One of the things that ruffles my feathers (ok, shit that pisses me off) is when people tell me that they don’t like “x” wine. Really? Bcause you’ve personally had every version in the world? Of course, I’m being a little bit of a melodramatic, hypocritical beyotch when I say this now. Before becoming a
wine snob more educated wine consumer, I made similar statements about Chardonnay. My usual line was “I’m not a big fan of Chardonnay.” So yeah, I’m giving myself a little credit (just a little) because I didn’t flat out say I didn’t like it. But it was damn near the same thing. That was probably back in late 90s to early 2000s. Then I discovered Chablis and later white Bourgogne, so then it was like, “Well I’m not a fan of New World Chardonnay.” And then it became, “I don’t like California Chardonnay.” You get the point. Fast forward to today and I’m losing my damn mind behind Chardonnay these days. Who the hell saw that coming?!
And the two regions whose Chardonnay is making me lose my mind? One of them is Willamette Valley in Oregon and the other hails from California. Sta. Rita Hills which sits within the larger Santa Barbara region to be exact. Yes, that California. Yes, I was wrong.
Do yourself a favor and run and get some Willamette Valley Chardonnay! Any Willamette Valley Chardonnay. I had the great fortune to attend a trade event called ‘Pinot in the City’ put on by the Willamette Valley Wineries Association. And while I did have Pinot at some of the lunches and smaller events, for the larger signature tasting event, I was all about the Chardonnay. It’s certainly unusual for me to be in a room full of Pinot Noir and drink everything other than Pinot. After all, it was Pinot Noir that got me into wine in the first place. Not to mention that Willamette Valley Pinot is still some of the finest in the game. But that’s exactly what happened. Yes, there was a lot of great Pinot to be had but it was the Chardonnay that got my attention and pulled me in hook, line, and sinker!
After tasting one, then two, then three of these Chardonnays, I was like, where the hell has this been and why has it been withheld from me?! And on it went with each successive taste. These are some of the most linear, focused, ethereal, and sublime Chardonnays I’ve even had the privilege of tasting. As I recently discussed in my article on Ponzi’s 50th birthday much of the change in Oregon Chardonnay came with many winemakers switching the types of clones they used.
As recently as the mid-90s, hardly anyone in the Willamette Valley was producing Chardonnay. Most had pulled it up because it just wasn’t working. But then winemakers took a closer look at the type of Chardonnay planted and many replaced their Wente Chardonnay clones with Dijon clones and here we are today. In a short span, I’ve been able to try many of these wines, and they seriously do not disappoint.
A few that I recommend include:
Sta. Rita Hills
My fascination with California’s Central Coast, and Sta. Rita Hills in particular, began with a work colleague occasionally popping into my office to talk about wine. He went on and on about the likes of Paul Lato, Ken Brown, Sanford, and more. And the more he talked about the wines, the more I took notes and filed them away. Not long after that, I was invited to a trade event put on by Jackson Family Wines that highlighted the wines of Santa Barbara and after tasting several wines there, I was all in. Not long after, I booked myself a trip out to the region to get a look first hand. Note that I’ve been working on a blog post but it seems weird to post since most of us aren’t traveling much right now. But we can all travel via our wine glasses.
Sta. Rita Hills is a sub-region of Santa Barbara, which is one of the oldest wine-producing areas of California and is regarded as a marine-derived paradise for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Even though the first vineyards in the region were planted in the early 1970s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the region really came into its own and began to garner international attention due to the vision of Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson Wines.
Sta. Rita Hills’ unique geographic characteristics is what makes the region so special. The region’s vineyards lie in east-west valleys (transverse ranges) along the Pacific coastline. Ocean refrigerated air is pulled in from the Pacific resulting in hyper-cooled temperatures in the vineyards. These cool temperatures translate into a long growing season, particularly when compared to other premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir regions such Burgundy, Willamette Valley, and Russian River Valley. This extended growing season results in optimal physiological ripeness of the grapes. Add in the region’s marine soils, and you’ve got something truly special.
“When one stops to consider, it should be very unlikely to grow world class Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays this far south along the West Coast. In this respect, Santa Barbara’s east-west valleys..are truly magical,” explains Jonathan Nagy, winemaker at Byron when talking about what makes Santa Barbara wine special. “The wines are unique, compelling, and exceptional.” I completely agree and really love the balancing act that these wines perform with ripe fruit and focused minerality.
I’ve now, thankfully, had many of these wines. Here are a few that I’d recommend.
Dragonette Cellars (both the Sta. Rita Hills as well as the Duvarita Vineyard, which is just west of Sta. Rita Hills)
Note that the folks at Taste of Sta Rita Hills (where I also did a tasting when visiting the area) sell many of the Sta. Rita Hills wines as many producers are too small for significant distribution. No affiliation – just sharing a great place to get these sought-after, small-production wines.
I couldn’t be more thrilled with these ‘come to Jesus’ Chardonnay moments. I think many of us have gone through a cluster of wines and decided that we were writing off a particular varietal. And to be honest, there are bad examples of all wines out there. I recall my trip to Willamette Valley a few years ago and I’m pretty sure that I didn’t give the Chardonnay a second thought because I just wasn’t that into Chardonnay. Doh! I need a do over!! Not to mention that California definitely went through a phase when it was turning out ubiquitous amounts of crappy Chardonnay. Of course not every bottle was awful, but there was enough bad stuff that people turned away. But given how Chardonnay is the ultimate blank slate that truly takes on the characteristics of where it’s grown and what the winemaker decides to do with it, it really does vary a great deal.
At any rate, I’m so happy to have my cellar chock full of these lovely America Chardonnay wines. Cheers until next time!