Chardonnay: a Perspective By Wes Hagen: VM/WM Clos Pepe Vineyards and Estate Wines
As a winemaker you have to ask yourself the fundamental question: do I want to make wines that will garnish high scores and sell, or do I want to make wines in a style that I want to craft and drink.
Sorry, Riesling. But Chardonnay is the most expressive and complex white wine varietal in the world. The main problem is that it is also a commodity wine. So much of a commodity, in fact, that Chardonnay is synonymous with white wine through much of America. And there’s nothing wrong with that—the quality of cheap Chardonnay has never been better.
I have a fairly unique perspective on Chardonnay. I grow 4 acres of it here at Clos Pepe Vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills of California, I make a few hundred cases of Estate Chardonnay each vintage, I write about growing grapes and making wine, and I have been a professional wine judge for 12 years at a half dozen international wine competitions.
I mention the competitions because that’s how I judge the year-by-year pulse of chardonnays being made globally. The hundreds (closer to a thousand) of Chards I tasted in panel this year were remarkably balanced, clean and crafty. Ten years, even five years ago we were smelling so much butter (diacetyl), so much French oak, or so many faults that we weren’t giving many medals. But the wines are gently leading chardonnay drinkers to a more vervey, crisper side of the grape, and it’s encouraging to see that these wines are being made, winning medals, selling well and matching beautifully with foods from oysters to roast chicken. (Buttery/oaky chards may be sumptuous, but they a bit difficult to match with food.)
It’s unsavory in wine geek circles to love big buttery chards. It’s the new white zinfandel. As a winemaker you have to ask yourself the fundamental question: do I want to make wines that will garnish high scores and sell, or do I want to make wines in a style that I want to craft and drink. There are lucky-souled winemakers out there that can do both. I have no doubt Helen Turley loves the style of ultraripe, high-octane wine she creates, as I have no doubt that Robert Parker’s scores are perfectly consistent with Robert Parker’s preferences. But I’m not that way. In my head, overt ripeness homogenizes vineyard and regional character. That means that big ripe wines all taste about the same. I guess I should be proud as a Californian that the world is trying to emulate the overblown and overpriced cabernets and chardonnays of the Napa Valley, but I prefer my Barolo to be tight on release, and a “super” Tuscan in my world can be 100% sangiovese.
I also like my Chardonnay without the heavy flavor influence of new oak. Chablis is my style—flinty, high acid wines that are bright and fresh when young and impossibly mineral and complex when properly aged. The problem is that 90%+ of the world’s chardonnay is grown in too warm of an area to make true Chardonnay. Chardonnay belongs in cool, coastal areas where it may not get properly ripe in cool vintages. It needs to be on high calcium and silica soils to thicken the skins and produce that magic minerality when it’s properly structured with acidity. Commercial chardonnays have done too good of a job getting the world hooked on commodity chardonnay. As a result, high end California Chardonnay has seen flat sales. Maybe when the wine geeks realize that the world is no longer dominated by overblown, buttery, oaky chardonnay, they’ll be willing to take a step back towards the most expressive and complex white wine varietal in the world.