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Chardonnay in Balance

06/27/2013 04:17 pm ET | Updated Aug 27, 2013

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Chardonnay has been one of the hallmark wines made in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  In the 1990's and early aughts, while other California wineries were pushing the envelope on overblown buttery and oaky styles, Santa Cruz Mountain Chards, especially those of Mount Eden Vineyards and winemaker Jeffrey Patterson, were a beacon of hope for those of us who prefer a more restrained, more balanced glass of wine.  Now that the pendulum seems to be swinging towards unoaked, crisp and elegant wines, more Burgundian than Californian in style, these Chardonnays are more fashionable than ever.

I've never been a Chardonnay fan - until now.  I've been exploring Santa Cruz Mountains wineries over the past six months or so -- getting updated on what's new and exciting. In the process I've discovered some Chardonnays that turned my tastebuds.  And while I usually don't buy Chardonnay, I've been spending perhaps a little too much of my budget on it lately.

Alfaro Family Vineyards

My first revelation was at Alfaro Family Vineyards, a winery owned by former bakery owner turned winemaker Richard Alfaro.  I was visiting the tasting room which is on the "Corralitos Wine Trail," a grouping of four boutique wineries just miles inland from the Monterey Bay and Pacific coast.  This homey winery fits the homegrown Santa Cruz Mountains image.  It's rustic and very unpretentious.  Richard and his wife Mary Kay run the business, producing estate grown Chardonnay along with a wide range of Pinot Noir, Syrah (a very good one in fact) and Merlot.

The labels are bright and cheery, based on the painting by a local artist, Laurie Zeszut, showing the Alfaro family in the vineyard at harvest.  The standout is the Lindsay Paige Vineyard bottling, blended from two Chardonnay clones, the Wente clone and the Musque clone.  When I see that, I know it's going to be a complex bottle of wine.  The Lindsay Paige does not disappoint.  It is rich yet balanced, no oak bombs here.  Floral and nutty, with apple and pear flavors.  You get honey and vanilla notes on the finish.  What can I say, it is delicious.

Windy Oaks Estate

Nearby Windy Oaks Estate crafts another of my favorite Chardonnays.  From the top of its vineyards you get an amazing view of the Monterey Bay and you feel the cooling effect on the grapes.  This gives the Windy Oaks Chardonnay a terrifically bright, crisp acidity.  Winemaker Jim Shultze aims for a Burgundian-styled wine, which he makes from the one acre hillside block of the Shultze Family Vineyard. Jim says the wine has a noticeable minerality to it and "it's unfiltered and unfined,"  which you don't often see in California Chardonnay.  Jim says he doesn't have to filter because he's gentle on the wines, using gravity to move the juice, which helps clear the wine in the process of moving from tank to barrel to bottle.  Jim also leaves the Chardonnay it in a mix of new and neutral French oak barrels for 15 months.  "We're in barrel about 18 months, on the lees the entire time.  I'm a big believer in the lees really nourishing the wine and giving you that really nice round mouthfeel."  There's only about 75 to 100 cases of the Windy Oaks Chardonnay made each year, so if you go to the tasting room, be sure to try it.

Silver Mountain Vineyards

Everything about Silver Mountain Vineyards is old school, especially the Chardonnay.

"We are much more interesting than other regions," says owner and winemaker Jerold O'Brien.  Sitting at an elevation of 2100 feet, with panoramas of the Santa Cruz Mountains, he's certainly got many beat with just the views.

However, Jerold's been crafting wines from organically grown grapes out of his estate vineyards for more than 30 years and is considered a leader in green winery practices - including dry farming, solar power and a roof from which he collects rainwater for irrigation.  His Chardonnay vineyard is certified organic.  The vines are dry-farmed, and rare these days, are all planted on their own rootstock - meaning no grafting has taken place.  Normally grapevine clones are grafted onto disease resistant rootstock, but Jerold says he's never had to worry about a threat from the vineyard pest phylloxera that has knocked out neighboring vineyards, thanks to sandy soils and isolated vineyards.  He feels that maintaining own-rooted vines results in a more natural and honest wine.

This former Air Force pilot found he liked wine much better than beer when he was in the service.  In the 1970's he began working part time in wineries and taking winemaking classes.  Jerold is known for his somewhat unconventional winemaking methods, for example using pulsed air to mix the grape juice and skins (which form a solid cap during fermentation if not mixed up), a much gentler method of what's called punching down the cap.  Throughout the entire winemaking process the juice is moved by gravity flow, treated gently every step of the way.  Sure it's more expensive and time consuming to do make wine like this, Jerold admits, but he doesn't like what pumps do to the wine.

You'd think these pampered wines would carry an ultra-premium price tag, but that's not Jerold's style.  You won't find a Silver Mountain wine over $40, including his second label Alloy, and Sonnet Pinot Noirs, a wine made by his consulting winemaker Tony Craig.  For me the estate Chardonnay is the star, with a passion fruit aroma and tropical flavors on the palate.  It's a decadent wine, but not over the top.  Again, balance is present in this glass.

In 1989 the original winery was destroyed by the Loma Prieta earthquake, but Jerold rebuilt undaunted.  He took the opportunity to not only rebuild, but create a destination for wine lovers.  The tasting rooms has beautiful views and I'm told it's a great place for watching the sun set.

With luck you'll find Jerold at the tasting room when it is open to the public on Saturdays.  A super nice guy, without a doubt one of the true characters of the Santa Cruz Mountains, making wine his own way.

Rhys Vineyards

If Silver Mountain is old school, then Rhys Vineyards is new school.  The Chardonnays (and Pinots) made at Rhys are terroir driven, with an incredible focus on how the soils in different vineyards produce different fruit, so that you really do taste the terroir in the bottle.

Proprietor Kevin Harvey planted two vineyards, Alpine and Horseshoe with Chardonnay, both of which are at about 1600 feet elevation with stunning views.  Even though the two plots are no more than 300 feet apart, the wines couldn't be more different.  That's due to to the soil, Kevin says, because the climate is basically the same in the two vineyards.   At Alpine, the white shale soil "is dense, it's very chalky and the Chardonnay has a really sea breeze kind of aroma."  Kevin calls it much more generous and more fruit forward.

While there is also white shale at Horseshoe, it's a very rigid, balsawood-like composition, with almost no weight or density to it.  The vineyard is also rockier than Alpine and the vines have to struggle more -- really put down deep deep roots, to find water and nutrients.  "Horseshoe shows more minerality, and I don't want to say austere because it's not austere it's structured and a little more introverted," says Kevin.

Once again, thanks to cool nights and warm days, especially during the ripening season, acids stay high, but keep balanced with the purity of fruit.  In fact, high acid is a hallmark of all the wines at Rhys, a Burgundian style Kevin favors, and one certainly more in balance than the typical California Chardonnay.  It's also a style that ages gracefully.

At harvest the grape are picked by small blocks and n the winery they are fermented in micro lots, to retain the pure fruit character of that vineyard terroir.  It's winemaking with incredible attention to detail, but it lets the fruit shine and express the place where it was grown.

Cinnabar Winery

Cinnabar's Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay was also a revelation.  Perhaps known more for their reds like Mercury Rising, a Bordeaux-style blend, this wine is fruit forward and elegant, with rich tropical fruit notes - think pineapple and papaya, with some crisp apple and pear, balanced by a zest and minerality.  This Chard is made with native yeasts and barrel fermented.  Similar to the approach at Windy Oaks, the Cinnabar Chardonnay is aged sur lie - on the lees, in French oak barrels.

While it may seem that the return to this more balanced, less butter, oak and vanilla style of Chardonnay is a recent development, Richard Alfaro's been making wine since 1998, Jim Schultze since 1999 and Jerold O'Brien for 30 years and they haven't changed they way they make wine in that time.  Thank goodness they, and these balanced Chardonnays are getting the attention they deserve, not just from the wine press but from their most important audience, the wine drinkers.

As I am finding in the Santa Cruz Mountains wines that the warm days and cool nights bring out the acid in the Chardonnays, which perfectly balances the richness that comes from the winemaking style.  These are not flabby, over the top wines, but focused, complex and a pleasure to drink.  I am no longer an ABC drinker.

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