The Duckhorn family have been making world-class cabernet sauvignon and merlot in Napa Valley since 1976—the Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot is a stunner—and, building on this success, followed up in 1996 with their first pinot noir, Goldeneye, from the cooler Anderson Valley to the north.
As one may discern, Duckhorn is in no hurry here. It was another 12 years before a chardonnay, Migration, appeared, but not, as one might expect, from the Anderson Valley but Sonoma’s Russian River Valley.
So, having tasted and been hugely impressed by the Migration Chardonnay 2009 ($30), the newest Wine of the Week, I sought out Neil Bernardi, Migration’s winemaker, to discover the reasons for the long delay and the shift in location. It turns out that the wine’s gestation was neither easy nor simple.
Given that chardonnay and pinot noir both thrive in Burgundy, it was natural to assume that chardonnay would flourish in the Anderson Valley as the pinot had. So in 2001 they began experimenting with the varietal. But, as Bernardi explains, things didn’t work out as expected:
"What was interesting about it, as we tasted the wines, they were a different style than we were looking for. They didn’t have the complexity and elegance we were looking for in chardonnay. So about 2005 we started looking farther afield to other appellations and found that the Russian River was to our taste the place to be stylistically.
"In terms of vineyard location, we very early on realized that the southwest portion of the Russian River Valley, the Green Valley portion, had some incredible vineyards, great growers, wonderful to work with.
"It’s one of the coolest parts of the Russian River, so it’s where the fog comes in first and burns off latest so it’s very cool. It’s got this incredible soil and a lot of the vines were planted in the late 1970s and early ’80s, so the vines are knurly and older and have a real character to them that you don’t get out of newer plantings. They have a lot of character and hold on to their acid really well."
In addition, many of the vineyards are on hillsides tucked into steep side valleys. "They have these amazing sites up in the hills surrounded by redwoods," Bernardi says.
This is what it takes to make great chardonnay—not the redwoods, of course, they just enhance the scenery—but old vines, a cool climate, and the right soil. And the Migration 2009 really is a great chardonnay.
It’s rich and powerful but at the same time shows a remarkable elegance—it’s a white-gloved lady, not a chorus girl flaunting her blousy charms. There’s that haughty, aristocratic poise one finds in the best Burgundy, a supreme confidence in its own superiority.
Thus is patience rewarded—it took Bernardi and the Duckhorns more than seven years to find the right location for their chardonnay, but when they did, the result is spectacular.
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When to Drink: The next five years
Breathing/Decanting: Half an hour’s breathing is helpful
Food Pairing: Perfect with salmon
Grape: 100 percent chardonnay
Appellation: Russian River Valley