West Coast producers, from Willamette Valley in Oregon to the counties of Sonoma and Santa Barbara in California, are rethinking the American Chardonnay.
Compared to winemakers in the Napa Valley who defined the now stereotypical, buttery oak style for white wine, they may not be traditionally known for the grape. But they plant, produce and experiment with wine – with a twist. They skip the large oak for a more reserved, Burgundian-inspired approach that appreciates balance, freshness and high acidity for a mineral-driven wine. They don't try to make a white burgundy, but they apply this French philosophy to the vineyard, the winery and the cellar. The result is a lighter-bodied wine that includes tasting notes that most American wine drinkers wouldn't associate with Chardonnay – oyster shell, Asian pear, green citrus, flint, mineral – and attract consumers who claim not to drink the white wine.
"The ABC crowd is digging it," says Oregon winemaker Shane Moore of consumers who choose to drink "anything but Chardonnay." “Some people say wow, it tastes like Chablis or Burgundy. We seldom hear that the wine does not have enough oak or butter to give a try. "
The NV Gran Moraine Dropstone Chardonnay Courtesy of Gran Moraine
Moore leads the team at Gran Moraine, a winery in the Yamhill-Carlton area of the Willamette Valley, where he produces Chardonnays with a vineyard. He says without excuse that he has abolished the wine-making and cultivation techniques from the Burgundy region of France that was announced for the Chardonnay. Part of it is the desire to make a wine that reflects the place. To use the French term terroir. "For me, Chardonnay is all about acidity, transparency and verve," he adds.
It is a philosophy shared by other producers on the west coast of the U.S. who focus on the acidity in their Chardonnay to advance their style, to bring out fruits with a cool climate, to hold back large oak flavors and to lower the level of Alcohol. Fortunately, regions like the Willamette Valley are inherently suitable for high acidity in their gapes. In fact, the Willamette Valley is often compared to Burgundy due to its similarity in climate and latitude. It was a common comparison for Oregon Pinot Noir (Burgundy is also famous for its Pinot Noir) and is now prevailing for Chardonnay.
Veronique Drouhin, winemaker for Maison Joseph Drouhin in Beaune, Burgundy, France. Courtesy of Dreyfus-Ashby
Véronique Boss-Drouhin, winemaker at Domaine Drouhin Oregon and a member of the famous Burgundian family behind Joseph Drouhin wines, planted Dijon clones from Chardonnay, France, on her property in Dundee Hills 20 to 30 years ago. Back then, she says, Chardonnay from the area wasn't very good. It took until recently to really overcome this bad reputation. Now she produces the Domaine Drouhin Oregon Chardonnay Arthur and the Roserock Chardonnay from another property in the American wine growing region Eola-Amity Hills (AVA). For Chardonnay Arthur, Boss-Drouhin describes it as a mixture of Chablis and Meursault, a reference to two well-known Burgundy wines.
This Burgundian approach to Oregon wines has also gained popularity among professionals such as beverage directors, retailers, sommeliers and the press who have advocated their ability to combine with food – also very French-minded. "There is suddenly a big shift towards appreciation for a wine that is a bit more mineral, a little more lively and fresh than Chardonnay," says Boss-Drouhin. "A whole new generation is coming who appreciates wine. They don't drink the big ones."
Boss-Drouhin refers to the lower alcohol rate that she and other producers like you focus on for Chardonnay. The stereotypical Napa Valley style can often reach 14.5% alcohol; In comparison, the majority of white Burgundy is closer to 12%. This detail was important to Jamie Kutch, winemaker at Kutch Wines in Sonoma. He started making Chardonnay in 2014 and it was a big part of his philosophy to keep alcohol lower than his California counterparts. He also shrinks the oak and works on little or no oak in the nose and on the palate of his extremely fresh and mineral wines.
Gran Moraine winemaker Shane Moore Courtesy of Gran Moraine
"I admire the balance of alcohol in Burgundy wines, and again I try to pick grapes when the sugar is low, which translates into a lower alcohol level," says Kutch. "While I'm not trying to make Burgundy, I respect their approach and incorporate some ideas into my own wines here in the new world."
Kutch explains that he started using Burgundy "as a road map" for his wines because he didn't want to make another buttery, oak-like style. He believes that tastes are changing among American consumers, and he expects his style to approach with open arms, or rather, with an open mouth. “As the nation's taste continues to develop from corn syrup with a high level of fructose to black coffee and bitter cocktails with Campari or Kombucha, the sweet, ripe, fruity and heavy wine style will subside and the desire for fresh, bright and pure expression of wine will change the current landscape, ”he says.
This newly discovered love for an alternative Chardonnay style has benefited winemaker Matt Dees, who produces wines for The Hilt and Jonata in the AVA Santa Rita Hills near Santa Barbara, California. For him, this has improved the perception of white wines in a country that loves its red tones, like Pinot Noir. "Chardonnay is not an afterthought," says Dees. "There have been many times after tasting a Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County that I thought it was the grape that should top the quality fee."
Dees, like these other winemakers, sees Chardonnay's bright future in areas that are often known for their red wines. He is also a self-proclaimed admirer of Burgundy for its "kinetic energy, salinity, and tension," he says, noting that other nearby producers are also moving from Burgundy. For Santa Rita Hills, he sees how well Chardonnay reacts to the maritime soils and the cool air in the Pacific. Thanks to the slow ripening of the grapes in the vineyard and the need to make oak wood overdue, he never has a problem with "miraculous acids in a natural way".
Matt Dees, winemaker at Jonata and The Hilt wineries in Santa Barbara County, California. Courtesy of The Hilt
He only uses about 25% new French oak. In this sense, Moore & # 39; s is also low and is 12% new French oak for 2016. Boss-Drouhin says their approach is to hover around 20% new French oak – similar to Kutch, who used around 20% for his 2018 Chardonnay. The rest are kept in stainless steel tanks or neutral French oak barrels. This allows them to create balanced blends that maintain a complex range of flavors and flavors, rather than letting one or two main flavors like butter, vanilla and wood overwhelm the subtle notes. By comparison, many producers in Napa Valley use 100% oak for fermentation and maturation, and 50% or more of it new oak that gives stronger flavors.
As much as these vintners are excited to talk about Chardonnay, the truth is that it is a small percentage of what they create; Everyone focuses more on Pinot Noir. Less than 15% of the vineyards at The Hilt are planted with Chardonnay grapes, and only five out of 45 hectares are Chardonnay in Domaine Drouhin Oregon. "We can no longer grow," says Boss-Drouhin. This style is harder to find on a store shelf than a Napa Valley Chardonnay, but Kutch explains that this is fine – there is more than enough room for all styles. So consumers can choose what they want to drink, rather than producers and vintners thinking one style is superior.
"If someone really loves buttery, oaky Chardonnay, I'm really happy to get them out of buying my wines," says Kutch. "They are the farthest from this approach."
Other essential stories from Fortune:
– Blockage diary: How it feels in 17 cities during the corona virus
– How my job as a yoga studio owner changed during the pandemic
– Will the corona virus finally make the Americans accept the bidet?
– Next, listen to Leadership, a Fortune podcast that examines the evolving role of the CEO
– Italian winemakers are struggling to block the corona virus
– WATCH: Can San Francisco be saved?
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up to date with the latest news and analysis.