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Richard Siddle, California blog: Chardonnay in Sonoma

Published:  03 March, 2011

Harpers editor Richard Siddle's latest update from California focuses on Sonoma County's cool climate Chardonnay.

For my latest missive from the front line of wine reporting in California, we turn our attention to Chardonnay and, in particular, the cool climate Chardonnay produced in Sonoma County.

A varietal that has been transformed by the advances in  winemaking techniques over the last 25 years, according to a panel of Sonoma winemakers.

David Ramay of Ramay Wines, who has been making Chardonnay for 30 years in the region, says:  "In the 80s we had a lot of skin contact which made full wines but were not good for ageing.

"Now we are using low tannins that are important in masking high alcohol levels, synonymous with this area."

He adds: "There has been a big switch to Burgundian techniques by wineries. There is a lot more attention to clone and field selection."

In terms of the changing styles for Californian Chardonnay Greg Stach, winemaker at Landmark, says: "Californian Chardonnay has been the  victim of its own success. Twenty years ago it was all big rich, buttery, oily, creamy, wood style chardonnays. The US consumer liked that style and there is still  a big market for that.

"But there has been a division in industrial and artisan winemaking. Artisan winemaking has gone through an evolution with a focus on vineyard management and Chardonnay as a very expressive grape of that vineyard."

Michael McNeil at Hanzell Vineyards adds: "People are looking for more balance, more restraint, more food friendly styles of Chardonnay."

Which has seen more plantings in cooler areas for Chardonnay, says Stach. "The idea is to have wines with more acidity."

Even if that acidity did not come through in the Sonoma Chardonnay tasting with the UK press corps. But Stach stressed: "You have to remember we are starting from a position of hardly any acid at all."

But low acid wines are what catches the eye and the points of Robert Parker, mused many.

A point of difference
The influence of Burgundian winemaking techniques are clearly present in the passion with which winemakers talk about the region.

But there is also a clear line in the sand that Californian winemakers are making wines true to their area and the consumer demands of the US palate.

The shadow of Burgundy may lie over the region, but winemakers are ploughing their own trail.
McNeil adds: "If we look at Burgundy and here, we are all trying to get to the same place, but are approaching it from different ways. We are both trying to find the right balance of sugar and acid. There they are adding sugar, here sugar is the enemy. Here we need to add acid, there in the main,  they don't need to."

Jeff Stewart, winemaker at Buena Vista, believes there is a place for different styles of wines in the world. He explains: "We are not Burgundy or Mornington Peninsula. We have our own characteristics in our own sites. We want to create our own expression, make our own Californian chardonnay. The learning curve to do so has been incredible here.

"But it is a business too. We have to make wines people want to buy. We have also tried to do in 25 years what Europe has done over centuries."

The anything but Chardonnay phenomenon  does not hold much sway in Cakifornia.

Ramay says: "Chardonnay is the red wine of whites. It is the one with the most interest."