So here I was, trying to decide if there was a slight hint of green in the dominantly pale-straw color of that chardonnay from the reputedly-cool Sonoma Coast (in terms of climate, I mean). Very slight, I decided, as I got whiffs of citrus peel, almonds, toasted bread and vanilla. Not terribly intense, but pleasant. Sipping it, I got quite a mouthful of peaches and cream – or maybe rather pears with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream – and again, some toasted notes on the finish. The acidity is nice, the alcohol a touch present, but it’s quite drinkable and not too heavy. The tasting note on their web site, in that sense, is right on the money (although I don’t find the finish lingers quite as much as they say).
It drank very nicely with some a light pasta dish with pesto and fresh parmesan. Yet the oakiness still feels a bit too present to me (95% French oak, 21% new, the web site says). I think it undercuts the freshness a bit – especially coming from a Sonoma Coast wine, which should express more of its cool climate qualities.
But then again, oakiness is apparently a relative thing. A very interesting article in Wines & Vines indicates that although wine critics seem to have noticed a relative calming down of the use of oak in California chardonnay, winemakers don’t report the same thing at all. Beyond the unoaked cuvées that have popped up here and there, oak is still the gold standard for the state’s dominant white wine:
(…)there has been a vague perception–including from my own tasting–that California Chardonnay has pulled back from the brink, resulting in more balanced, more integrated, more drinkable wines. So to investigate, I called up several winemakers known for their Chards–including some which had certainly rung my oaky bell in the past–and a pair of cooperages to see what might be going on under the hood.
The short answer: Chardonnay winemaking is business as usual. Casegoods and barrels are still selling nicely. Rather than turning their barrels into planters, winemakers have gotten better at using them; rather than banishing malolactic fermentation, winemakers have found better strains of bugs. Most of all, wineries have concentrated on bringing in better fruit, fruit more able to handle the full treatment. The recipe hasn’t changed much at all; producers are just working with better materials.
Another possibility is that our palates have gotten used to high-oak wines, and that more careful use of oak (and malolactif fermentation, with its added creaminess and reduced acid levels) brings the wines under a baseline that has gotten higher over the years. At least, tasting the La Crema, I’m thinking that winemakers could pull back a good deal more, and that we wouldn’t be worse off for it.
The Wines & Vines article, mind you, does say that there is an Oregon exception: in that state, malolactic is minimized if not avoided, and unoaked chardonnay are getting to be the rule, rather than the exception. I think I’ll be heading North, and bringing my palate with me…