It is Officially Time to Stop Hating on California Chardonnay
“None of the winemaking is going to walk down that Rombauer road,” said Jon Bonné, by way of introducing a tasting and discussion of California Chardonnays at Bluxome Street Winery in SoMa on Monday afternoon. His comment was met with giggles and guffaws from the audience who were mostly wine industry professionals because, well, Rombauer has become the brunt of every California Chardonnay joke; the emblematic “oaky, buttery,” style that had many who considered their palates too refined for residual sugar, begging for “ABC” or “Anything but Chardonnay” for years.
The discussion at Bluxome was part of a larger event — or movement rather —called In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB). If the day’s tasting is any indication, it seems that many vintners — if they haven’t found the elusive balance yet — are at least hot on her trail.
“We kind of felt like Chardonnay needed an advocate,” said Matt Licklider, the proprietor of LIOCO, when asked why he would even bother with such a maligned variety. “At the time, Chardonnay was like fat Elvis, and we wanted to bring rockabilly Elvis back.” With over 100,000 acres in California planted to the grape, Licklider certainly isn’t the only one taking a chance on its comeback.
There is no recipe for making a balanced wine. But if there were, the first and most important ingredient would be, of course, really good grapes — grapes that can only come from a good vineyard site. The panelists at IPOB seemed more concerned with emphasizing vineyard site (specifically, they prefer cool climates and well-established vines) than varietal character. “Chardonnay is one of the ultimate terroir grapes. It’s neutral...it shows off the site really well,” said Gavin Chanin the winemaker for Chanin Wine Company.
They also stressed the importance of “minimal intervention” in the winery, a somewhat controversial term given that farming and winemaking are by nature interventionist. Bob Varner of Varner Wine defined it as “accepting natural conditions....The vineyard is going to give me more natural complexity than I can make in the winery.” “The main goal is not to add things,” added Rajat Parr, who in addition to being the Wine Director for the Michael MIna group, makes Sandhi wines.
What you didn’t hear a lot of from the panelists were prohibitions against new oak or malolactic fermentation. “You may know us as the stainless steel Chard guys,” said Licklider, who explained that they have changed their ways and now embrace a variety of formats — including oak (though neutral). Parr confessed to using up to 25 percent new oak, and Chanin weighed in with nearly as much. Today’s balanced Chardonnays are hopefully, as Parr puts it, “delicious and young with potential to age.” That means they’ve got some backbone. Do we dare say they are a lot like White Burgundy? Certainly they are a far cry from Rombauer.