No grape morphs in style quite as much as chardonnay which, especially in California, offers a cornucopia of expressions that keeps wine lovers coming back for more and making it America’s most popular white grape by a country mile.
by Andrew Chalk
The protean character of chardonnay was graphically brought home to me at a recent Jackson Family Wines portfolio tasting in Dallas. Two verticals, each of three vintages of Brewer-Clifton and Stonestreet Estate Vineyards chardonnay, each from one vineyard, displayed fierce differences in character between the properties, as well as two age profiles and vintage variation.
The wines were tasted non-blind in the order shown in the table below from top to bottom
The layout is deliberate. I have placed Brewer-Clifton in the left-hand column, and Stonestreet on the right. I have also grouped the wines into pairs and staggered their placement to indicate which of each pair is older.
Picking a column shows a vertical tasting of that wine. Vertical differences were most pronounced in the case of the Brewer-Clifton. The 2010, just shy of a decade in age, showed characteristics many sommeliers would associate with aged white Burgundy. I.e. a throttling back of the fruit on the palate, a hint, and just a hint, of oxidation in the nose, and a general resolution of the the components in both that a young wine is found still seeking. I expect it to continue to age for several more years and actually expand the range of foods that it pairs well with in the process.
At the other end, the 2016 was primarily bright tropical and citrus (Meyer lemon) fruit atop a well-defined phenolic backbone. Oak was muted (to a heroic degree by California standards) making for a leaner wine.
The ‘3D’ vineyard from which these wines were entirely sourced is 10 acres of primarily sandy soil planted with equal amounts of the clones 4, 76, Hyde, Mount Eden, and Sea Smoke Wente. Interestingly, Brewer-Clifton owns the vines, but not the vineyard. That is leased from Tom and Jan Davidson who approached the winery with the suggested arrangement in 2007.
Ultimately, the Brewer-Clifton wines reflect this soil, the unusual Santa Rita Hills climate, being in one of the quartet of east-west running valleys in Santa Barbara county, and the approach of winemaker Greg Brewer. The 100% neutral oak, very little malolactic fermentation, and 100% whole cluster fermentation, break from usual California practise with the result a distinctive wine.
The Stonestreet column also shows ageing effects but, maybe because the oldest wine is only eight years old and the tasting spanned only four years, they are not as pronounced. The 2011, for example, is still fruit-driven and fresh. It exhibits overt French oak and creamy flavors, reflecting the barrel-fermentation and full malolactic fermentation. The 2016 shows the same lineage but is from a warmer year and is consequently a more opulent wine.
The Stonestreet Upper Barn Vineyard estate wine is made from mountain estate vineyards on the side of the Mayacamas mountains in the Alexander Valley AVA. Vineyard Manager Gabriel Valencia farms the Sobrante loam soils with vines of Hyde and Wente clones spaced widely in rows twelve feet apart. In the cellar, winemaker Lisa Valtenbergs’ approach could not be more different from Brewer’s. The wine is barrel-fermented in French oak with a native yeast, barrel-aged 11 months in 47% new French oak.With the exception of the use of native yeast this follows the California playbook. The oak and creaminess of texture reflect the winemaking. The bigness of the wine the vintage. It would be interesting to taste an older example of this wine to see how it evolved.
Only in 2013 were the two wines paired head to head in the tasting. Both saw a warm vintage and small berries, however the geographic variation and winemaking style decisions dominate. The Stonestreet comes across as the bigger wine in this situation.The fruit seems to be bottomless and bursting to escape into the nose and palate. The Brewer-Clifton is a leaner, grippier example.
Ultimately, the choice between these two producers comes down to stylistic preference, given the vintage. What they emphasize was how different California Chardonnays can be, in defiance of those who claim they ‘are all the same’. They also reflect winemaker’s decisions being paramount.
It is a good time for consumers to be looking for Chardonnay. Several spectacular vintages in a row have produced better wine than ever, and quantities that prevent large price increases. These two producers should be firmly on consumers’ radars.