The enduring chardonnays at Trefethen Family Vineyards

I’ve been rummaging through my cellar lately, excavating wines that have been neglected and/or forgotten. That means a lot of wines that are 20, 25, 30 years old. Some, especially the reds, have been surprisingly good. I say surprisingly because many are the sorts of wines that were never meant to age, rather than, say, a classified-growth Bordeaux.

The whites (mostly chardonnays) have been more of a mixed bag. Some are shot; others are drinkable, but I wish I’d opened them 15 years ago. Still others have been quite good, like Kongsgaard and Ridge chardonnays from the late 1990s and a Mount Eden from the early 2000s.

And then there was the outstanding 1994 Trefethen Library Selection Chardonnay. In some cases, the Library Selection wines are slightly different from that vintage’s regular release (in the case of this chardonnay, it spent more time in oak and underwent no malolactic fermentation). The Library Selections are also held at the winery for a couple of extra years. Still, this bottle would have been at my house for more than 20 years, stored in reasonably good but not pristine conditions.

The wine was incredibly fresh, even as it had taken on a deeper color and secondary flavors like butterscotch and hazelnut.

Wines like that are “the biggest surprise for people and one of the reasons we love sharing older chardonnays,” Hailey Trefethen, whose parents, John and Janet, founded the winery, said when I called to chat about the wine.

This wasn’t my first experience with older Trefethen chardonnays. In 2008, I wrote about a tasting to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Napa Valley winery.  At that tasting, two chardonnays from the ‘70s were still vibrant, and the 1987 was amazingly fresh. Those early wines were fermented in stainless steel tanks and didn’t undergo malolactic fermentation in an attempt to preserve the wines’ bright acidity. (It worked, obviously.)

In the early 1990s, the style began to shift some, with the use of barrel fermentation and partial ML. There were two wines from the ‘90s in the 2008 tasting, and they were noticeably riper and richer, but they still had that taut core of acidity. And, of course, the same was true with my recently tasted bottle of 1994.

Hailey Trefethen is part of the team at the winery founded by her parents, John and Janet Trefethen. (Photo courtesy of Trefethen Family Vineyards.)

Trefethen Family Vineyards is in what’s now known as the Oak Knoll District, north of the city of Napa. It’s warm enough to ripen cabernet sauvignon and cool enough for success with chardonnay and riesling, although that’s all dependent on the right vineyard practices. All Trefethen wines are made from the estate vineyards.

Hailey Trefethen, who works with her brother, Lorenzo, said the vineyard includes 13 clones of chardonnay, including the California heritage clones, and more than two dozen clone-rootstock combinations. New plantings are with the heritage clones. The average age of the chardonnay vines is about 20 years, she said, with the oldest blocks dating to 1987 and 1988.

Picking decisions are key for the right balance: Workers might make 20-30 passes, with each pick fermented separately. Some blocks might be picked a little on the early side for their acidity. It helps to have historical knowledge of the blocks and how they ripen.

Even at the height of California chardonnay’s big, buttery phase, the Trefethens stayed true to their vision. When the wines are young, they are lean, taut and racy. I find them delicious, but they’re probably not for everyone. But give them a couple of years to flesh out.

“It’s the style of wine we like, even when it’s young,” Hailey said. Still, “in our heads, we’re making wine that will age.”

As many consumers look for fresher, less-heavy chardonnays, the Trefethen wines are certainly finding fans. “We hear that a lot – I don’t like chardonnay, but I like your chardonnay,” Hailey said.

The current release is the 2019 ($38), which is lean and racy, with a lemony character accented by a hint of wet stone. Despite the lean profile, the wine also has some weight and a long finish.

With all this focus on the chardonnay, I don’t mean to give short shrift to the other Trefethen wines. The winery also makes an excellent, age-worthy cabernet sauvignon. Also lurking in my cellar was the 1995 Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon, which was full-bodied and savory, with black fruit, notes of olive and anise and a nice sweetness to the fruit. It still tasted very youthful, although the tannins had softened.

And definitely be on the lookout for the wonderful dry riesling, which, not surprisingly, also ages well.

The winery lists some older vintages and large-format bottles for sale on its website. Hailey said the winery opens an older, large-format wine every Thursday during Throwback Thursdays. Reservations are required for tastings. Click here for information and sales.