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February’s 29 days of Chardonnay

a collaborative project


Part I:

Ruminations on the Relevancy of California Chardonnay

Is California Chardonnay still relevant?

Authored by Matt Licklider, from the Manifesto of Balance

Chardonnay, it is believed, originated from Burgundy, France where for centuries it was cultivated with an obsessive-like rigor by the Cistercian Monks.  Today it is found wherever wine is produced.   Chardonnay captivated American wine drinkers in the early 1950’s.  In 1990 it surpassed Riesling as the most widely planted varietal in the state. Today, a quarter of the world’s Chardonnay plantings reside in California.

The early trend with California Chardonnay was to imitate Burgundy, but the varietal found broader commercial appeal by pushing the limits on ripeness and oak. “Bigger is better” seemed to be the approach.  A peak in Chardonnay’s popularity in the late 1980’s lead to a backlash by wine drinkers who took a strong disliking to its overblown, homogenous style.  The “Anything But Chardonnay” (ABC) camp emerged.   As America’s thirst for this variety grew boundlessly, so too did the ABC camp’s capacity for its disdain.  Chardonnay became the brunt of jokes.  The poster child of passé.

Few of us in the pro-Chardonnay camp would defend the über-industrial, over-produced California Chardonnays of the last 20 years.  Rather we would be quick the make the distinction between wines with integrity and wines without.  The “problem” resided not with Chardonnay per se, but rather with the philosophy of how California Chardonnay was being made.  The noble Chardonnay wines from France remained unmoved while California Chardonnay was working through its identity crisis.

Today, California Chardonnay is enjoying a renaissance.  It has shed the unwanted pounds and with them the stigma of ‘cocktail wine.’   A new movement is afoot led by a generation of winemakers equally at ease discussing Burgundy, The Jura, and the Sonoma Coast.   These producers are taking the kind of risks necessary to create truly compelling Chardonnay:

• Farming it in tougher soils and in very marginal climates

• Showing a preference for certain clonal selections

• Experimenting with native yeasts

• Harvesting at lower sugar levels

• Using judicious amounts of oak (some loons have reportedly been using 100% steel!)

The resultant wines, moderate in alcohol and flush with acidity, do what great wines do:  give a clear translation of time and place.

The ABC Movement has had its day, and to be fair it served its purpose.  Its collective rumbling was no doubt part of the solution.  But Chardonnay is back.   San Francisco’s sommeliers have reportedly been buying the stuff again.  Long live the king!

Part II: In Pursuit of Balance 

In Pursuit of Balance seeks to promote dialogue around the meaning and relevance of balance in California pinot noir and chardonnay.

IPOB was created by Rajat Parr of Michael Mina and RN74, and Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards, to celebrate wineries striving to produce balanced pinot noir and chardonnay in California.

A growing group of producers is seeking a different direction with their wines, both in the vineyard and the winery. This direction focuses on balance, non-manipulation in the cellar, and the promotion of the fundamental varietal characteristics which make pinot noir and chardonnay great – subtlety, poise and the ability of these grapes to serve as profound vehicles for the expression of terroir. Simultaneously, members of the media and trade have been vocal in calling for greater restraint and balance in wine, and this has become one of the hottest topics in the wine world.

The first event was held in San Francisco in 2011. Check out interviews filmed and produced by Gastrotommy.com from the 2011 event, with Jon Bonne, Rajat Parr and Jasmine Hirsch here.

In Pursuit of Balance 2012

The second annual In Pursuit of Balance tasting will be held in downtown San Francisco on March 19, 2012 at the Merchant’s Exchange Club. Click here for more information or here to purchase tickets. Jasmine told me recently there was only 60 tickets left, probably less by now!

In Pursuit of Balance is heading to Manhattan for our first ever New York City tasting, to be held on April 18 at City Winery. This event is sold out!

In Pursuit of Balance has been in the press quite a bit, and for good reason. Jasmine and Raj are great people and hustle wine hard. After you take a look at the wineries that are participating, it should leave no doubt in your mind that there is wealth of REAL wine to be tasted and enjoyed. If nothing else, this is the time and place to test Matt’s theories on the relevancy of California Chardonnay…

Is the King back?

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