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Having just finished a column on unoaked Chardonnay (which will be out in our May issue), it's been refreshing to turn around and taste some very good California Chardonnays that do use oak. After all, oak is hardly a black-and-white question—like butter, or salt, it can be used to fantastic effect or to dismal effect, depending on the skill and the sensibility of the chef, or winemaker.
The 2007 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay ($48, find this wine), for instance, is impeccably balanced—a full-bodied white with lemon and mandarin orange notes, zingy acidity, a hint of caramel (that'd be the wood) and a long, focused, refreshing finish. It gets no malolactic fermentation, and is made in 50% new oak barrels, 25% old oak, and 25% stainless steel barrels. Doug Shafer told me as we were tasting it that he'd pulled back on the oak in this wine starting in 2005, because he got tired of his Chardonnays falling apart after a few years. If this vintage is characteristic of his new style for Red Shoulder, I'm all for it. Note that this vintage was just released, so the link above goes to stores that stock the 2006; one would hope they'll end up bringing in the '07 as well.
I also recently tasted three new wines from a less well known but superb California Chardonnay producers, Varner. Bob and Jim Varner farm a chunk of vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, oddly enough not too far above the retirement community where my grandmother used to live (oddly for me, at least). I'm a fan of their Foxglove line of affordable wines, which I think offer some of the best wine deals in the market. Their higher end offerings under their own name are terrific, too. (Note that these are not going to be released for another six weeks or so; contact the winery if you're interested.) The 2007 Varner Amphitheater Chardonnay ($38, find this wine) comes from a two-acre block of own-rooted, 28-year-old vines and is aged in 30% new French oak on its lees until bottling. It shows aromatic notes of honeysuckle, oak spice and lemon, and flavors of lemon and pear with a graceful, minerally finish. The 2007 Varner Home Block Chardonnay ($40, find this wine), also own-rooted, is more tightly coiled right now, with kind of clockspring tension to its acidity and structure. The aroma leans more toward apple and a touch of apricot with similar oak spice, the flavors towards apple, pear, vanilla and spice. Finally, the 2007 Varner Bee Block Chardonnay ($40, find this wine) is the most luscious of the three of these, more open and expansive right now. From a three and a half acre block that Jim Varner says is always the last to ripen, and that always gives the ripest fruit, it's a lovely, creamy Chardonnay that has an almost Carneros-like lemon curd note, rich lemony fruit with notes of marzipan and honey, and a firm line of acidity that lifts it right up. At the moment it's my favorite of the three.
If you want no-holds-barred, embrace-you-and-smooch-you Chardonnay that actually manages to be balanced, too, though, head for the 2006 Newton Vineyard Unfiltered Chardonnay ($60, find this wine). This is a real guilty-pleasure white, with creamy peach and apricot aromas, a full-bodied, luscious texture, and juicy apricot, red apple, caramel and vanilla flavors. At the same time, it has great acidity and what felt like a light touch of tannin on the end, which keeps the whole package from being blob-like. The wine only sees 30% new oak—albeit with 16 months in barrel and weekly lees stirring—so the oak doesn't dominate, which is part of its appeal. I normally don't have much use for this style of wine, but this is the sort of Chardonnay that could make me eat those words...