If there’s anything we know about Chardonnay, it’s that it is highly adaptable to its environment. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Oregon—heck even Canada—all have areas that produce premium Chardonnays. Yet all are so distinctly different, all so uniquely dependent on both environmental (soil, climate, altitude and latitude) and human factors (grape grower, winemaker).
In California, Chardonnay is our most-planted white wine grape variety. It’s produced all over the state and, given the size of the state and the amount of wine producers, it can be expressed in a number of different styles. Today I’m zeroing in on three specific AVAs: Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, and Dry Creek Valley—all part of the Northern Sonoma AVA in Sonoma County, Calif.
The wines expressing these pieces of California terroir are all Chardonnays produced by Dutcher Crossing Winemaker, Nick Briggs, who walked me through a virtual tasting which included insight into the regional specificities from his growing partners: Charlie Chenoweth (Chenoweth Vineyards), Pam Bacigalupi (Bacigalupi Vineyards), Dan Rotlisberger (Redwood Empire Vineyard Management).
Before we get into the tasting, I want to provide a little regional breakdown.
We’re hanging out in Sonoma County, where major environmental influencers include proximity to the Pacific Ocean (and all that entails—cool winds, fogs and the time of day and how long those factors blow or sit in the vineyard) as well as altitude/elevation (which could mean cooler temperatures or, in some areas where vines sit above the fog line, warmer ones).
Sonoma County encompasses 18 AVAs, with three overarching AVAs (Northern Sonoma, Sonoma Coast, and Sonoma Valley—which do, indeed, overlap as you can see from the map above). As mentioned, the specific areas of focus (sub-AVAs if you will) are the Russian River, Alexander Valley, and Dry Creek Valley AVAs.
The Russian River AVA itself is pretty large, encompassing quite a few microclimates itself. The southern and western sections are a lot more highly influenced by the Pacific Ocean as the cold air flows through the Petaluma Gap (a gap in the Coastal Ranges). However, the Bacigalupi vineyard we tasted from is located in the northern end, a 60-acre parcel that spans from West Side Road down to the Russian River. So the day time sees a lot more hours of sunshine, receiving most fog late at night and in the early morning hours. “We’re lucky in that way,” says Pam Bacigalupi. “We’re lucky that we get the daytime sun, but you can really feel the temperature drop and the microclimates—especially at 4 a.m. when you’re helping with harvest.”
An interesting fact about this 40-year old vineyard is that it used to be planted to French Colombard, then t-budded over to Chardonnay. The clone is an old Wente clone (“of some sort, we surmise,” comments Pam) that shows looser bunches, lots of shot berries, and contributes what Pam calls a “muscat-y” characteristic into the wines produced.
In Alexander Valley, where the Stuhlmuller Vineyard is located, is a much warmer region. This specific block is 200 feet from the main channel of the Russian River, far enough south in Alexander Valley that it still receives some morning fog. “Not necessarily the overnight lows, but it (the fog) stays around until around 10 or 11 a.m. and then burns off,” says Dan Rotlisberger. “So those cooler temperatures help maintain some of that acid … But when heat waves come through, this site is extremely impacted.”
Lastly, if you’re surprised to see that Dry Creek on the list of places to taste Chardonnay—so was I. “Dry Creek is not the ideal growing region for Chardonnay,” admits Nick Briggs. “With all the heat, it just wants to lose acid and get ripe really fast.” But, he explains, this particular clone—Dijon Clone 809—is known to have higher terpenes, emits more floral aromatics (“More Viognier-like,” says Nick.). And perhaps its this extra bit of uumph, if you will, that allows the grape to be a little bit more heat-tolerant. Nick also points to the well-drained sandy/rivery rock/cobbly soils, as the vineyard is located right next to the Dry Creek creek (a tributary of the Russian River). “I wouldn’t be surprised if I can stop irrigating in 20 years because the water table is so close,” says Nick.
The departure of “normal” wine site translates to a departure in the wine style as well (as you’ll see from the notes below)—no new oak, no ML, a lot more brightness, freshness, and vivacity of innate fruit flavors.
Tasting through these wines certainly piques the interest in the concept of expression of place.
2017 Chenoweth Vineyard Chardonnay—Russian River Valley
Appearance: medium lemon
Aroma: medium (+) intensity—cream, vanilla, bread/biscuit, yeast; fresh lemon and lime; ripe yellow apple, just-ripe yellow peach, nectarine, and apricot; chamomile, white and apple blossom
Palate: dry, medium (+) acid, high alcohol, medium (+) body (soft, round texture; linear acidity piercing right through the center), medium (+) intensity of aromas—confirming the nose, adding fresh green apple, lime leaf, a hint of clove and nutmeg
Finish is just shy of long at a medium (+)
Conclusion: This is a very good wine that has an excellent dose of linear acidity that pierces through the soft, round texture of the wine, brought on by the creamy complexity of lees aging and stirring and the gentle, seamless integration of oak. Though the alcohol is on the high side (I don’t expect it to actually be much higher than 14% ABV), it’s not a hot-high, instead it simply adds to the weight, body, and round texture of the wine. Primary fruits, which span from citrus to orchard with some just-ripe stone fruit expressions are kept front and center, gently complemented and uplifted by those spice tones from oak. Primary characteristics also include some ‘earthier’ notes, such as the white florals and lime leaf, which give the wine a vivacious spring-time character. All of these characteristics intermingle from first sniff to last sip and linger through to the finish—which, as noted, is just shy of long (precluding it from an outstanding conclusion) at a medium (+) length.
I’d also like to add that I think this is the kind of white wine that is age-able. There’s a wonderful concentration of fruit, a high enough level of acid and alcohol that can structurally lend to longevity. Further, the nature of the fruits are such that they can (and will) develop along with notes of honey and nuts, uplifted by those spice tones from the oak integration.
Very good wine. Drink now or hold.
2018 Bacigalupi Vineyard Chardonnay—Russian River Valley
Appearance: medium lemon
Aroma: pronounced intensity—fully ripe yellow peach, nectarine and apricot; orange blossom and fresh jasmine; beeswax, nasturtium and agave nectar; red and yellow apple; cream; biscuit; vanilla; dried coriander and cumin spice
Palate: dry, medium (+) acid, high alcohol, medium (+) body, pronounced flavor intensity—confirming the nose, adding a bit of smoke or flint and toasted wood
Finish is long
Conclusion: This is an outstanding wine—a complex wine with depth and levels of flavors and aromas. Between the fresh ripe fruits, the bouquet of florals and earthy notes, those sprinkles of spices, and the overall smooth, round texture of the wine, there’s something to constantly discover throughout the length of the tasting—which is, indeed long. Again, there’s a high note to the alcohol, but this is well-integrated, lending body, weight, and just a kiss of warmth that actually complements the ripeness of the fruits involved. I love the spice-full notes I’m getting from what I assume is time and barrel, which break through (sneakily) the rounded, creamy texture from the well-incorporated use of ML. This wine is engaging and, most importantly, a joy to drink.
Like the previous wine, I believe this expression has the potential for aging and will become not only more interesting with time, but more decadent and voluptuous as well.
Outstanding. Drink now or hold.
2017 Stuhlmuller Vineyard Chardonnay—Alexander Valley
Appearance: pale lemon
Aroma: medium (+) aromas—biscuit/pastry, vanilla, meyer lemon flesh, navel orange skin, soft-ripe yellow apple, nutmeg, just-ripe white peach, citrus blossom, something herbal (fresh Thai basil? a hint of lemongrass?), wet stone/mineral
Palate: dry, medium (+) acid, high alcohol, medium body, medium (+) flavor intensity—confirming the nose
Finish is medium (+)
Conclusion: This is a very good wine that shows a good range of primary fruits dominated by citrus tones, namely that meyer lemon flesh and that navel orange skin/zest/oil. The wine has just a twinge of phenolic grip, adding a bit of dryness to the tongue and a balanced bit of bitterness to the tasting that I quite enjoy. Though I ultimately marked the alcohol as high, I hedged on medium, as it is so well-integrated into the wine. Again there are secondary, winemaking characteristics at play here: lees aging (as indicated by biscuit/pastry notes), oak aging (as indicated by the vanilla and spice notes) and perhaps a bit of skin contact as well (for that bit of phenolic grip).
While structurally, acid, alcohol and intensity of flavors are present, I think that the joy in this wine is its freshness, its delicate nuances on both the nose and the palate that I fear would fade with time so I encourage you not to hold. Very good wine. Drink now.
2018 Winemakers Cellar Chardonnay—Dry Creek Valley
Appearance: medium lemon
Aroma: pronounced intensity—lemongrass, ginger, saffron, lemon, lime, white blossom, lime leaf, ripe green and yellow apple, apricot, vanilla, toasted wood, smoke/matchstick flint
Palate: dry, medium acidity, high alcohol, medium (+) body, pronounced flavor intensity—confirming the nose, adding mandarin orange, rose water, lychee, and maybe even a hint of just ripe pineapple or passionfruit as well as a kind of minty or basil-y herbaceousness
Finish is medium (+)
Conclusion: This is a very good wine that, like the previous, has pure joy in the freshness of fruit, floral, and herbaceous flavors that contain delicate layers one can discover the more you swirl, sniff, and sip. Indeed, those primary fruits have a broad range from citrus through to stone, just on the cusp of tropical notes as well. The secondary characteristics of lees and oak usage are less pronounced here than in any of the previous wines—a testament to either winemaker’s touch or the vivacity and purity of the fruit itself. (Most likely a combination of both!)
Like the previous, the wine has the structural components so one could cellar it and see how it evolves. But, again, my personal recommendation is to enjoy this wine for what it is now.
This is a really interesting wine. A very good wine. Drink now.
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