Degas’s Dancers, and the (Surprising) Grace of a California Chardonnay

Degas’s Dancers, and the (Surprising) Grace of a California Chardonnay

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Edgar Degas, Three Dancers in an Exercise Hall 1880

Examine any of Degas’s paintings of ballet dancers from the later portions of his career and one sees a charming simplicity of grace. The dancers most often appear quite young, shown in muted tones, generally in practice rather than performance situations, and wearing skirts that puff about their bodies creating the shape of a bell.

Already a successful painter, Degas’s dancer series appeared as a departure from the work he’d done previous, and seemed reflective too of him taking a new level of consideration for form and balance after years of portraits involving people in everyday circumstances. What is unique about Degas’s overall career at the time, is his interest in behind the scenes portrayals of human life. He often painted people at rest alone in a room leaning on their own knee, or a bartender rushing to tend to too many customers. The dancers shift Degas’s focus from the reality of everyday grit and even despair, to instead an occupation of intense dedication to craft. (Incidentally, Degas was also later the first European artist to produce a mixed media sculpture in 1922–a ballet dancer of bronze wearing actual gauze skirt, and bow. To see an image of it look here: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/29.100.370 )

At their best, Degas’s dancers celebrate the varied shapes, expressiveness and self-contained focus of the human body. What is common among his work from this series is the sort of inwardness each of his subjects carry. They are aware of their surroundings, and they respond to it (most especially in the few where dancers are on stage) but in each case the young women are deeply rooted in themselves, focused on performing a long standing tradition with proper poise, balance and grace.

Today Degas’s dancers are a sort of familiarity, appearing so many times in the background of movies, celebrated as a historical feature in museums, reproduced and reprinted for posters at home. Such common presence can make it easy to overlook the skill and ingenuity of Degas’s work. But one of the gifts of the ballet dancer series is how much detail and presence they contain in themselves–the dancers have a life on the canvas that is their own, and offer richness to the viewer willing to return to them again and again with dedicated attention. These are a reflection of Degas’s talent and well-trained experience as a painter.

Antinori Antica 2009 Chardonnay

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Chardonnay stands as California’s most planted grape. Advantages of the variety include its relative ease to grow in the field, and its popularity as an approachable, buttery, fruit-driven wine. The California style is known for these descriptors with the wine spending its life on oak for spice and wood notes that increase its fullness and zest on the tongue, and undergoing malo-lactic fermentation too adding a buttery or butterscotch flavor. Though there are multiple exceptions to this style in the overall region, it is still easier to find a chardonnay from California that fulfills it than not.

Enter Antinori. As they tell it, the Antinori family began making wine in 1385 in what is now Italy. As such they have 26 generations of wine makers in the family. In the 1960s, Piero Antinori visited California and began to dream of a second wine making venture for his family in a new locale along the California hilltops. The project gained roots in the early 1990s when they purchased land along the Napa Valley. What is unique about the property is its hilly terrain, and higher-than-normal planting elevation. The rocky soil suits chardonnay’s needs for enriching struggle, and the slopes allow drainage that encourages clarity of flavor. Naming the estate for a combination of their own name and that of California, Antinori’s Napa wines are known as Antica. Their first vintages of Napa wine–Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay–were released in the mid-2000s.

My feature today of Antica Chardonnay arises because of my surprise with it. Antinori has managed to create a chardonnay that carries aspects of California’s chardonnay typicity but with a sophistication and elegance that shows both complexity and focus. In short, Antinori makes oak and butter-notes desirable.

One can taste the oak influence, but it is light, offering baking spice and touches of sweet heat all balanced with pleasing fruit and bright acidity. The wine has the butter elements of malo-lactic fermentation but here they are more creamy than buttery and bring a steadiness to the elongated finish. The citrus fruits are also balanced and at ease in the glass, dancing alongside fresh crushed rock minerals, and even light hints of smoke.

Antica’s 2009 Chardonnay shows a dancer’s body. Like Degas’s graceful figures, this wine certainly arises out of long standing tradition. But this wine has its own life–focused in the glass, determined to carry the tradition forward, while comfortable in its own fluid strength. This is readily one of the best chardonnays I’ve tasted from California recently, and I celebrate it especially for its ability to take up the fearfulness of an oaked chardonnay and instead make it good.

For an interesting video from the Antica estate on the production of this 2009 chardonnay watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYS5KSB25tw

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Seth Long, of Seler d’Or, dedicated this 29-day month of February to the variety chardonnay. To add to the charm of this venture his site is also filled for it with a predominance of guest writers–some of the most knowledgeable and quirky figures of the wine blogging world. To thank Seth again for taking up such an interesting project, I decided to, with him, close the month of February with a chardonnay focus. Check out Seth’s interesting blog, where his own writing dives into the qualities of what he calls “real wine.” http://sethmlong.com/

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For just a touch more on the range of flavors chardonnay can show depending on wine style, check out my color characteristics card on the grape from a previous post:

http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2011/12/12/chardonnay-varietal-characteristics-card/

Cheers!

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