The California wine industry has been going through a low-profile but extremely meaningful evolution over the past few years. At least, that is the case for the large segment of the industry that makes chardonnay.
First of all, there is a definite trend among even the most commercial winemakers to dial back the use of oak and retain a modicum of acidity in their wine. I am increasingly surprised, and gratified, by the number of these wines I encounter. And a growing number of wineries, usually privately owned, strive to make genuinely elegant, artisanal versions of this popular varietal.
These are the wines I seek out, and a recent discovery is this delightful Wine of the Week, the Dutcher Crossing Costello Vineyard Chardonnay 2008 ($28).
Lean, crisp, and citrusy, it shows the perfect balance of ripe summer fruit—pineapples and melons—along with the moderating zest of Macintosh apples. There's even a hint of the tropics—think mangoes—to add a touch of exotic richness.
The secret here lies in the vineyard, specifically its location. As owner Debra Mathy explains, "What's really unique about this vineyard is it's at 1,200 feet elevation. It's by the Geyser Peak, on the ridge, so it's a mountain vineyard, with low yields."
Its poor mountainside soil leads to stressed-out vines and low yields of small berries with concentrated juice. In addition, the high elevation helps preserve acidity, which leads to a more elegant, angular style of chardonnay.
"Our belief is that everything starts in the vineyards, and we are shepherds of the grapes." Mathy goes on. "Our goal is to showcase and do justice to the vineyards. We like the artisan way; everything's done very gentle, which leads to complex wines, interesting wines, unique wines that showcase vintages, that showcase vineyards."
With the Costello Vineyards Chardonnay, they have certainly achieved this. It is a wine of such grace and style that it can accompany the richest of foods—I tried it with a chicken in an old-fashioned mushroom cream sauce, and it made a quite splendid pairing. So let's hear it for more of these restrained, balanced chardonnays from California.
When to Drink: Now
Breathing/Decanting: Half an hour's breathing helps
Food Pairing: Richer pasta dishes, carbonara sauce, meatier fish, lobster, veal
Grapes: 100 percent chardonnay.
Appellation: Alexander Valley