Cellar adventures: California chardonnay from the mid-1990s

As I’ve written before, I’ve lately been exploring the neglected bottles in my cellar. Most of them are red, but, sadly, the inventory contains a goodly number of California chardonnays, which isn’t really a category with a reputation for long aging.

That said, over the years I’ve tasted some California chardonnays that have aged remarkably well. What they all had in common was the absence of malolactic fermentation in their vinification.

Malolactic, or ML, fermentation is a process in which bacteria transform a wine’s sharper malic acid into softer lactic acid, which results in a rounder, fuller mouthfeel. (ML can also produce diacetyl, a compound that contributes that buttery flavor that used to be so common in California chardonnays.)

ML in whites (nearly all reds undergo ML) isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nor does it always shorten a chardonnay’s aging potential. A lot of fine, age-worthy white Burgundy undergoes malolactic fermentation. But California chardonnay is a different animal, produced under very different growing conditions.

Most consumers don’t age their California chardonnay anyway – they’re looking for immediate gratification, so full or partial ML (for a lot of chardonnay, only a portion of the blend goes through ML) may be in order. Even I  didn’t really mean to age my chardonnays for 20-plus years, but that’s what happened with these particular wines from Napa and Sonoma counties.

I did a similar tasting of older chardonnays many years ago. In that case, too, the non-ML chardonnays performed the best.

I opened five chardonnays from 1994-95; four of them were non-ML bottlings. The lone bottle that had gone through ML, from a Russian River producer I won’t name (it’s not as if they ever claimed the wine would age for 22 years!), was shot. A non-ML chardonnay, the 1995 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay, was also done, but that could have been because of a crumbling cork; I didn’t have a second bottle for comparison.

The other three wines had fared much better. My favorite was the 1994 Chateau St. Jean Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay, from Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, a region much better known for cabernet sauvignon. The wine was still lean and fresh, with citrus, wet stone and some creaminess. Even its color was relatively youthful.

Chateau St. Jean winemaker Margo Van Staaveren was assistant winemaker at St. Jean in those days. “We’ve always made the Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay in a non-ML style and that, along with the characteristics of the vineyard itself, have always resulted in a wine that ages quite well,” said Van Staaveren, who is also director of luxury winemaking for Treasury Wine Estates, St. Jean’s parent company. “I’m not surprised it showed as the best from that time period. I’ve always been pleased with older vintages from this vineyard. They retain a core of acidity and delicate fruit to support the crème brulée and other aged characters that develop.” She added that the winery has bottled a Robert Young Vineyard-designated chardonnay every year since 1975, with the exception of the rainy 1989 vintage.

I also liked the 1995 Grgich Hills Chardonnay from the Napa Valley. The wine showed its age, but it still had vibrant acidity and a crème brulée note. Mike Grgich has been making non-ML chardonnay since his days at Chateau Montelena; his Montelena Chardonnay took top honors at the Paris Tasting of 1976.

Finally, there was a 1995 Stony Hill Chardonnay. Since its first harvest, in 1952, Stony Hill has produced chardonnay in a lean, elegant style, with no ML and no new oak. (Well, there’s the occasional new barrel rotated into service when necessary.) Stony Hill is something of an icon, sold through a mailing list before such practices were common. Back in the day, I waited some years to get on the list.

Like the Robert Young Vineyard, Stony Hill’s estate vineyard is in a place better known for cabernet sauvignon – in Stony Hill’s case, the Spring Mountain District of the Napa Valley. Yet most vintages age extremely well. The first bottle of 1995 I opened had, unfortunately, a cork that showed evidence of leakage. The wine was OK but a little disappointing. A second bottle, with a sound cork, was much better: fresher, with more body.

In the past, I’ve also tasted well-aged bottles of Trefethen and Mayacamas chardonnay that were more than holding their own, but I didn’t have any in my cellar for this tasting.

I realize that most wine drinkers aren’t particularly interested in aging their chardonnays – or any of their wines, for that matter. To someone who’s not accustomed to older wines, the wines I’m describing may taste over the hill. But if you have a chance to taste wines like these, don’t pass it up. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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