Spotlight on “The New” California Chardonnay: Kongsgaard Napa Valley 2002

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k1I’m starting to feel that the title of this spotlight was misconceived. Focusing on “the new” suggests California wine has restarted, carte blanche, from its era of high ripeness and extract. But this is not so. In reality, the increase in new producers and those dialing back the ripeness levels and seeking balance owes a debt to the producers who always took that approach, many of whom have been doing so for decades. Without that bedrock foundation, it’s unlikely there would be anything “new” to talk about.

A History of White Wine Innovation

Along with producers like Mount Eden, Ridge, Hanzell and Hirsch is Kongsgaard, which though founded only in 1996 is now a  historic winery in Napa that makes Chardonnay unlike any other in that valley. In fact, Napa is generally ill suited to make interesting Chardonnay. With the exception of the sub-region of Carneros, it’s generally just far too warm. The several exceptions that do exist are a very small percentage of the overall Chardonnay acreage in the valley. In my experience, most Napa Chardonnay is to be avoided.

But Kongsgaard offers something very different, and a glimpse at true Napa history that has become increasingly hard to find. The “Judge” Vineyard is one of the historic sites of Napa, and considered by many to be the source of the greatest Chardonnay in California. It was purchased in the 1920’s by John Kongsgaard’s grandparents (his father was a judge in Napa County) and planted in 1975. John himself got a master’s degree in Viticulture from UC Davis and then worked for Stony Hill and then Newton from 1983-1996, founding his winery in that last year. John was also one of the first in California to receive training from Michel Rolland. From this vineyard, Kongsgaard started making an idiosyncratic Chardonnay that has since come to reach cult status and sells for about $200 a bottle when you can find it at retail. Its reputation is for great ageability and massive structure.

Kongsgaard also makes a “Napa Valley” Chardonnay, which has also garnered cult status and a significant following. It is made with fruit from Carneros, particularly the Hyde and Hudson vineyards with whom John has had contracts since the 1980’s. The key for Kongsgaard’s Chardonnays is seeking fruit from low-yielding vineyards that are low in nitrogen, which supposedly provide fruit with the ability to handle his highly unusual cellar techniques. Kongsgaard also uses some unusual viticultural techniques such as dramatic leaf thinning early in the season which he says protects the fruit from later season heat spikes because it thickens the skins early, providing a layer of protection the grapes would otherwise not have.

Kongsgaard was the first winemaker in California to make and sell an unfiltered white wine during his time at Newton. Kongsgaard uses an unusual technique known as “death and resurrection”, which involves very little SO2 (30 parts per million) for several months after harvest. Because of this the pressed Chardonnay juice turns brown and cloudy. Fermentations (with only indigenous yeasts – no inoculations) take a very long time and are occasionally unusual in that malo-lactic can complete before primary fermentation. After fermentation the Chardonnay is barrel aged for 2 years. The Chardonnays spend a lot of time on the lees, which serve as protection from oxidation and because of the earlier low SO2 techniques seem not to add overblown leesy flavours to the finished wine. For some reason, about one to two years after press, the juice completely clarifies. Apparently this technique was borrowed from the great Corton producer Bonneau de Martray, and I can certainly see some similarities in style between Kongsgaard and that great estate, though a very different fruit base.

California’s Most Unusual Chardonnay

k2A Kongsgaard Chardonnay is not obvious. Its pleasure requires reflection. For all the praise in the wine media, many drinkers would be forgiven for feeling confused when drinking the wine. Why? Because Kongsgaard Chardonnay does not fit the model of big-boned California Chardonnay, which is often how critics such as the Wine Spectator or Robert Parker describe the wine (just as they describe wines that are nothing like Kongsgaard). These wines are closed and dense in their first year. They also focus more on secondary and savory flavours, with the powerful fruit present but not in the typical flamboyant way of other big Chardonnays. The wines are also built to age.

This 2002 may be past its prime, but it is still a delicious, idiosyncratic wine that is unlike any other aged Chardonnay from California. The wine offers nuts, honey, caramel, peach pie, marmalade and some oxidative notes. The wine is not prematurely oxidized, though. It is simply in the point in its ageing curve that slow exposure to oxygen has started to become more overt. The colour is beautiful amber, the texture dense, very dense. It’s a singular expression and, while I’d recommend drinking the Napa Valley Chardonnay more at 6-8 years after bottling, you can’t have a complete picture of California Chardonnay without tasting a Kongsgaard.

Very Good+ to Excellent
$100 at K&L Wines


  1. Chris Wallace
    August 18, 2014

    Depending on what California Chardonnay you “used to drink” will make a difference to how new the new Chardonnays are, as you quite rightly note in your opening paragraph. My own experience has leaned in the direction that makes the “new” Chardonnay less new, at least to me. But I am glad to know that the tradition of making excellent, balanced but still intensely-flavoured Chardonnay continues from California.

    My wife and I just got back from a tasting trip to Walla Walla and we noticed a lack of quality Chardonnay being produced there. Not so much that what was being produced was not good, just that many wineries did not offer a Chardonnay. A few we tried were outstanding (Woodward Canyon and Maison Bleue stood out) but I thought that with WA’s climate, we would see more. Your point that outside of Carneros, Napa is generally too hot for the varietal, is well taken. But WA has a different profile, especially with its cool evenings which would preserve acidity and keep balance. I have little experience with OR Chardonnay, though I gather it is picking up steam. I guess my point is that I would have thought these two terroirs would be producing more high-quality Chardonnay than they are. Perhaps one day they will and that can become the subject of a future blog.

    Thanks for this post; I thought the whole series was terrific.

  2. Shea
    August 18, 2014


    Yes that is true. What is ‘new’ is the increased attention on these sorts of wine and increased interest in making them by young winemakers. I would have liked to included the wines of Chanin and Ceritas, though was unable to locate them in time. They are both fairly new and pushing the envelope on Chardonnay. Also producers like Ojai have recently chosen to dial back their approach, which is a new development. I think some of the most radical changes have been with unusual varieties and vinification techniques. I will discuss this in the future. As for WA I don’t know the answer to your question other than perhaps the key Avas are still too sun endowed for great chard + have no coastal influence to cool things down. As for Oregon there are increasingly great things happening there. An old favourite for Chardonnay is Cameron, but antica terra and domaine serene also make excellent chards. Perhaps this does warrant future investigation.

  3. David J Cooper
    August 23, 2014

    Shea. Your note makes it sound like you have a fairly high tolerance level for ox. I’m not sure I would. As an alternative I find the sulphur and oak in a wine from Leflaive more my preference.

    There were a lot of trophy Chardonnays from California that were both oaky and ripe. Pahlmeyer and Jordan come to mind. I noticed a change about 5 years ago. There are still plenty of offenders.

  4. Shea
    August 23, 2014

    Kongsgaard is certainly divisive wine. Not all his wines are oxidative. In fact, I think this only becomes a risk after a certain age. That said, because of his methods, Kongsgaard’s wines are uneven. They are not, however, oaky and I would not compare them to Jordan or Pahlmeyer, both of which are vastly inferior. I probably have a higher tolerance than some for oxidative qualities in Chardonnay as I do think they can add character to certain wines. Just look at some of the great Chards from the Jura. Also I very much enjoy Sherry, which has oxidative qualities of course. And Champagne can have pleasant oxidative qualities (e.g. Selosse). That said, I acknowledge that the very best Chards tend not to have oxidative qualities because this obscures vineyard expression. Leflaive is, of course, a textbook example of great Chard, though even their wines prem-ox.

  5. David J Cooper
    August 25, 2014

    I wasn’t comparing this wine to Pahlmeyer, i was just using them as an example of an older style Chardonnay.

  6. Shea
    August 25, 2014

    Yes, I agree there are many of these sorts of wines left too.

  7. Kevin Dinol
    December 15, 2014

    Thanks for the info about California Chardonnay Wine.

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