By Chuck Hill
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Wines of the Week
Versatile Chardonnays for Spring
How can the best-selling white varietal wine in the country be making a comeback? It’s not about sales numbers, it’s about perception. Millions of bottles of Chardonnay are sold each month in the U.S. to folks just looking for a pleasant white wine to wash down anything from Pad Thai to chicken fried steak to fish sticks. Yet, there are movements afoot like ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) that lash out at this varietal as a sellout “vanilla” bottling for the masses.
Our first tasting of Chardonnays seems to offer hope for the latter concerns, and excitement for those who are looking for a great food wine with some interesting white wine character to contemplate. Unique aromas and flavors are complemented by excellent balance and crisp acidity on the finish. Chef Ted conjured up a delicious pork tenderloin in mushroom sauce that was a superb entrée and foil for the wines.
Mike Hallock brought his 25 years of experience as a geologist to Oregon’s Chehalem Mountain area when choosing a site for his vineyard. He planted the first 49 acres of Carabella Vineyard in 1996 to various clones of Pinot Noir including several Dijon clones. He also has made a commitment to Dijon 76 Chardonnay and crafts the wine in a Burgundian style with minimal oak. The 2011 vintage shows citrus and mineral character with notes of earthy forest floor and creamy, complex flavors on the palate. One experienced taster remarked that it reminded him of Meursault…nice compliment!
NxNW (North by Northwest) wines are made by King Estate winery in Oregon, but feature varietals grown in Washington’s Columbia Valley AVA. Currently, vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley and Horse Heaven Hills AVAs provide the fruit for the NxNW wines. This Chardonnay is from the Wallula Benches Vineyard at the east end of the Horse Heaven Hills, above the Columbia River. Lovely and fresh, the wine offers aromas and flavors of crisp apple, citrus and stone fruits with notes of vanilla and hints of toasty oak – good value.
This new winery was founded by accountant Henry Smilowicz to pursue his love of wine, and to bring a favored varietal front and center. Array Cellars makes only Chardonnay using grapes from several Washington vineyards. The wines are crafted by consultant winemaker Brian Carter, who makes no Chardonnay under his Brian Carter Cellars label but who has plenty of experience with the varietal. Smilowicz and Carter aim at making wines of lower alcohol and lighter oak character. This vintage from Conner Lee Vineyard on Washington’s Radar Hill, offers nice aromas of floral perfume, spice, stone fruits and earthy mineral. The palate echoes the peach and mineral flavors with delicate notes of vanilla and earthy caramel.
I first met Mike Januik in the late 1980s when he was making wine for the now defunct Stewart Vineyards in the Yakima Valley town of Granger. He was just beginning his winemaking odyssey but already showed a knack for producing superb Chardonnay wines (among many other varietals). His travels took him from Stewart to Snoqualmie to Chateau Ste. Michelle and finally to his own label and winery in Woodinville. Mike has made many wines from the Cold Creek Vineyard – a venerable Chateau Ste. Michelle-owned property widely hailed as one of the best in Washington. This delicious Cold Creek Chardonnay offers superb complexity showing baked apple, citrus, pear and spice with vanilla and butterscotch added on the palate.
Here is another Chardonnay wine from Array Cellars; this one crafted from Dijon clone Chardonnay grapes grown at the Otis Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. The grapes were whole-cluster pressed and barrel fermented, yielding a rich wine with apricot and lemon flavors wrapped in butterscotch and notes of spicy oak.
Woodward Canyon Winery
Rick and Darcey Small are among the very few that can call themselves Walla Walla Valley wine pioneers. Planting began at their Woodward Canyon Vineyard in 1976 and the winery was founded in 1981. Early tastings were offered in a corner of the rustic winery building. Today, the winery has a lovely tasting room in a separate building, their Reserve House restaurant and the Lazy S Arrow market offering fresh produce grown adjacent to the Woodward Canyon vineyard. The 2012 Chardonnay was crafted from grapes grown at the estate vineyard and from Celilo Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge. In the Woodward Canyon tradition, it is whole-cluster pressed and barrel fermented, offering aromas and flavors of apple, pear and peach with notes of vanilla, spicy mineral and toasty oak.
Lange Estate Winery
Don and Wendy Lange founded their namesake winery in the Red Hills above Dundee, Oregon, with the 1987 vintage and have been lauded for exceptional vintages of their Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay for more than 25 years. Don’s son Jesse joined the winemaking team in 2004. The 2012 Willamette Valley bottling shows Oregon Chardonnay at its best with bright aromas of honeysuckle, stone fruits, flinty mineral and earthy notes of forest floor. The palate is crisp with acidity and citrus flavors rounded out with notes of pear and peach.
Sinclair Estate Vineyard
Tim and Kathy Sinclair opened their fancy downtown Walla Walla tasting room in 2010 to show the wines crafted at the Sinclair Estate Vineyard winery. The wines are made by Amy Alvarez-Wampfler who came from roots in Washington agriculture to winemaker training at Columbia Crest and then to the position she now holds at Sinclair Estate. Her Chardonnay is a full-blown, barrel-fermented wine showing rich honeyed peach wrapped in layers of toasty oak, vanilla and caramel – a lip-smacking treat for those who pursue this style.
Since its beginning in 1991, King Estate winery near Eugene, Oregon has evolved to open its arms to wine tourists who flock to the facility for a warm welcome and to taste the delicious wines. In the beginning, the winery was exclusive with very restrictive visiting policies and infrequent opportunities for tasting. Today, the winery offers an expansive visitor center and tasting room and a fine dining restaurant that showcases King Estate wines with exceptional seasonal dishes by Executive Chef Ben Nadolny. Make your plans for a visit, but in the meantime, enjoy their nicely balanced Signature Chardonnay, offering aromas and flavors of honeysuckle, crisp citrus flavors, mineral and toasty vanilla.
Apex Cellars was founded in the Yakima Valley town of Sunnyside in 1988 under the ownership of the Alhadeff Family and famed winemaker Brian Carter. This super-premium label received acclaim for many wines and garnered top honors in many wine competitions. The winery joined the Precept Wine family in 2008, and accomplished winemaker Ron Bunnell now consults on Apex Cellars selection of fine wines. The 2012 Chardonnay offers a nice balance of buttery richness with clarity of fruit and ample acidity to be enjoyed as a food wine. Aromas of baked apple, peach and vanilla lead to flavors of creamy pear and apple mingling with toasty sur lie notes, vanilla and earthy mineral.
Butch and Jerry Milbrandt planted the Evergreen Vineyard in 1998, in an area now known as the Ancient Lakes of the Columbia Valley. This unique plateau is now recognized as an official AVA, as of October 2012. Over the years, the relatively cool Evergreen Vineyard has become a favorite with Washington winemakers for Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and other white varietals. Milbrandt winemaker Joshua Maloney crafted this Chardonnay with barrel aging in French oak, 20% new. Look for rich aromas and flavors of citrus and baked apple with notes of mineral, honeysuckle, toast and vanilla – a very nice Chardonnay for rich seafood dishes.
This Chardonnay is a blend of cool climate grapes from Celilo Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge and fruit from the not-quite-as-cool climate of Conner Lee Vineyard on Radar Hill. Located at the upper east end of the Wahluke Slope, Conner Lee Vineyard can experience dramatic day-night temperature swings during the growing season that help fruit maturity and preserve acidity. Winemaker John Abbott takes advantage of these special grapes to craft a wine with superb fruit character and excellent ageability. This young wine shows stone fruits and tropical fruits with an overlying layer of vanilla, toasty oak and caramel. With a year or two of aging, a miracle marriage takes place that adds additional complexity and finesse to this hard-to-find Chardonnay.
Helix by Reininger
Helix is the brand name for Columbia Valley wines made by the Reininger Winery in Walla Walla. (Wines under the Reininger Winery label are crafted exclusively from Walla Walla Valley fruit.) The Helix name came from a small town near Pendleton, Oregon where a family farm was sold in part to finance winery expansion in 2004. Helix Chardonnay offers earthy and floral aromas with flavors of peach and pear.
This blend of 88% Chardonnay with 10%Viognier and 2% Semillon threw my tasters for a loop with unexpected flavors and aromas. “Is that Gewurztraminer?” asked one. “Wow, I can hardly taste the Chardonnay,” said another. Perhaps it was the phase of the moon or the seasoning on the pork tenderloin. The wine offered zippy aromas of tropical citrus, lychee and orange blossom. The palate was crisp with grapefruit and tropical fruit flavors - a Chardonnay of a different stripe, appealing in its own way.
The name Waterbrook came from a translation of a Nez Perce native American dialect for the name Walla Walla, meaning running water. Founded in 1984, the winery has always been a part of the earliest history of winemaking in the area. Waterbrook is now part of the Precept Wines family and has a fancy new winery and visitor center near Lowden, west of Walla Walla. Winemaker John Freeman crafted this Chardonnay from grapes grown in a variety of Columbia Valley vineyards and added 2% Viognier to brighten the aroma and complexity. Look for aromas of pear, lemon and orchard blossom with flavors of stone fruits, pear and vanilla. A slight astringency on the palate suggests pairing the wine with rich chicken or pork dishes.
Wines from other areas:
Grgich Hills Estate
If one is going to talk about California Chardonnay, the logical place to begin is with Mike Grgich who turned the French wine world on its head in 1976 by besting an array of fabled white Burgundies with a Chardonnay he made at Chateau Montelena. Grgich Hills Estate was founded a year later, and Mike’s Chardonnays have graced the tables of presidents, royalty and wine lovers like you ever since. The 2011 vintage wine earned the top spot in our first Chardonnay tasting, offering ripe citrus and peach aromas with notes of tropical fruits and earthy mineral. The palate is superbly balanced and adds vanilla and toasty oak flavors to the mélange of fruits – a perfect pairing for fresh seafood, roasted chicken or grilled pork.
Here is another superb Chardonnay, this one crafted by Joseph Phelps Vineyards from grapes grown in the Sonoma Coast AVA at their Freestone Estate Vineyard and the Dutton Ranch Mill Station Vineyard. The fruit was whole-cluster pressed and barrel fermented on native yeasts. Barrels were stirred to suspend the lees during malolactic fermentation and racked prior to bottling. A perennial favorite with my tasters, the wine shows aromas of green apple, lime zest and white peach leading to complex flavors of tropical fruits, lemon and flinty mineral.
Grapes from Sonoma, Monterey and Napa were selected by winemaker Michael Eddy for crafting the 2012 Ghost Pines Chardonnay. Each of these regions is well known for producing quality Chardonnay, and expert winemaking and artful blending of the separate lots assured a flavorful and memorable bottling. Look for aromas and flavors of ripe apple and pear, mellow citrus and notes of vanilla and toasty oak on the finish.
The venerable Pedroncelli Winery has been family owned and operated since 1927 with the third generation coming on board in the 1990s to continue the traditions of quality and dedication to their customers. This fresh and food-friendly Chardonnay was fermented primarily in stainless steel with a 15% portion barrel fermented in American oak and aged seven months before being blended with the larger portion. Aromas and flavors of lemon, melon and pear mingle with hints of vanilla to complement appetizers, lighter meats and a wide variety of seafood and pastas.
For those on a budget – and those with thirsty friends, there is no better bargain than wines in a box. Bota Box wines are also the most environmentally friendly, using recycled paper, soy inks and cornstarch glue – 85% less landfill waste than bottled wine. Carbon footprint aside, the wine is also well balanced, bright and fruity with green apple, citrus and a kiss of vanilla. Given the additional fact that the wine will stay fresh for weeks in the ‘fridge, Bota Box Chardonnay gets my good-deal-of-the week award hands down.