Spotlight on “The New” California Chardonnay: Brewer-Clifton Gnesa Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay 2010
There are few wines with greater taint and preconceptions than California Chardonnay. Driven by residual sugar and excessive batonnage and oak ageing of inferior grapes, the Chardonnay style launched by Kendall-Jackson in 1982 ultimately became a grotesque parody of white Burgundy – the original inspiration for California Chardonnay plantings back in the 1950’s. Even more serious examples had been written off by some of the most influential international critics. I recall Allen Meadows once stating that Chardonnay simply wasn’t suited for California. Add to this the conviction of many that Chardonnay is truly a cellar grape rather than a ‘terroir’ grape (versus, for example, Pinot Noir or Riesling), one might wonder what re-discovery of Chardonnay in California is all about. In this spotlight I will argue that “The New” California Chardonnay is born of a renewed appreciation of both site and cellar. As such, Chardonnay is uniquely situated to act as a philosophical statement by the growers and winemakers putting these wines together. Chardonnay intrinsically frustrates any attempt at revelation and instead manifests a tension between the imprimatur of nature and of human choice. The truer the expression of Chardonnay in the bottle, the more directly does it embrace this tension. Too far to one or the other side, and the grape begins its descent into parody.
While there is a strong case that a revolution is now occurring in California wine-making generally, the history and inherent tension of Chardonnay provides a fruitful perspective from which to dive into the rumblings in California’s wine scene. Given the broader revitalization of California wine, it is tempting and true to now say that change is afoot with a growing number of visionary, mostly younger, producers re-discovering Chardonnay and learning how to properly balance site expression with cellar technique. Hence my adoption of Jon Bonné’s descriptor “The New” for this spotlight. But this would tell only part of the story. As some partial critics of Jon’s book have suggested, “The New” California belies the handful of producers that never changed a thing over the years. It is these producers that have inspired an increasing number of younger wine-makers to adopt the balanced terroir/cellar approach now giving rise to a great number of interesting expressions of California Chardonnay. Examples include Ridge, Mount Eden, Stony Hill, and Kongsgaard, several of whom I will feature in this spotlight. (To be fair to Jon he does feature these producers in his book).
Almost all of the wines featured in this spotlight are not available in British Columbia and many are quite difficult to find in California. They range from new up-start producers to living legends. I will attempt to provide an overview of several different California ‘terroirs’ as well as the unique producers exploring the meaning of place.
Right now, with a few exceptions British Columbia is populated with mostly banal California wines that have no relationship to the big changes going on in the state. I hope this spotlight will prompt readers to find inspiration in the possibilities of re-discovery. What is happening in California proves that despite the status-quo, there is room for re-invention. I hope that British Columbia’s own wine-makers find ways to learn from and discourse with some of these leading California visionaries. I hope, too, that some importers find it compelling to bring in some of these “New” California wines. They are not limited to Chardonnay but encompass a huge range of experimental grapes and styles, including orange wines, amphora fermentation, Italian white varieties, and other obscure grapes such as Trousseau (noir and gris). I plan to also write about some of these wines separately from this spotlight. The aim is simple: don’t let the status quo define the possible.
I find myself inspired in this spotlight by some of the leading writers in California (and beyond), including Elaine Chukan Brown of Wakawakawinereviews (a former professor of philosophy and brilliantly sensitive and thoughtful writer); Jon Bonné of the SF Chronicle (a transplant from New York who has pushed the boundaries of CA wine writing); and Eric Asimov of the NY Times. Thanks is also deeply extended to the winemakers themselves, particularly Pax Mahle with whom I spent some time several years ago at his Wind Gap facility in Sonoma and whose generous thoughts and brilliantly challenging wines forever changed my conception of California’s possible.
Brewer-Clifton and The Sta. Rita Hills: A Philosophy of Simplicity
The Dread of Imposition
Brewer-Clifton is an ideal producer with which to start this spotlight. Rather than embrace the new ethos of less ripe grapes and lower alcohol, Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton prefer high levels of ripeness in their Chardonnay grapes. But they eschew flab and the overwrought. This controversial approach derives from a belief that the world’s simplicity lies in the connection, through tension, of the disparate. For Brewer “wine is a relatively simple beverage”, something that has been made for thousands of years because of this simplicity, and he wants to honour that simplicity with what he calls a minimalist approach, comparing himself to a sushi chef.
But ‘stripping away’ is a choice, one that Brewer likes to make bare in the stark contrasts of his wines. This was quite noticeable to me in the 2010 Gneiss, which was simultaneously unctuous, almost extreme in its fruit, and focused, clean and mouthwatering. A blast of power up front, and a drawing back to singularity in completion.
The contrasts have as much to do with harvest dates as the unique climatic, geological and geographical influences of the Santa Rita Hills. Brewer-Clifton are proponents of quite late harvesting – very much in contrast to some other leaders of “The New” California. Santa Rita Hills has one of the longest growing seasons in California, being 120 days or more. For perspective, this is 30% longer than Burgundy. The extremely long season allows growers to make extremely powerful, alcoholic wines. Brewer-Clifton is amongst that group, though to simply associate them with high-alcohol would be too simplistic. However, their choice to harvest late draws them into stark contrast with producers such as Sandhi, who now harvest as much as 3-4 weeks earlier than Brewer-Clifton. Greg Brewer argues that alcohol percentage has little to do with balance. While I agree in part, it is also true that harvest times have an objective impact on the level of sugars and acidity in a wine – objective elements that lead directly to a wine’s balance.
However you receive his wines, Greg Brewer must be one of the most thoughtful winemakers in California.
Santa Rita Hills is Ocean. Literally the diatomaceous soils of its southern parts arose from the decay of ancient ocean phytoplankton. Elsewhere one will find marine shale. Due to the east-west orientation of the Santa Rita Mountains, the region is also exposed more than most other wine regions to the raw power of ocean currents and winds. The orientation of the mountain range also has the unique effect of ‘pulling’ the cold ocean air over the vineyards as the inland temperatures rise during the day. By evening, the region is often blanketed by fog. The diurnal temperature shifts allow ripeness to couple with acidity, even in huge Chardonnays like those of Brewer-Clifton.
Discovered by Richard Sanford in the 1970’s, Sta Rita Hills has become a crucible for exciting, extreme wine-making and philosophical debate. It is one of the most potent terroirs in California, allowing many different approaches to succeed. The division lies in the geography – the region is split by the Santa Rita mountain range, which runs directly through the middle, creating two valleys. To the north lie sandy soils that allow massive wines. It is in the south, valley that you will find the more interesting marine influenced soils, though even here style speaks as loudly as terroir: the south valley is home to Sea Smoke (lush, opulent) as much as Mount Carmel (from which most producers make a leaner, driven style). Debate continues on further divisions of this southern valley due to its diverse soils.
The Wine: Rendering The Disparate
The Gnesa vineyard is own-rooted and was planted to old Wente clones in 1996. It has been farmed exclusively by Brewer-Clifton since 2009. Like all Brewer-Clifton’s Chardonnays it is fermented in neutral oak, with minimal emphasis on cellar-work, though each wine sees full malo-lactic.
This wine is a contradiction. But, it is a contradiction that synthesizes: fat and lean, forward and austere. Quite a philosophical statement, and one in line with Greg Brewer’s belief in the fundamental simplicity of the world.
The wine pours quite a dark yellow, suggesting opulence. The lifted aromatics counterpoint and question this colour. One is immediately drawn away from stereotypes about California Chardonnay.
Lemon, lime and ocean scents become structured power. The intensity of the alcohol hits the back palate. This is uniquely unctuous for a citrus-driven chard. And then comes the saline/oceanic finish.
For my palate, the wine is slightly unbalanced with quite perceptible alcohol. This contrasts with my preference for greater integration, but it does not undermine the intention of the winemaker and the profound sense of tense contrast in this wine. The somewhat overripe fruit is even a little cloying for me up front, but the dry, saline finish is clean and mouthwatering: utterly confusing.
Rating this is almost pointless. It is completely unique for a California Chardonnay. It speaks of both its site in the Sta. Rita Hills and the philosophy of its maker Greg Brewer. Like or dislike, this wine has something to say. More than anything, the wine suggests a philosophical journey lies ahead.
$45 at K&L San Francisco