Wine professionals, writers, and their ilk are prone to frequent deprecations of California chardonnay (and careful readers won't have to dig too hard to find examples of such in my own work). While much of this is snobbish condescension (guilty as charged), it does carry more than a kernel of justification—too much of this over-oaked banana juice is despoiling people's palates and deluding them into thinking it is real wine.
The trouble, in part, is California's too-generous sunshine. It makes it easy to pick overripe grapes that in turn lead to superconcentrated, high-alcohol wines.
But some of it is a stylistic choice on the part of the winemaker. So last week and this I am highlighting two winemakers who are bucking this trend, last week with pinot noir and this week with chardonnay.
Larry Hyde has been growing some of the most sought-after chardonnay grapes in the Carneros wine region for 30 years. The roster of winemakers who purchase his grapes reads like a Who's Who of high-end California chardonnay—Ramey, Paul Hobbs, and Kistler, to name just a few. But in 2000, in conjunction with his partner, Aubert de Villaine, whose day job is co-director of the storied Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, he decided to try his hand at making his own wine.
And in this he has succeeded spectacularly. His HdV Chardonnay 2005 ($60) is a miracle of Montrachet-like achievement.
Even on the nose it astounds, so powerful and intense is that Burgundian combination of fruit and earthy minerality.
The lush richness appears as a paradox. It is intense yet remarkably restrained and when combined with the beautifully balanced, green-apple freshness results in a wine of glorious harmony.
One of the secrets here is old vines, because, as Hyde explained to me, "Older vines accumulate sugar more slowly than younger vines. So you pick later, which means more time on the vine, so the fruit acquires more richness and body. The real bonus is that those old vines also expire their acidity more sloooowly, leaving you with more acidity, less alcohol, more richness. Just what we are looking for in our wines."
Half an hour after decanting, the wine was opening up nicely and showing the richness Hyde was talking about. All the elements—the honeyed fruit, the crisp acidity—had melded harmoniously and, along with the now even more pronounced slatey minerality, combined in a truly extraordinary wine, a wine so glorious it's positively life-affirming.
I felt, in fact, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan, who "on honey-dew hath fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise."
Not an inconsequential achievement for an old California grape grower.
For the budget-conscious, or those a little less stricken with Paradise, Hyde also makes a second-label chardonnay, the De La Guerra, for $40. It comes from younger vines—although at 13-plus years they are older than most in California—and is a little lighter, doesn't have the decadent richness of HdV, but is delightfully fresh, lively, and packed with minerality.
To find this wine near you, try www.wine-searcher.com
When to Drink: Now and for the next five years
Breathing/Decanting: A very good idea
Food Pairing: Lobster, meaty fish, roast chicken, anything with truffles
Grapes: 100 percent chardonnay
Web Site: www.hdvwines.com