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Wine Talk: Spring Has Sprung; The Grass Has Risen; I Wonder Where The Deck Wines Are

It may not look it for another week or so but Spring is here.  It is time for us to start to clean off our decks and make ready for the warm and lovely nights associated with Spring in Southern Connecticut.  Once the deck furniture is in place and all is ready, it is time for the wines of Spring.

But there is another California chardonnay, produced by a small band of winemakers who have held out against the big and buttery style.  Using an older style of winemaking, they are producing a crisper, more lively chardonnay, one that sacrifices showy power in favor of steely subtlety.

The older method goes by the clumsy name of nonmalolactic fermentation.  While wine jargon like that may tempt people to press the mute button, it can also unlock a style of chardonnay radically different from the cocktails of oak, tropical fruit, butter and vanilla that have come to be regarded as traditional.  “They’re so cloying I don’t see how anybody can stand them,” said Ric Forman, the owner and winemaker at Forman Vineyard in the Napa Valley, which has been producing nonmalolactic chardonnays since the early 1980s.  Michael Chelini, the winemaker at Stony Hill Vineyard in Napa, the granddaddy of the nonmalolactic style, calls the newer chardonnays tutti-frutti wines.  Wineries like Stony Hill and Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma County were chardonnay pioneers in the 1950s, with a grape that was little known in California, though it was the exalted white grape of Burgundy.  Working in isolation, making decisions by impulse, they made chardonnays without malolactic fermentation.

Everything has changed since then, of course.  Chardonnay is now the most popular wine in the country, with California producing 42.2 million cases in 2009, almost all in the buttery-oaky style.  But Stony Hill and Hanzell, joined in the 1970s and 80s by wineries like Far Niente and Forman, stubbornly clung to the older style.  Now they are being joined by Russian Hill Estate Winery in Sonoma County and Melville Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley.  Winemakers see the old style as more balanced and also better with food.  Many of these wines benefit from a subdued use of oak, which adds to the overall impression of harmony.  “The result is a more fruit-driven wine that has richness and creaminess but not the harshness of double fermentation Chardonnays.

“The true old-fashioned way of California chardonnay winemaking was pick the fruit, ferment it in the tank and get it in the bottle,” said Dirk Hampson, winemaking director for the Far Niente Winery in the Napa Valley.  “Only in the 1960s did they start using oak, and malolactic only became popular in the 1980s.”  The shift to malolactic came when many California winemakers were responding to criticism of their chardonnays as clumsy compared with the Burgundian model.  Mr. Forman was one of more than a few young California winemakers who went to France in the late 1960s and early 70s to observe French methods.  ‘We discovered it was a pretty good idea to use French barrels and to ferment chardonnay in them,” he recalled.  “But I felt that the grapes we had in Napa didn’t have enough acidity for malolactic fermentation, and I resisted it all along.”

While working for other wineries Mr. Forman didn’t always have the final word.  In a rich irony, Mr. Forman was a consultant at Kendall-Jackson and played a vital role in making its Vintner’s Reserve chardonnay, which became a popular standard bearer of the sweet-oaky school.  When Mr. Forman started his own winery in 1983, he forswore malolactic fermentation.  “The wines age better, and they taste better,” he said.

Far Niente, which went into business a couple of years before Forman, also avoided the secondary fermentation.  “We’ve looked to Burgundy for the proportions of our wines,” Mr. Hampson said.  “But we have to recognize that we have very different conditions in the Napa Valley than in Burgundy.”

Grapes do not get as ripe in Burgundy as in warmer California climates and so usually have less sugar and more acidity.  After a secondary fermentation, which almost all white Burgundies undergo, they should have enough acidity to retain crispness and structure.  In California, the secondary fermentation, while adding weight and richness, can also leave wines soft and unbalanced unlike many other California chardonnays, which are extravagant early but fold up quickly over time, old-style chardonnays can benefit from aging, which is rare among white wines, but evident in riesling and chenin blanc, other highly acidic whites that do not undergo a secondary fermentation.  Stony Hill shows its delicate power only gradually, seducing you rather than beating you over the head.  While nonmalolactic chardonnays age well, they need more time to open up, which can make young bottles seem austere.

This single fermentation Chard is a great deck wine and a terrific wine to have with some lite cheese and crackers on a nice Spring night in Southern Connecticut.  Try some; you will be glad you did!

The American Wine Society is revisiting Savino winery in Woodbridge.  Come join us!  See my Contact information.  We still have openings for the Milford Adult Ed Wine Classes!! Call me!

Ray Spaziani is the Chapter Director of the New Haven Chapter of the American Wine Society.  He teaches wine classes at Moltose Wine and Beer distributors and the Milford Board of Education.  He is a member of the International Tasting Panel of Amenti Del Vino and Wine Maker Magazine.  He is an award winning home wine maker.  Email Ray with your wine questions and wine events at Realestatepro1000@gmail.com.

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