Sunday, April 11, 2010

Battle: Chardonnay

I was shopping at my fantastic neighborhood wine store that has a woefully short selection of half bottles (don't they all) looking for half bottles of Chardonnay. To my surprise, they actually carried a half bottle of Mersault, so I grabbed one and the obligatory half bottle of Chardonnay in order to compare the two against each other. I actually grabbed three, but put away one in a moment of weakness (see previous post). In retrospect, I really wish I had that third bottle. Anyway, here it goes.

On the California side, we had Landmark Overlook Chardonnay from California (back label says Sonona/Sta Barbar/Monetery county blend) from 2007 with 14.6% alcohol that retailed for $10 to $15.00. From Burgundy I had Albert Grivault Mearsault from 2006 with 13% alcohol (but could be +-1.5% based on US law, I think).

Color: Huge difference. Mearsault was a very light hue of yellow, almost clear while the Landmark was a much deeper yellow (looked almost like melted butter).

Aroma: Mersault had all the classic Mersault characteristics, highlighted by an intense minerality that showed wet steel and even wet asphalt. Mild creaminess, lemon oil, even a tad nutty. Landmark exhibited intense oakiness and butter. Some pineapple and tropical fruits.

Taste: Mersault continued it's mineral theme, but added some apple/pear notes and a bit of spice. Landmark was rich, buttery, oaky, flamboyant and tropical.

Balance: The Mersault would probably benefit from a few years of aging, but very well balanced. The different profiles played in solid harmony with each other and the zesty lemony acidity kept it fresh. Although the Landmark has many fans, I found the oakiness to be overpowering. The acidity just didn't match the weight of the wine for me.

Ultimate Judgement: It's probably unfair to stack these two wines against each other. They have distinctly different styles and as one who prefers wines that are more elegant than powerful, I am naturally inclined to prefer the Mersault. Although both are Chardonnays, it's comparing apples to oranges (or papaya). I should have tasted the Landmark next to the Macrostie for a better comparison (which I enjoyed much more, but that could be due to not having a quality Mersault to compare against). In order to do this right, I have to do a better job of eradicating my preconceived ideas about Chardonnay. California Chardonnay, particularly the style of Landmark, is not Burgundian Chardonnay and should be viewed on its own merits. It needs to be looked at through the lens of what it's trying to be, and on that score, I think it is a good reflection of the showy, flamboyant Chards that many seem to like. Whether I learn to enjoy this style is another story. While the Landmark certainly hasn't pushed me any further, the Macrostie actually did.

MacCrostie Chardonnay 2007

For the first wine I tasted in my attempts to gain a better appreciation of California Chardonnay, I turned to a Macrostie 2007 from Carneros. I bought a 375 ml version (in fact, the main reason I picked it is because it was available in 375 at my local wine shop), intending to taste against a variety of style, but got a bit greedy and tasted it on its own. No matter, as it provides a good launching point to California Chard.

I tasted without reading any winery notes, reviews, etc (which I will try to do for all wines). I typically avoid Chardonnay in the $20.00 range as I expect (right or wrong) that I will find something out of balance, usually the oak treatment, but almost as often, the ML or ripeness is out of whack. But I was tremendously surprised by the balance. I'm not sure if restrained richness is an oxymoron, but I found that the weight (which was noticeable) never teetered to the overwhelming. Surprisingly, the oak was a background player offering mild vanilla and spicey notes, but never interfering with the richer apple tart elements. It's a little richer than I typically like, but an almost refreshing citrusy acidity kept the wine mostly in balance.

What surprises me more than anything is that the style was very Californian, something I try to avoid. But the winemaker did a great job in harmonizing the elements. I actually expected that I would be trashing this wine, but so much for preconceived notions. This isn't to say that this is the greatest wine I've ever had, but that I genuinely enjoyed it at it's price.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


I'm all to ready admit to my general dislike of California Chardonnays, especially in comparison to their Burgundian cousins. However, Steve Heimoff's thought provoking blog "Why I'm not an ABCer" and particularly some insightful comments by his readers got me questioning why I am so vehemently against most California Chardonnays. After all, they come in a wide variety of styles, ranging from the Burgundian efforts at places like Ramey to the Chablis-esque Chateau Montelena to the rich fruit forward Mer et Soleil and in a variety of price points. So, I'm officially removing my ABC (for the uninitiated, Anything But Chardonnay) outlook I acquired from spending too much time around some serious wine snobs and cleaning the slate. Well, cleaning as much as I can. However, to clean the slate, I need to be realistic with my preconceptions in hopes of confirming or expunging them. So here they are.

1) Cheap California Chardonnay sucks. No two ways about this, I avoid any Chardonnay from California under $20.00 and admit to looking down my snoot at those who enjoy them. My expectations from cheap Chardonnay is overly alcoholic without the right balance, oak chips, 100% malolactic for the nasty buttered popcorn, and fruit profiles either non existent or reminiscint of overly sweet pies and noxious banana bread. In short, cheap California Chardonnay sucks.

2) Burgundian whites are superior to California Chardonnay at every level. While there are high end California Chardonnays that I like better than village level wines from Burgundy, when price is equal, I assume that the Burgundy is better (of course, with ubiquitous vintage chart in hand).

3) The only California Chardonnays worth seeking are those that are explicitly attempting to model Burgundy. This is a big one for me and points to my obvious preference for the Burgundian style. However, without knowledge of the actual winemaking practices or experience with specific wineries, this can be very tough to ascertain. So, unless it's Ramey, Hobbs, or another winemaker known for "Burgundian" styles, I avoid.

4) The "Pompous Barbarian" effect. I choose the name of this blog because this is what I am. I can quite pompous about things like Chardonnay, but utterly barbaric in my reasoning and communication. While I have enough experience to say that I don't like most Cal Chard, I also have never really had an open mind to it having the superiority of Burgundy bludgeoned into my starting at my first fine dining job with only a few Cal Chard fans encountered along the way. Coming from the Pompous world of fine dining where nearly every wine steward looks at purchasing a bottle of Chardonnay with the same snootiness as top chefs have towards people who order chicken, I have learned a few really bad habits when it comes to wine.

So, with my preconceptions firmly understood I have the makings of a small yet simple plan. Taste as much Chardonnay at different price points from different locations (just looking at California and Burgundy would fall into the same pompous trap that I am trying to escape) and take notes, whether on paper or mentally.

Monday, April 5, 2010

2003 Pride Merlot

I am not one of those people who think California Merlot sucks. But I think a lot of it does. So I'm always a bit nervous when I open a bottle, even one from a good producer like Pride Mountain Vineyards, unless I've had it and can remember it. I tend to hold my California Merlots for a fairly short period because the quality and balance can vary so much even among good producers. I got the bottle when touring the Spring Mountain wineries, most of which require appointments. Sunset magazine ran a great article on Spring Mountain wineries several years ago that turned into one my favorite trips to Napa. The tasting room itself is magnificent and if you have a chance, go.

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. I don't specifically remember tasting the Merlot, but I've had enough Pride Mountain wines to know they tend make dense, extracted wines. And the Merlot did not disappoint. If I had to do it over, I'd hold this bottle for another five years, but as it opened, Plums interlaced with chocolate balanced with spice (I swear I tasted Cinammon) with an incredible richness that had only really started to take on the mature flavors I prefer. Velvety smooth tannins provided depth and weight that I find either lacking or overblown in many California Merlots. With a few more years to even out the tannins, the acid would show through better. The wine continued to evolve through the hour it took to kill the bottle eventually showing cassis and oaky notes. Overall, a great bottle of wine that I would love to get more of.