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