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Chardonnay Taste-Off: Vineyard-Designated South Central Coast Chardonnay Takes Taste-Off Prize
The Vintners Club Chardonnay Taste-Off was a little out of the ordinary in 1998. Usually, by the time the finalists for this cream-of-the-crop tasting are determined, there are representatives from most of California's growing areas. On this occasion, after the top two wines from each of six elimination tastings were re-assembled, the Taste-Off panel had before it five wines from the Central Coast, three from Mendocino County, two from the South Central Coast and one each from Australia and Italy.
The North Coast was thus represented exclusively by Mendocino wines, two from cool-climate Anderson Valley and one bearing the more general Mendocino appellation. And, for the first time in 25 years of Club tastings, Central Coast wines -- three bearing a Monterey County appellation and two from the separate Arroyo Seco appellation -- were a powerful taste-off force to be reckoned with, comprising some 40 percent of the 12 finalist wines.
Two vintage years were involved: four of the Chardonnays were products of vintage 1995, and the other eight came from the 1996 harvest. Prices ranged from $11 to $36, with the moderately priced Chardonnays doing very well in the final analysis: An $11 Central Coast Chardonnay from Anapamu Cellars took third place, and a Fetzer Barrel Select Chardonnay from Mendocino at the same price took eighth place.
Kendall-Jackson had two Chardonnay finalists, both from the winery's "single vineyard series" program, which showcases the flavors, aromas and nuances of particularly favored plots up and down the California coast. K-J has a long history of bottling wines with a California appellation, blending wines from several vineyards in widely different growing areas to produce a desired style that often is greater than the sum of the wine's component parts. Armed with this vast knowledge of individual vineyard profiles throughout the state, the winery has the option of focusing on a single vineyard that represents what the winemaker considers to be the ultimate expression of an appellation's terroir.
The showcasing paid off handsomely for K-J in this tasting, with its 1996 Camelot Vineyard Chardonnay from the Santa Maria Valley taking the top prize, and the 1995 Chardonnay from the Paradise Vineyard in Arroyo Seco coming in sixth. Both wines are priced at $20 and deliver great value in terms of rich, succulent fruit, complexity and definitive vineyard character.
1996 Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, Camelot Vineyard "Single Vineyard Series," Santa Maria Valley ($20)
Located on the Santa Maria Bench just 17 miles from the Santa Barbara coast, the Camelot Vineyard enjoys one of the longest, coolest growing seasons in the state due to the east-west orientation of the valley, which funnels the cool Pacific marine influence into the interior. The vineyard typically produces Chardonnays displaying intense, ripe tropical fruit flavors and excellent acid balance.
Forward, dramatic, appealing aromas of medium-high-char oak, caramel, tropical fruit and creamy citrus. Rich, round and creamy on the palate with complex fruit flavors focusing on citrus, baked apple, pear, melon, pineapple, guava and papaya, plus vanillin oak and spicy accents buoyed by fine acidity. A powerful, yet exquisitely balanced Chardonnay that's a steal at this price. Check out the website: www.kj.com
1995 Mer Soleil Chardonnay, Central Coast ($36)
Caymus Vineyards' winemaker Chuck Wagner has branched out to Monterey County, where his new vineyard provides just the right fruit he needs to make the impressive, richly textured Mer Soleil Chardonnays. The 1995 version has a fragrant, floral, almost Viognier-like nose of peaches, tropical fruit and minerals tinged with honey, butterscotch and hints of hay and garden herbs. Luscious and generous in the mouth showing bright creamy citrus and pineapple, a hint of grassiness and just the right amount of oak. Very distinctive and exceedingly elegant. This wine was not over processed, and thus throws a bit of sediment, which can be avoided by decanting and drinking just a bit below room temperature.
1996 Anapamu Cellars Chardonnay, Central Coast ($11)
Pleasant scents of toasty, yeasty oatmeal and creamy citrus enhanced by nuances of peaches and pears. Smooth, round and silky in the mouth with juicy citrus-like fruit. Not flashy, but well made and delicious. GOOD VALUE.
1996 Zaca Mesa Chardonnay, Chapel Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($18)
Deep, fragrant, mineral-tinged aromas of tangerine and lemon citrus, pineapple-tropical fruit and mildly toasty French oak. Elegant and complex, yet generous on the palate with creamy citrus-like fruit exhibiting good depth and concentration, toasty oak, a hint of honey and impressive viscosity balanced by good acidity.
1996 Rosemount Estates Chardonnay, Reserve, Hunter Valley, Australia ($18)
Interesting, mildly floral aromas of woodsy spice, citrus, pear, smoky oak and hints of honey and mineral-like flintiness. Lots of oak on the palate, which almost overpowers the peachy, apple-like fruit; adequate acidity.
1995 Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, Paradise Vineyard "Single Vineyard Series," Arroyo Seco ($20)
An intriguing and multi-faceted Chardonnay offering scents of lemon-drop citrus, smoky oak, vanilla, pineapple and some butterscotch. Smooth and luscious with good acidity, the wine's flavors replicate the palate and are delicious and nicely evolved. You can check out the vineyard's pedigree on K-J's website: www.kj.com.
1995 Steele Chardonnay, Dennison Vineyard, Anderson Valley ($22)
Jed Steele has an uncanny ability to source out excellent vineyards all over California (and Washington, too) for his impressive program of vineyard-designated Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels, among others. Each of the single-vineyard Chardonnays is barrel fermented in French oak and goes through complete malolactic fermentation. The percentage of new barrels used varies from 35-50 percent, depending on the vintage. The Dennison Vineyard Chardonnay is the smallest single-vineyard bottling Steele does, rarely exceeding 200 cases.
The vineyard is certified organic and is located is a warm pocket of the otherwise cool Anderson Valley. Because of its sheltered location behind a knoll, it is rarely is affected by ocean breezes that sweep through the valley almost daily in summer, and thus consistently produces the richest Chardonnay in Anderson Valley.
The 1995 Steele Dennison Vineyard Chardonnay is an extremely fruity, soft, luscious wine with a forward, intense nose of lemon citrus and honeysuckle. Smooth, creamy and moderately rich on the palate offering rich caramel and deep lemon citrus flavors, the effect of 40 percent new French oak barrels is quite evident, yet manageable given the depth of fruit; good acidity.
1996 Fetzer Chardonnay, "Barrel Select," Mendocino ($11)
Distinctively Mendocino in its fresh, fruity scents of green apple, ripe pear and quince, accented by warm spice and toasted hazelnut, this bargain-priced offering is brimming with ripe, juicy fruit not overshadowed by a lot of oak, a touch of butterscotch and enhanced by a fine acid balance. Fetzer has a brand new website at www.fetzer.com.
1996 Monterey Peninsula Winery Chardonnay, Reserve, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, Monterey County ($17)
Lots of buttery impact from the malolactic fermentation edges out much of the fruit in both the nose and flavors; smoky oak and hints of pear and vanilla peek out from behind all the butter.
1996 Navarro Chardonnay, Premiere Reserve, Anderson Valley ($17)
Fresh, fruity, distinctive scents of citrus, tropical fruit and rose petals lead to similar flavors that are clean and vibrant. Deftly handled oak doesn't intrude here, and the acidity makes the fruit sparkle. A delicious, easy drinking, food friendly Chardonnay without attitude. Check out the winery's website at www.navarrowine.com for background and mail-order information.
1995 Jekel Chardonnay, Gravelstone Vineyard, Arroyo Seco ($15)
I liked this wine more than many others on the panel, ranking it fifth and being charmed by its toasted grain, caramel, honeysuckle nose and smooth, creamy palate of caramel and lemony citrus. Its detractors knocked it for signs of sulfur and oxidation, which I didn't detect in my glass.
1996 Collezione de Marchi Chardonnay, Isole & Olena, Tuscany, Italy ($22)
Lots of charred oak smells and hints of sulfur intrude on shy grapefruit citrus, yeasty baked bread notes, butterscotch and clove spice. Thin and one dimensional in the mouth with elevated acidity, the wine seems tired and much too oaky.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.