In a blog post published two years ago, I wrote about the fashionable ‘tight and austere chardonnays from the west Sonoma Coast being all the rage among sommeliers these days.’ I suggested this trend to high acid, stainless steel chardonnay, while perhaps appropriate for cold-climate fruit, was being taken too far, and was not suitable for moderate climates like Carneros and Livermore Valley. And, I predicted there would be, in the not too distant future, a rediscovery of Chardonnays with ‘just a little more flesh on their bones.’ Not the ultra-ripe, buttery and oak dominate chardonnays of our recent past, but classically crafted wines with structure and complexity.
I was reminded of these earlier musings the other day while reading W. Blake Gray’s article, ‘Austerity is in for Napa Carneros Chardonnay.’ Blake Gray, who writes the highly respected Gray Report, was the 2013 recipient of the Roederer award for excellence in wine journalism. A few months ago, Blake was participating in a major tasting of high-end chardonnays from Carneros, wines priced over 50 dollars. Blake was disappointed in the wines, writing ‘at the end of the tasting, I wondered if this is the best path for Carneros chardonnay? Carneros may not be right for austerity.’
Carneros and Livermore Valley are more alike than different in terms of climate. Both are warmer than the extreme Sonoma Coast, but cooler than interior Sonoma and Napa vineyards. The father of modern California winemaking, André Tchelistcheff, believed Carneros capable of producing chardonnays like the great Burgundies of Montrachet. In other words, chardonnay made with barrel fermentation, lees stirring, and resting sur lie.
Through study and experimentation, I have grown to believe that our Livermore Valley fruit is best showcased by the Burgundian style as well. Today our chardonnay is crafted by full barrel fermentation, with lees stirring and sur lie aging. And, as our understanding of our vineyard has improved, we have gradually extended barrel aging to improve the structure of the wine. With the 2016 chardonnay, the wine has aged a full ten months in barrel.
This week, we will bottle the 2016 vintage. The wine will be racked from the barrels and blended together. Nothing else will be done – no fining or filtering or chemical additions. Just the pure expression of Livermore Chardonnay made the old fashioned way, with a little flesh on the bones. Ten months in barrel – a century in the making.