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Finding Purpose: California Chardonnay at IPOB SF 2013


In Pursuit of Balance SF 2013: Seminar 1: Relevance and Purpose in California Chardonnay

Chardonnay Varietal Notes

Jon Bonné headed a panel of Chardonnay makers focused on the “Relevance and Purpose” of the state’s expression of the grape. In his opening remarks, Bonné referenced our movement into the third wave of California Chardonnay. As a reaction against the oft criticized Rombauer over-oaked and buttery paradigm, Bonné explains, winemakers developed an interest in the use of stainless steel and its austere coupling against malolactic fermentation. Today, Bonné offers, we also find a terroir driven synthesis that brings together delicacy of flavor with textural pleasure, higher acidity freshness, and lower alcohol heat. The wines represented throughout the event, In Pursuit of Balance, showcase such a style.

The panel discussion included the following winemakers and owners: Gavin Chanin, Chanin Wine Company; Matt Licklider, LIOCO; Rajat Parr, Sandhi Wines; Bab Varner, Varner Wine. Each showed a single recent vintage wine to illustrate their work. Knez Wine was also represented through the tasting portion of the panel.

Expressing Chardonnay’s Site

As Bonné began the panel, we were reminded of the neutral character of the grape itself. That is, Chardonnay does well at transmitting the characteristics of the climate, soil, and overall terroir within which it is grown. Stylistic choices can overwhelm the site specificity possible through the grape too, however. But in listening to the panel discussion, what the third wave of California Chardonnay seems to be expressing is the subtle balance not only of alcohol and acidity, but of site presentation and stylistic technique.

Rajat Parr gave the most direct statement regarding the panel’s thesis question–the Relevance and Purpose in California Chardonnay. “Our goal,” he offered, “should be to make the best wine from where you are. Not the best wine like somewhere else. Represent your own appellation.”

Bob Varner furthered the question on how to accomplish such a goal. Varner clarifies that as a winemaker he regularly asks himself “how do I have the most control doing the least?” Through experience Varner has learned that “the vineyard is going to give me more than I can do in the cellar.”

The point becomes interesting when you consider that even in less manipulative winemaking practices technique is still a determining factor for expressing terroir. Varner addresses this point. “Sites need technique. […] You have to make decisions about what to do and don’t do.” In considering lower intervention approaches to wine, Varner emphasizes that “too much removal [of technique] leads to not making a statement wine. One that doesn’t reflect the vineyard.”

Questions Besides Terroir

Alongside such considerations the winemaker also has to decide what their other goals are in making their wine. Terroir isn’t a simple matter of direct presentation, fruit to wine, there are also considerations of how quickly one wants their wines to be approachable, what texture the winemaker prefers, and how rich he or she is willing to let the flavors become, all of which make contact with the idea of how to express the particular site, that is, of how to cultivate the fruit into wine. As an example, Parr references the use of light fining and filtration on Sandhi wines. Sandhi fines and filters because of how doing so makes the final wines more taut, a stylistic preference that still carries the manifestation of the site’s particular potential.

The Relevance of Clone versus Site

The panel clarifies that when considering site the age of the vines has some relevance early on. That is, in the first 10 to 15 years of a vineyard’s life the wine expression is more about the clone–the characteristics of the particular clone planted really show when the vines are young. In a young vineyard the nuances of the site itself are not very clearly expressed. However, once the vines acclimate to the site, they calm down in a sense. Older than 15 years and the particular characteristics of the vineyard become more important than the clone type. Bob Varner clarifies, “younger vines are more exuberant. But [their fruit is] not as dense or taut on the palate as older vines. Older vines also offer more lift.”

Working with Chardonnay

The sensitivity of Chardonnay gives Gavin Chanin his reason for loving the grape. As he explains, “working with great Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir,” he adds, “needs time to produce. With these grapes time turns into something.” Part of the point Chanin raises is the role technique carries in creating good wine. In discussion Chanin considers that if one wanted to create the strictest rendition of a terroir wine, the winemaker might choose to rack, to bottle, to age the exact same durations every year. In keeping the numbers consistent, the wine drinker, it would seem, could really taste the vintage differences from year to year. But as Chanin explains, “respecting an individual wine means respecting that wine has different needs” from the same vineyards’ fruit of a different vintage, or the fruit from one vineyard versus another.

An audience member asked the panel about the idea of new oak. The Raumbauer panic would seem to steer us away from the use of new barrels. But Matt Licklider clarifies, “new oak is good.” There’s not an absolute for or against its use. “Some sites don’t need it.” Bob Varner responds in agreement. “The trick is finding the cooperage and wood that integrates with the wine. That adds structure, with flavors that integrate rather than cover over.”

Thank you to Jon Bonné for facilitating the discussion. Thank you to Gavin Chanin, Matt Licklider, Rajat Parr, and Bob Varner for your insights.

Thank you to Jasmine Hirsch, and to Dan Fredman.

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