California chardonnay has a bit of an image problem. And probably deservedly so. For years and years, it has seemed like most California chardonnays you’d come across tasted like oak-butter bombs, leaning heavily on the twin crutches of heavy oak treatment and malolactic fermentation. With such heavy makeup on, a lot of CA chardonnay presented a flashy profile that may have caught the attention of new drinkers that need something obvious, but turned off many more experienced drinkers. I know many wine drinkers who will actually refuse a glass offered to them once they hear that it’s Cali chard.
Those people may have reason to start tasting again. Recently I have seen encouraging signs that many California chardonnay producers have started to set their sights on making crisp, sometimes minerally chardonnays rather than lush but flabby ones. But its not necessarily about not using oak or malo – even the best examples of CA chard do to some degree – to me its about finding the balance point at which you can have pleasing fruit, crispness without greenness, and acid cut that’s tensile without being shrill. Several producers who fit this bill were recently pouring their wines at the New York tasting of the group In Pursuit of Balance, a group of pinot and chardonnay producers aiming to make more restrained and elegant wines.
One producer that really hit one out of the park for me at the IPOB tasting was Ceritas. I first met Winemaker John Raytek a number of years ago while visiting Copain, where he was the assistant winemaker at the time. I’ve been aware for a few years that John had struck out on his own with Ceritas and have been meaning to taste his wines ever since then, but never quite got around to it; now that I’ve had my first taste he did a good job of making me regret not tracking down the wines sooner. In particular, I thought the 2010 Heintz Vineyard chardonnay showed great balance and dimension – with some delectable richness to its high quality fruit without being cloying, hints of smoke and mineral on the nose, and glorious tingling acidity to keep the palate enlivened and refreshed. For those who like to have a personal connection to wines and their makers, there are a lot of other reasons to like Ceritas – John and his wife Phoebe Bass bring a very personable touch to Ceritas. I also appreciated that when I ordered some of the chardonnay, that it came with a nice retro-styled postcard about the history of the Heintz vineyard, and was shipped in environmentally-friendly non-styrofoam pulp packaging. Wax capsules on the bottles also add a nice touch. Overall, everything is done in a very thoughtful way – and you can tell that the winemaking is similarly thoughtful; you can get a sense for what I mean by visiting the Ceritas website.
Another producer whose chard was among my favorites was Littorai. Winemaker Ted Lemon is a pioneering winemaker in many ways – and to my palate he produced the strongest lineup across the board at IPOB, which included both chardonnays and pinot noirs. I will write more about him and his pinot noirs in an upcoming blog post, but for now, let me note that his 2010 Thieriot chardonnay, with all due respect to Thomas Rivers Brown, was everything I hoped the Rivers-Marie Thieriot chard would be (but hasn’t quite been yet) – lean, minerally, crisp. If you’re a chablis drinker, Littorai is the California chardonnay you should check out.
A few other chardonnays of note: Copain’s 2010 Brosseau chardonnay was another top contender. Richer than I might’ve expected given winemaker Wells Guthrie’s low-brix approach in recent vintages, the Brosseau nonetheless was pretty darn delicious. Wells told me that with respect to white wines, he has shifted focus to chardonnay from his former efforts with the marsanne and roussanne varieties. Personally, I look forward to tasting the Brosseau and the Ceritas wines in each new vintage to see whether teacher or former assistant turns out the better chardonnay. We consumers will win on both counts, I’m sure.
Finally, Chanin Wine Company’s 2010 Los Alamos chardonnay stood out because it managed to keep a fresh, crisp edge, which I haven’t found often in Santa Barbara chards, which tend to be a bit richer but softer. Gavin Chanin is a promising young winemaker to keep an eye on.
Full tasting notes on chardonnays that I tasted from the IPOB tasting: