Spotlight on “The New” California Chardonnay: Hanzell Vineyards Estate Chardonnay 2006

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photoPart of “The New” California Chardonnay movement is a shift in focus away from the Napa and Sonoma valleys to lesser known regions that are far better suited for growing Chardonnay. These regions tend to be cool, coastal and/or higher in elevation. Chardonnay generally does not do well with excessive heat, something mitigated by coastal vineyards. However, most people’s understanding of high end California Chardonnay is of Chardonnay grown in the hot valleys of Napa and Sonoma. As a result, many came to associate high priced California Chardonnay with extreme richness. Plantings in the two valleys tend to be in soils that could do equally well with red varieties that demand more ripeness. These facts make all the more interesting and important the inclusion of Hanzell amongst the top “New” Chardonnay producers in California, for their vineyards lie in the heart of the Sonoma Valley proper.

Heritage Sonoma

Forget what you know about Sonoma Chardonnay. Hanzell is sui generis. It is also an ideal example of why the rich/lean contrast in Chardonnay doesn’t actually say very much, though it is used by so many to make qualitative conclusions. Founded in 1953, Hanzell was one of the pioneering boutique California wineries and one of the first to attempt to make ‘Burgundy’ in California. It was founded by a former US ambassador to Italy James Zellerbach (of the family that owns the large forestry company Crown Zellerbach, who incidentally have a large Canadian presence).

The winery was respected from its founding but started to gain serious renown when winemaker Bob Sessions took over in 1973. Bob, who passed away this year, made wine until 2002. His approach was ageability rather than immediate enjoyment – a style that at the time was not being done by many wineries. This is not surprising when considering that Sessions learned his craft at Mayacamas and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in the late 1960’s. He was also a Californian pioneer in using stainless steel to ferment the Chardonnay before aging in barrel. This approach has obviously been copied since, but it is part of the winery’s legacy.

The winery lived through a dark period in the early 2000’s after Sessions retired when it had to completely rebuild the winery building due to endemic TCA taint. Today, however, it is back in full form. The winemaking is now headed by Michael McNeill and the Director of Vineyard operations is José Ramos Esquivel.

The vineyard is part of the Mayacamas Range above the town of Sonoma. The winery consists of several vineyards, the oldest of which is a heritage vineyard known as Ambassadors, which was planted in 1953. It is planted with heritage Wente clones and is actually the oldest continuously producing Chardonnay vineyard in North America (as well as the oldest Pinot Noir vineyard). The vine material has been used to propagate other vineyards throughout California and Oregon. Fruit from this vineyard is blended into the estate Chardonnay, though there is also a very rare single vineyard bottling. Part of this heritage lives on in the approach to vineyard development. Hanzell focuses replantings on developing vineyards to last for 50-60 years, not the standard 10-15. The average age of the vines across all vineyards is thus a fairly old 30 years.

The consistent theme in this profile is that the “New” California Chardonnay is as much rediscovery and rebirth of some old traditions at a few stalwart boutiques as it is a bunch of young wine-makers breaking with the status quo. Hanzell belongs with wineries such as Mount Eden or Kongsgaard as one of those old-school boutiques that became the bedrock for new wineries with young winemakers and big ideas to shift the focus of California wine such as Chanin, Ceritas, Wind Gap, Rhys, Lioco and Sandhi. However, unlike those wineries’ focus on cool climate expressions, Hanzell is unapologetic and masterful with full, rich, ripe expressions of California Chardonnay.

The Wine

The 2006 vintage Chardonnay was not loved upon release. It earned decent reviews, but nothing outstanding. Then it was forgotton for some years. It is now a wonderful example of the Hanzell style of Chardonnay, built for aging. Today it is a stunning achievement in a difficult vintage with an unbelieveably hot July that led to a final alcohol of 15% ABV. Normally if you saw 15% on a Chardonnay you would run for the hills. Not here.

The 2006 Hanzell is outrageously good wine. It is qualitatively better than most white Burgundy (though I generally detest this comparison regarding flavours, style and experience, it is useful from a value perspective). The nose is big, very big: lemon, lemon drop, hazlenuts. The palate is trademark Hanzell – incredibly dense, weighty, rich and structured. I am astonished at the fruit quality and the clear mastery of cellar work. Palate flavours include lemon, biscuit, cream, apple and hazlenut. The mid-palate concentration is immense, but the wine is also quite open right now. There is a wonderful savory finish, with streaks of stone. The wine completely belies its alcohol. There is also good acidity though it is lower than what you find in Sta Rita Hills Chardonnays. But the wine’s opulence is perfectly balanced. This is a miraculous wine I don’t think could be made elsewhere, even in California or Europe. I am shocked this is Sonoma Valley Chardonnay – it’s amongst the very best in the state.

When looking at comments and reviews of this vintage (and sometimes others as well), I can only conclude that a lot of people misunderstand this wine and underestimate its ageability. I recommend it in the highest of terms. Heritage California at its best.

Excellent to Excellent+
$55 at K&L, SF


  1. Gene Castellino
    December 1, 2014

    I agree!! For my taste, Hanzell makes one of the best age worthy chardonnays. I have the 2006 and the 2004…they are both drinking great now. I always decant them for 2 hours. I’m planning on following my remaining bottles for many years.

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