wine maker for Rutherford Hill (this wine seems a bit fuller and fruitier than the Rutherford Hill ’80)-lightly buttery and full of good flavors.

Pedregal(North Coast, $7.50). The second label for Stags Leap Winery (as opposed to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars). A perfect little bottle, really -unassuming but surprisingly flavorful, with a lingering fullness not always guaranteed in wines that cost twice this much.

Spring Mountain (Napa Valley, $13.50). This was one of the first of the best contemporary California chardonnays. (Its ’73 is still a lively bottle of wine, and the ’75 is almost as good.) In the late Seventies, there was some uncertainty here, but the ’80 shows the winery to be firmly back on the right track with fine balance, honest but not dully obvious chardonnay fruit and a clean, peach-like aftertaste.


Acacia (Carneros District, $14). The lightest in body and most restrained in flavor of the three ’81 Acacias, and thus a wine that seems a bit weak-kneed in comparative tastings -but beautiful stuff nonetheless, with light, lemony flavors in the front of the mouth and a slowly expanding roundness of fruit in the back. A good example of what might turn out to be the chardonnay style of the late Eighties.

Acacia (Napa Valley, $12.50). The bouquet starts cautiously here, but opens up generously. Not especially distinctive, but laced with good flavors and spiced with deliberate but unobtrusive overtones of oak.

Acacia (Winery Lake, $17.50). The fullest, frankest bouquet of the three Acacias here, but something of a letdown on the palate, at least at this point. It is still closed up. This is one to taste now and drink later.

Ahern (Edna Valley, $11). The Edna Valley, about halfway between LA and San Francisco, gives every indication of becoming some of the best chardonnay land in the state. The Ahern is probably the biggest of the region’s ’80 chardon-nays, with some references to the old ways (glycerine, vanilla, butter), but with an attractive crispness on top of it all.

Brander (Santa Ynez, $12). Firmly in the middle range, with good fruit and an elegant, complicated finish.

Chamisal (Edna Valley, $14). Another Edna Valley product, not quite as big as the Ahern but substantial enough. The fruit is very much in the foreground, with the oak whispering in the background and a nice illumination of acid all around.

Dry Creek (Sonoma County, $10). A lot of wine for the money -exquisitely bal-anced in bouquet and on the palate, with plenty of true chardonnay flavors and with that miraculous quality that good white burgundies sometimes have of being very full but not at all heavy.

Edna Valley (Edna Valley, $14). A third dandy from this region, falling somewhere between the Ahern and the Chamisal in heft, with good fruit and a lightly acidic backbite that leaves the palate feeling fresh and clean.

Flora Springs (Napa Valley, $12). Quiet and nicely finished, with good roundness in the middle of the mouth and just the right amount of oak to darken the abundant fruit.

Iron Horse (Green Valley/Sonoma, $12). A real beauty -crisp, fruity, deftly balanced, verging on the austere. It doesn’t taste much like French wine, but on the other hand, it keeps its constituent parts in check much more firmly than most Cali-fornians. One of the best of this bunch.

Martin Ray (Dutton Ranch, $18). This one’s a real reactionary -an old-fashioned, overbearing, terribly impressive Seventies-style wine with a smoky, toasty nose, a buttery richness on the palate, lots of alcohol, fruit and oak. It’s easier to chew than to swallow. But it certainly does taste (and smell) delicious.

Neyers (Napa Valley, $12). An aromatic, handcrafted wine from a small outfit run by a moonlighting executive from Phelps Vineyards, and not at all like that incomparably larger winery’s good char-donnay. This one is big and forthright, with plenty of fruit and acid and a lingering finish that turns almost floral.

Raymond (Napa Valley, $12). A good, well-balanced wine from an underrated winery -medium-rich in body, with a hint of peachy sauvignon blanc-like flavors weaving in and out of the unmistakable tastes of chardonnay.

REACH FOR your berets: According to a recent story in the Los Angeles Times, Pierre Colmant, commercial minister at the French Embassy in Washington, has an interesting view of Texas as a potential wine market for his country’s vintages. After noting that the French government’s first big promotion efforts in its “Incomparable Wines of France” campaign have concentrated on New York and Southern California, he reveals that Chicago, Atlanta, Houston and Dallas are leading contenders for French attention in 1983.