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WINE AND FOOD WEDNESDAY
07/06/2011
Wine and Food Wednesday
Who Says That California Chardonnays Cannot Age? Wrong Again, You Naysayers

By Stephen Eliot

I remember a time, more years ago than I would like to admit, when my cellar was orderly and I knew where everything was. It has been awhile. These days, I have lost track of what is where, and, if truth be told, I am regularly surprised at what I find when rummaging about among long-forgotten bottles. This past weekend I went looking for something special as an accompaniment to roast chicken with morels served with a simple pan-sauce, and, as Chardonnay is still on the tasting schedule hereabouts, I thought something a bit older might be a nice break from the scores of very young wines that have been our near-daily diet.

I quickly spotted a couple of good candidates on a shelf of Chardonnays that I honestly did not remember setting aside but figured that I must have liked them early on else why would they be in the cellar. I suppose that I could have sifted through the CGCW on-line archives to be sure, but I was more in the mood for discovery than validation, and I wanted to see the wines for what they were without prejudice and expectation. I would, I decided, see what we wrote about the wines after the fact.

Now the two Chardonnays in question turned out to be the HDV Los Carneros 2004 and the Newton Naturally Fermented 2001 from Napa and Sonoma Counties. Each of the wines, while very different in style, turned out to be delicious and, while one had grown into anticipated beauty, the other surprised by exceeding all expectation…not to mention our own predictions from some seven years back.

The HDV was altogether exquisite stuff and a reminder of just what aging can bring, of why some wines are worth a wait. The wine was still fresh and vital with a riveting sense of layered complexity that was only hinted at when young. It was the kind of wine that makes you take notice from the very first sniff, and it was the kind that continued to evolve in the glass and involve as only a great wine can. It was nothing less than a true Vin de Garde that was apparently unaware that California whites could not age, and it is a wine with a fine future still. It turns out that it did, in fact, receive an enthusiastic *** CGCW rating when reviewed back in 2007, and I confess to feeling a bit of quiet satisfaction that we made the right call. The business of predicting where a wine will go is, after all, one of educated guesses. While one counts on experience and practice in making those guesses, they are guesses nonetheless, and a little validation from time to time can be nice.

The second wine, however, was the surprise of the night. It seems that we were not wholly enamored with the Newton when originally tasted in 2004 and thought it a bit heavy and too hot for its own good. Had I taken time to read the review or to notice that it claimed 15.4% alcohol on the label, I would have most likely passed it by and selected something else as a foil to our savory, richly sauced chicken. Not only had it held up remarkably well, it was a generous and wonderfully juicy wine that was rife with sweet, caramel-accented apple-like fruit…at ten years of age! It may have lacked the exquisite complexity of the HDV, but it more than made up in richness and depth for what it lacked in filigreed refinement. A great wine? No…but a very good one, and one whose unabashed ripeness should have seen it fray and fade early on—if the so-called conventional wisdom of the day is to be believed. I would not hold it up as immutable proof that all ultra-ripe wines hold such promise, but, in this instance, there was literally nothing threadbare about it, nothing overly hot, no sign of decay. It was a reminder of the pitfalls in judging a wine first and foremost by its ABV -- pitfalls I might add to which I am not immune -- and it grew into a far better wine than I would have guessed.

The point of my Wednesday rambling is NOT to rekindle the wearisome alcohol wars even if there is a bit of a learned lesson nonetheless. No, the thought that has been with me for the last couple of days is just how much pleasure can come from patience. Not every wine ages well, and there are plenty that want no aging at all. Those that can and do, however, offer something that their boisterous young counterparts simply cannot. Somewhere in the life of every wine lover comes a time when “off the rack” is not good enough, and a wine cellar of one’s own, however modest, begins to make sense.


 

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Comments

Eureka.
by Arthur
Posted on:7/6/2011 10:33:04 AM

I did a tasting of this very kind a few years back where I looked at Chardonnays from the different parts of the Santa Maria Valley - up to a decade old. They hold up nicely, though they do evolve differently depending on what part of the valley they come from and winemaking style.

Truth In The Bottle
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/6/2011 10:53:42 AM

Some of my winewriting peers, those who constantly diss CA wines for overripeness, are getting tired of hearing me say that the truth about wine is in the bottle--not on the label and not in their halfbaked theories about pH or acidity or ABV.

Not only does the Newton that Steve Eliot experienced show that but wines from all over the globe prove the naysayers wrong.

One of my better friends in the winewriting fraternity keeps harping on about low pH and red wines, and baldly states that red wines wiith high pHs cannot age.

Perhaps he has never heard of Ch. Petrus with its pH of 3.9-4.2 depending on the vintage. If it is good enough for Petrus, it is good enough for me. Perhaps he has failed to look at the CGCW verticals of Shafer Hillside Select and Phelps Insignia. Or perhaps he and the rest of the naysayers simply do not want to know.

Everyone can have a pet theory. They are even cheaper than pet rocks. But, theory is just theory. The truth is in the bottle.

oh how...
by Eureka
Posted on:7/6/2011 1:55:17 PM

Charlie,

There is nothing half-baked about the importance of a wine's pH and TA to its longevity....

It stabilizes the wine chemically and micorbiologically.

 

Arthur

www.shutupandmakewine.com

Acid and pH
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/6/2011 3:06:31 PM

Arthur--

Whether or not acid and pH are uniquely determinant of longevity is the question. There are handfuls of newbies to the biz who now endorse high acid and low pH without bothering to understand other parts of the equation. How else to explain the Newton Chardonnay that Steve Eliot drank or Ch Petrus?

Stable wines are important. Active, bacteria-ridden wines can be enabled by high pHs, but that is not universally true. And it is not universally true that wines with pHs above 3.6 will not age or that wines above 14% ABV will not age. We need to get past those formulaic notions that are applied some kind of sivler bullet for instant wine analysis.

weeeelll......
by SUAMW
Posted on:7/6/2011 3:59:36 PM

Charlie

I think like with all biochemical systems, wine stability and ageability are determined by a synergy of a number of factors. Within such systems, there is *some* tolerance for *some* deviation from "normal" range in one of the system's components - as long as something else is compensating for that change *and* as long as those deviations from the normal or 'safe' range, is fairly limited (even with compensatory factors in place).

*IF* there are wines that break this rule by ageing very well for many years while components of that system swing wildly out of range (as demonstrated by simple, reliable testing), we are likely to see one of the known pro-ageability factors is out of range but in a compensating direction.

So it is conceivable that a 3.8 pH wine will do well over time (if something compensates for the pH). But a 4.0 pH with nothing "bracing up" the system is not likely to hold up.

This is how all systems in the universe work. Why should wine break the rules of physics and chemistry?

Compensating Bits
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/6/2011 9:28:19 PM

The problem with formulaic analysis is that it ignores reality.

Reality is that wine is complex, and while it may be a useful generalization that wines with pHs in the 4.0 region are less likely to age, it is patently wrong to argue that all wines of that meet one particular number will have a given character.

Thare are tart Chardonnays with pH of 3.5 and TA of .60 or less, and there are Chardonndays with pHs of 3.3 or less and TAs in excess of .70 that are not tart.

That is why the naysayers keep getting proven wrong. Numbers may be helpful guides but they are not determinants on a wine by wine basis regardless of how many times the naysayers tell us that the numbers speak rather than the wines.

No Subject
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:7/7/2011 11:10:20 AM

Bravo, Charlie!  Truth is always in the tasting; the devil in the details, or numbers.  Of course, one man's ceiling is another man's floor:  what one fellow calls "beautifully aged" another calls "fat, flabby, over the hill..."  To paraphrase what Andre Simon said long ago, we can all have great taste but not the same one.  Ah, the beauty of all things aesthetic...

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