Spotlight on “The New” California Chardonnay: Talley Estate “Rincon Vineyard” Chardonnay 2011

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photoUnderstanding “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


  1. David Block
    June 30, 2014

    Dear Shea – As a historical piece I find your review both accurate and informational for the reader who is basically unfamiliar with Arroyo Grande Valley.Your comments about the the wine, Rincon Vineyard Chardonnay, were somewhat confusing and as a review I was left with an unclear image of your impression of this wine. This wine is grown in a part of the valley that does experience wide diurnal temperature swings, and the cool evenings do promote a high acidity level in the grapes. It appears that this was the only quality of the wine that you found pleasant.
    For example, “without the acidity, the wine would be flabby” But isn’t acidity what makes a wine not flabby? When reviewing a specific wine, why compare it to the qualities that you like or dislike in other brands. An in depth description of the qualities of that specific bottling seems more informational for the purpose of a review. Your overall rating of Very Good to Very Good + is quite positive and appreciated. But it feels like it was delivered with some left handed comments that leaves confused.

  2. Shea
    June 30, 2014

    Thanks. My source of info on the diurnal temperature shifts must have been inaccurate unfortunately, so I will correct that. I have no difficulties comparing different bottles of wine as without comparison it is difficult to understand why something is interesting or matters in the broader context. That said I enjoyed the wine as noted in the review and was commenting on my preferences for certain fruit characteristics. My comment about acidity relates to the relationship between potential alcohol and acidity and you are f course correct to say acidity is key to freshness – the point being that the coastal influence on acidity provides these grapes with freshness despite the potential for high ripeness, though inelegantly expressed. I’d also suggest that this description of the qualities of the bottle are informative: “pleasurable, soft fruit with a bright, tart and long finish”. Thanks again for your comments and the fantastic wines!

  3. Chris Wallace
    July 11, 2014

    Talley is probably my favourite producer from the Central Coast, one of the best in all of CA, in my opinion, at least for Pinot and Chardonnay. I tasted a number of their 2011s when I was at their tasting room in March. I was not able to taste any of their Rosemary’s (sold out) but I did notice a slight fall off in quality of their 2011s relative to previous vintages I have tasted. The usual intensity of flavor was just not quite at the same level. But I am picking at nits, these are still terrific wines and I suspect the 2012s will be incredible, based on what I have heard about the vintage.

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