The last great California chardonnays.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Sept. 17 2008 4:01 PM

The Last Great California Chardonnays

Wines so lean and elegant they could be Burgundies.

In 1976, a pair of upstart American wines, the 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon and the 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay, beat out some of the biggest names from Bordeaux and Burgundy in a tasting that came to be known as the Judgment of Paris. This glass-shattering moment in wine history is the subject of a new movie called Bottle Shock, which puts the Montelena chardonnay at the center of the story. The film opened to mixed reviews; I haven't seen it, so I am in no position to moonlight as Gene Shalit. But I am delighted the Montelena is getting a Hollywood close-up, not only because of what the wine achieved in Paris 32 years ago, but because of the style of California chardonnay that it represents. Montelena has always produced a lithe, elegant, very Burgundian chardonnay, which is why it managed to win over (read: fool) the group of French wine eminences who participated in the 1976 showdown. This type of chardonnay fell out of fashion beginning in the 1980s, supplanted by richer, heavier, oakier renditions. But Montelena and a handful of other venerable California wineries defied the trend and have continued making chardonnays that emphasize finesse over power. To my mind, these remain the best American chardonnays around and consistently demonstrate the heights California winemaking can achieve.

Chardonnay, of course, is virtually synonymous with California winemaking. With nearly 100,000 acres planted, it is the state's most widely cultivated wine grape and currently accounts for one of every four bottles of California wine consumed in the United States. But it wasn't always thus. A half-century ago, chardonnay was hardly found in California. There was little consumer demand for it, and vintners generally shunned it in favor of more prolific varieties that could better withstand the warm climate. Several estates that were established in the 1940s and '50s—Mayacamas, Stony Hill, Mount Eden, Hanzell, Ridge—saw potential in chardonnay and set out to craft premium wines from it. They are considered visionaries now; back then, however, they were seen as cloud chasers, and where they led, few others were inclined to follow. As recently as 1970, there were just more than 3,000 acres of chardonnay in California.

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It was during the 1970s that consumer interest in chardonnay began to blossom and the California wine industry started devoting more space to it. In 1972, Jim Barrett, an oenophilic attorney from Southern California, bought Chateau Montelena, which hadn't produced wine commercially since Prohibition, with the intention of turning out cabernets to rival the best of Bordeaux. Barrett and his winemaker, Mike Grgich, decided to make chardonnay simply as a way of generating some income while they waited for their newly planted cabernet vines to bear sufficient fruit. Their first chardonnay vintage was 1972, which made the victory in Paris of the 1973 Montelena Chardonnay all the more improbable and impressive. But interviewed after the Paris tasting by Time's George Taber, who covered the event (and three years ago published a very engaging book about it, Judgment of Paris), Barrett said that the success of a California chardonnay came as no surprise to him: "We've known for a long time that we could put our white Burgundies against anybody's in the world and not take a backseat."

California didn't actually make white Burgundies, of course—only Burgundy makes white Burgundies (which are composed of chardonnay). But Barrett's comment spoke to a larger truth: For most of those early chardonnay producers, the goal was to craft wines in the Burgundian mold. One means to that end was to use French oak barrels to age the wines. James Zellerbach, Hanzell's original owner, was the pioneering figure on this front; he imported small barrels of Limousin oak, purchased from one of the top coopers in Burgundy, for his chardonnays. Employed judiciously, oak aging imparts greater complexity to wines, and although Zellerbach's neighbors were apparently dubious, the results he achieved were so impressive that the practice quickly caught on. The 1973 Montelena spent eight months maturing in French barrels before being bottled.

Burgundy remained the inspiration even after the Judgment of Paris, and as chardonnay's toehold in California turned into a foothold, many newer producers, determined to faithfully adhere to the Burgundian playbook, began putting their wines through malolactic fermentation. Malolactic fermentation is a process that converts tart malic acid (at this point, it is customary to say, "Think green apple," so I'll say it: Think green apple) into softer, more palate-friendly lactic acid. It is a necessary step in Burgundy, where the northerly climate can leave the grapes with too much acidic bite. California, though, has the opposite problem: Because the weather is so warm, the grapes are often short on acidity.

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