Spotlight on “The New” California Chardonnay: Talley Estate “Rincon Vineyard” Chardonnay 2011
Understanding “The New” California Chardonnay requires understanding the early days of the grape in California. Prior to the 1960’s, Chardonnay was a footnote of California grape growing. Today it is California’s most prolific.
Two Historical Influences
The grape’s history is long and complex, first being imported in the late 19th century and then later propagated using genetic material imported from France by the Wente family in 1912. Since that time, mutations and genetic propagation have led to a wide variety of clonal material falling under the so-called “Wente” clone. In other words, simply identifying a clone as “Wente” is not sufficient to determine its genetics. This genetic diversity is essential to “The New” California’s attempts to revive Chardonnay and explore its potential in the state, as lack of diversity is a particular problem for many dominant grape varieties. For example, most Pinot Noir in California is made using one of only a handful of Dijon clones vs. the dozens of clones used in Burgundy. Genetic diversity is important as it allows both for flavour diversity and also for better adaptation of particular clones to particular sites.
The second key historical influence on California Chardonnay lies with California’s agricultural history. Far from the mega-producing Central Valley, California’s agricultural story also includes thousands of immigrant families wending their way around the state to settle in lesser known regions. Many of these immigrants brought vine cuttings with them from Europe or simply brought grape growing to regions otherwise devoid of it. Some of these pioneering families established now key vineyards that are the source of fruit for many of California’s modern avant-garde (most of whom do not own their own vineyards). In other words, without the pioneers, “The New” California couldn’t exist.
Vegetables and Grapes: Agricultural Humility
The Arroyo Grande Valley in San Louis Obispo County is a perfect example of California’s alternative wine history. Not the slick, pampered Napa/Sonoma, but rather the humble vegetable farmer. The Talleys are, in fact, from a long line of vegetable farmers. Owner Brian Talley’s Grandfather started a vegetable farm in the Arroyo Grande Valley in 1948 and in the late 1970’s eventually planted grapes. The first commercial vintage was released in 1986. The Talley vegetable farm still exists today.
Arroyo Grande on the central coast is not known as a wine growing region – indeed there are only a couple wineries here (though more in the neighbouring Edna Valley, such as Alban). That said, winegrowing in the valley dates back to the 1880’s, which saw the first Zinfandel plantings in the eastern valley. The cooler western valley was not explored until the 1980’s, with Talley as a pioneer. It is this cooler part of the valley that allows for high quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – Talley’s specialties.
The valley is oriented northeast-southwest, with partial protection from coastal winds, though as noted, less so on the western side. Though the mornings are characterized by fog and high humidity, the climate is extremely temperate, with bud break usually in February and harvest in late September.
Unlike Sta. Rita Hills, there is little swing between morning and evening temperatures, which makes wines of less intense fruit-acid contrast. [CORRECTION: There are important diurnal shifts in temperature in the western Arroyo Grande where the Rincon vineyard is located – my original source of information was incorrect]
Talley’s Rincon vineyard is particularly close to the ocean – only 8 miles away. It is their oldest vineyard too, planted in 1982. Vines are own-rooted clone 4 and Wente clones planted on steep southerly facing slopes. The soils are loam and calcerous clay.
The Wine: An Alternative Coast
Talley’s Chardonnays are hand harvested and whole cluster pressed. Racking, fermenting and ageing is in French oak, with about 25% being new. Talley uses idigenous yeasts, but Burgundian technique: aging sur-lie 14-16 months and full malo-lactic.
The wine has typical California cool coast climate aromas of sea breeze, grapefruit, guava and peach. The palate continues the fruit, adds salinity and an extremely long, mouth watering finish. Coastal influences clearly add tremendous interest to the beautiful, acid driven back palate – really the wine’s defining characteristic.
California Chardonnay must fight ripeness. The grape’s fruit characteristics, even in the coolest sites, often tend into the riper orchard and tropical territory – something that you will not find in Burgundy or New Zealand, for example. Thus fruit preference plays an important role in which Chardonnay you will prefer. As for the Rincon, I found it falling a bit too far into the orchard and tropical camp, but buoyed by a delicious, tart finish. Without the acidity, the wine would be flabby and it is clear that coastal vineyards are the best places to grow California Chardonnay. [ADDITION: For clarity, my point is that vineyards such as Talley’s Rincon vineyard are the best places to tame the high potential sugars made possible by the intense California sunshine. As such, the coastal influence that increases acidity is key to the wine’s success.]
Talley’s vineyards are important as they are the source of fruit for several other producers who are breaking with standard styles and practices. Talley itself has been around longer than most making coastal Chardonnay, ignoring the trends. As such, it offers an important view of the Arroyo Grande Valley with wines that combine pleasurable, soft fruit with a bright, tart and long finish. I personally was less enamoured with the wine compared to the three Santa Barbara Chardonnays I have looked at already. It doesn’t have the intellectual bravado of the Brewer-Clifton, the stunning elegance of the Sandhi or the perfect structure of the Hilliard-Bruce. But, it does have a voice and is representative of how “The New” California wine is rooted in families such as the Talleys who come from agricultural roots: agriculture as humility and sustenance rather than dominance and mass-production.
I recommend the Rincon with white meats such as pork or grilled chicken rather than seafood.
The wine is one of the few in this spotlight available in BC at Marquis Wine Cellars, who were one of the first in BC to bring in these alternative, coastal California wines.
Very Good to Very Good+
$53 at Marquis