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Sips of Recently Tasted California Chardonnay

Chardonnay most likely resulted from an amorous fling in the distant past between Gouvais Blanc and Pinot Noir. I like the result of this Pinot Noir infidelity and when I am not drinking Pinot Noir, I can usually be found with a glass of Chardonnay in hand. I am not the only one, for Chardonnay continues to be America’s most popular wine. At last year’s Wine Industry Financial Symposium, the Gomberg Fredrickson Annual Review of California Varietal Table Wine Volume in 2015 was 214 million cases of which 26% was Chardonnay.

There is a flood of domestic Chardonnay in the marketplace, the vast majority of which is ordinary or worse. Most of it shows the hand of the winemaker more than the pedigree of the fruit or the terroir and as a result, many wine consumers write Chardonnay off as a quaff of little nobility. The truth is, that you can find complex domestic Chardonnay to rival anything made in the world, but like its parent, Pinot Noir, it often doesn’t come cheap. There are value priced Chardonnays of note to be sure, and you will find several in this review priced in the $40 and less ballpark, but the top dogs are from elite vineyards, are expensive to craft and the prices reflect this. High dollar Chardonnay can be an anathema to many but the lofty quality of many such wines justify the tab.

Next issue will feature the impressive latest Chardonnays from Oregon.

2015 Cline Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

14.0% alc., pH 3.65, TA 0.59, RS 0.52 g/100ml, $14.99, screwcap. Harvest Brix 24.1º. Grapes were gently de-stemmed and carefully pressed. Fermented in stainless steel after two days of cooling and settling. No malolactic fermentation. The lees were stirred for several months before racking to French oak barrels, 40% new, for 6 months. · Light golden yellow color in the glass. Delicate aromas of slate and apple. Easy going in a very delicate style that is clean and crisp, featuring flavors of lemon, pineapple, apple and petrol and a hint of sweet oak. Satisfactory rather than special. Tasted twice with a second bottle showing marked reductive notes of flint, burnt rubber and gun barrel that did not subside even when tasted the following day from a previously opened bottle. Score: 85

Clos du Val is a pioneering Napa Valley winery established in the Stags Leap District in 1972. Over the past several years, the winery has gone through a period of unprecedented change. President and CEO Steve Tamburelli and Director of Operations Jon-Mark Chappellet (both formerly of Chappellet Winery) and Winemaker Ted Henry have led the revitalization. In the 2014 vintage, Clos du Val began exclusively making wines from its own 350 acres of estate vineyards in the Stags Leap District, Carneros and Yountville appellations. To make this decision a reality, the winery cut production in half, lowered yields and focused on vine balance, harvested fruit riper, renovated the winery adding a small-tank fermentation room, invested in a new barrel program, switched to guaranteed TCA-free corks for all wines and built a stunning new visitor center. The renewed dedication is evident in the quality of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay reviewed in this issue.

2015 Clos du Val Estate Grown Carneros Napa Valley Chardonnay

13.5% alc., pH 3.50, TA 0.69, $32. 100% estate Chardonnay from vines that range in age from 11 to 29 years. Barrel fermented, 20% malolactic fermentation. Aged 10 months in French oak barrels, 28% new. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. A richly styled offering, with aromas of lemon, grilled pineapple, peach, herbs and oak vanillin. Soft and creamy in the mouth, with flavors of Fuji apple, lychee, pineapple, spice and white corn, supported by admirable balancing acidity. Even more enjoyable when tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. Score: 92

2015 Decoy Sonoma County Chardonnay

13.5% alc., 63,700 cases, $20, screwcap. 20% aged in French oak barrels and 80% in stainless steel. · Light golden yellow color and clear in the glass. Gregarious aromas of lemon, grapefruit, spice and a hint of butter. Bright and clean in the mouth with a silky demeanor and enjoyable flavors of white peach, lemon, lychee and creme caramel. Unpretentious but highly satisfying. A great value. Score: 90

2015 Dutton-Goldfield Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley Chardonnay

13.5% alc., pH 3.43, TA 0.66, $38. A blend of grapes from seven vineyards most of which are old clone vineyards located in the heart of Green Valley. Barrel fermented using a combination of indigenous and inoculated yeast strains. Full malolactic fermentation, with lees stirring twice monthly through the winter. Total aging 10 months, 40% new French oak barrels. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. A rich and heady Chardonnay with aromas of lemon oil, poached pear, butter, oak and iron. Highly flavorful, with tastes of apple, pear, lemon, creme caramel and toast. An outspoken offering that is very creamy in the mouth and generously oaked. Score: 90

2015 Fulcrum Durell Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

14.2% alc., 175 cases, $48. Inaugural Chardonnay from this producer. Dijon clone 95. Barrel fermented and aged 11 months in 42% French oak barrels. Unfined and lightly filtered. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. The nose is mildly reductive with the distinct aroma of flint along with scents of apple, banana and vanilla creme. Somewhat richly endowed with flavors of peach, salted apple, pineapple and brioche with a subtle green note. Satiny in texture, with seamless integration of acid and some length to the pleasantly fruited finish. Score: 88

2015 Gregory James Patient Terrier Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

13.5% alc., pH 3.28, TA 0.73, 320 cases, $38. Released October 2016. Spring Mountain, Robert Young and Old Wente clones. Harvest Brix 22.5º. Whole cluster pressed, inoculated with a White Burgundy yeast, fermented and aged in neutral French oak barrels. No lees stirring, full malolactic fermentation. Bottled immediately after secondary fermentation to retain a fresh and vibrant character. Winemaker Greg James was strongly influenced to produce this style of Chardonnay by his love of wines of Chablis, France. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. Although I try to avoid the term, “minerality” came to mind right away when I tasted this wine. Clean and brisk, with aromas and flavors of citrus, melon, pear and floral bouquet uplifted by a prevalent energetic, steely acidity. There is the slightest hint of butter from malolactic fermentation and even less infusion of almond oil presumably from oak. Score: 93

2014 Gregory James Hawk Hill Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

13.6% alc., pH 3.23, TA 0.69, 220 cases, $52. Released October 2016. Winemaker Gregory James has worked with Hawk Hill Vineyard for over 13 years. 7 acres of Chardonnay planted primarily to Clone 5 (Wente) in 1985 on a ridge top high above the town of Freestone. Harvest Brix 22.0º. Whole cluster pressed, inoculated with a select White Burgundy yeast strain, infrequent lees stirring during primary fermentation. 3 week primary fermentation, malolactic fermentation over 5 months. Aged 10 months in French oak barrels, 22% new and 78% neutral. The wine remained on its lees during malolactic fermentation without stirring, and eventually racked off the lees to allow for natural clarification of the wine two months before bottling. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. Terrific aromatics, offering scents of honey, apple, spice, and a hint of butter and oak. Very classy with brisk acidity, offering juicy flavors of lemon and apple with a bit of nut oil. The lip-smacking and lifted finish goes on and on and leaves an memorable impression. Score: 94

2015 J. Lohr October Night Arroyo Seco Monterey Chardonnay

14.9% alc., pH 3.39, TA 0.73, RS 0.30 g/100ml, 1,918 cases, $25. Backbone is Dijon 809 (Musqué clone) harvested at 24.8º Brix. Whole cluster pressed, inoculated primary and secondary fermentations. Aged in French oak barrels, 50% new, for 10 months with weekly stirring of the lees. Tight grain Francois Frères barrels. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. A very unusual Chardonnay reflecting the clone and I found it intriguing. The floral aspect of the Musqué clone definitely comes through in this wine, reminding somewhat of the aromatic profile of Malvasia Blanca. Besides the floral bouquet on the nose, aromas of spice, butterscotch and orange peel are attractive. The wine offers richness on the palate as well as clean, bright flavors of applesauce, citrus and spices including cinnamon. The oak is beautifully integrated and the overall balance excels. Give this one extra points for uniqueness. Score: 92

2015 J. Lohr Arroyo Vista Arroyo Seco Monterey Chardonnay

14.9% alc., pH 3.55, TA 0.71, RS 0.30 g/100 ml, 5,133 cases, $25. Majority of blend is Dijon clone 76.Harvest Brix 25.7º average. Inoculated primary and secondary fermentations. Weekly lees stirring during malolactic fermentation and ten months past. Aged in French oak barrels on the lees for 14 months, 51% new. · Moderately light golden yellow color and clear in the glass. Welcoming aromas of ripe apple, peach, lemon-lime and whipped cream. Slightly richer with riper flavors than the October Night bottling, offering flavors of apple, white peach, nectarine and brioche along with a hint of sweetness and a tiny bit of spritz. Impressive barrel management and overall exemplary balance. Score: 91

2015 La Rue Charles Heintz Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

14.1% alc., 22 cases, $60. (allocated to mailing list customers). Aged 17 months in French oak barrels. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. Heady aromas of orchard fruits, butterscotch, and floral goodness that reminds of a walk in an orchard in blossom. The wine really perks up the senses with flavors of lemon, peach, pear and subtle vanilla. A floral note and saltiness chimes in as well. Very comforting, with a velvety mouthfeel and a quenching finish. I can just taste the Wente clone in this classy wine that embraces with perfect harmony. Still terrific when tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. Heintz=Hightz. Score: 95

Mindego Ridge is a relatively new winery based on a vineyard site in the Santa Cruz Mountains, about 8 miles from the Pacific Ocean and 1 mile from Rhys Vineyards’ Alpine Vineyard. This is a very small husband and wife project, with 8.7 acres of Pinot Noir and 1.3 acres of Chardonnay planted in 2009 amongst the redwoods. The couple devote themselves to caring for the vines. Noted winemaker, Ehren Jordan (Failla), is the winemaker.

2014 Mindego Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay

13.7% alc., pH 3.37, TA 0.79, 343 cases, $48. Dijon 17, 76 and 96. Harvest Brix 22.7º. Whole cluster pressed directly to French oak barrels, 15% new and 75% neutral along with 10% into stainless steel. Fermented with indigenous yeast followed by native malolactic fermentation. Aged 11 months on the lees. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. Lovely aromas of slate, lemon curd, apple core and buttery brioche lead to a polished palate featuring flavors of citrus, baked apple, and pear lifted with pinpoint acidity. Slightly creamy in texture with a juicy finish. Score: 92

2014 Sea Smoke Sea Smoke Estate Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay

14.5% alc., pH 3.54, TA 0.50, $60. Released October 2016. Whole cluster pressed before gently pumped into stainless steel tank and cold settled. Racked to French oak barrels, 55% new, and a stainless steel fermenter, then inoculated for primary fermentation. Subsequently, the wine was inoculated for malolactic fermentation and lees were periodically stirred. Aged for 16 months before bottling. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. Enticing aromas of lemon wafer, yellow apple, spice, white chocolate and crushed sea shells. Polished in the mouth with a sophisticated bearing, offering tastes of lemon creme, apple and vanillin and a pervasive thread of minerality in the background. Well-integrated acidity with adroit oak management. Score: 93

2013 Stomping Girl Wines Hyde Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay

14.3% alc., pH 3.24, TA 0.63, 350 cases, $44. Released spring 2016. Wente Hyde field selection and Robert Young clone. Harvest Brix 23.7º. Whole cluster pressed, barrel fermented, aged on the lees with regular stirring, 100% malolactic fermentation. Aged 11 months in French oak barrels, 10% new. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Moderately light platinum yellow color in the glass. Aromas of lees, apple, lemon creme, jasmine and brioche. Discreetly concentrated, with inviting flavors of yellow stone fruits, lemon, grapefruit, spice and subtle toast. Ideal balance with a slightly creamy mouthfeel, and a vibrant finish with good cut. The pedigree of the fruit shows through in this classy wine. Score: 93

2013 Two Sisters Courtney’s Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay

14.3% alc., $30. Sourced from a 123-acre vineyard located at 515 to 860 feet elevation. Clones 76 and 96 planted in limestone sand clay. Aged 16 months in French oak barrels. · Moderate golden yellow color and clear in the glass. Expressive aromas of lemon oil, white peach, butter and brioche satisfy. A rich, well-oaked style featuring ripe stone and tropical fruit flavors along with oak embellishments of toffee and caramel. The wine finishes with a good grip and grilled lemon and sandy beach aromatic themes. Score: 89

2014 Varner Spring Ridge Vineyard Amphitheater Block Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay

14.1% alc., $45. · Moderately light golden yellow color in the glass. The Santa Cruz Mountains seems to be the chosen region for Chardonnay and this wine shows why. A complex nose offers aromas of lemon curd, honey, yellow applesauce, spice and steel. Vivacious on the palate with vivid flavors of peach, melon, banana, pineapple, honey, graham and vanilla cream. The wine seduces rather than attacks the senses with some austerity that is part of its charm. The clean finish shows persistent aromatic goodness as well. Still fine the following day when tasted from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. Score: 93

2014 WindRacer Anderson Valley Chardonnay

13.5% alc., $40. · Moderately light golden yellow color in the glass. Nicely perfumed with aromas of lemon, spiced apple, nut oil, buttery brioche as well as notes of salinity and steeliness. Slightly viscous on the palate, with flavors of apple, lemon zest, custard and buttered toast. Nicely balanced, with an uplifting backbone of citrus-infused acidity, finishing with a bit of length. Still fine the following day when tasted from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. Score: 91

2014 WindRacer Russian River Valley Chardonnay

14.5% alc., $40. Clones 4 and 76 from Kelli Ann Vineyard. A mix of older and new blocks that replaced previously planted Pinot Noir. Gentle whole cluster pressed and fermented and aged 15 months in French oak barrels, 20% new. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. Subtle aromas of yellow apple, pear and melon are infused with the scent of beach sand. Somewhat reserved with more apple than citrus flavor and a touch of spice. The fruit is well-ripened but not tropical in character. Plush in the mouth with a thread of well-paced oak in the background, finishing on a lemon-lime note. A hint of alcoholic warmth peaks out as the wine warms in the glass. Score: 89

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