Storm Clouds, Silver Lining

A rain-dampened 2011 vintage for California Chardonnay results in lighter-style wines

Excerpted from the July 31, 2013, issue

Winemakers have to play the cards they’re dealt. With 2011 California Chardonnay, that meant making rigorous grape and juice selections after Mother Nature delivered copious autumn rainfall in many areas, resulting in the most challenging harvest in decades. Many growers lost nearly half their crop in the deluge, putting a serious crimp on volume.

Yet the resulting wines, while variable in quality, reflect California vintners’ ability to adapt and rethink their approaches to Chardonnay. Overall, the 2011 wines are elegant, showing less richness and intensity than is typical for the category, with dialed-backed flavors and ripeness levels. Some of these tendencies are by design, as winemakers seek to create styles of greater refinement and finesse; wine drinkers who peg California Chardonnay as overly oaky and top-heavy on tropical fruit flavors might be surprised by what they find.

“Good wineries will produce good wines from 2011 that will show the signature of the vintage—somewhat lighter, but charming, delicious wines nonetheless,” says David Ramey, whose winery is based in Sonoma. “Not every vintage need be a blockbuster.”

Since last year’s report on California Chardonnay, which focused on the sleek, tight 2010s, I’ve reviewed more than 425 new releases, split almost evenly between 2010 and 2011. Sonoma, which includes the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and the new Fort Ross-Seaview appellation, is far and away California’s leading producer of the varietal; more than 200 wines from this report hail from Sonoma. Overall, I rate the 2011 Chardonnay vintage in Sonoma and Napa 86-89 points, or “very good,” on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale.

October rains split the harvest for many vintners. Grapes picked before the storms were largely fine, but many of the bunches left hanging went unpicked. Despite the shortage of fruit, winemakers made the most of what they had, largely salvaging quality. This combination of low yields and little declassification resulted in relatively fewer values being produced in 2011.

“Certainly there was a wide spectrum of quality of fruit to be harvested and some to be left behind,” says Margo Van Staaveren, winemaker at Chateau St. Jean in Sonoma County. “Because [St. Jean works] with Chardonnay from all over Sonoma County, we had some hits along with some misses.”

“It was a rough one,” says Mark Aubert, who made five single-vineyard bottlings, including the highest-rated 2011, the Russian River Valley Eastside (95, $80). But Aubert chose to skip his Carneros Hyde Vineyard bottling due to rain damage, opting instead to release an appellation-designated Carneros Chardonnay without the Hyde name. The wine from Eastside, a vineyard picked before the rain, is true-to-form Aubert—amazingly complex, with a rich array of fig, apricot, butterscotch, crème brûlée and roasted marshmallow flavors. And it’s big; Aubert likes his wines to be around 15 percent alcohol.

In the past few years, California vintners have branched out to different styles of Chardonnay. At one extreme are versions that are fermented in stainless steel, never see the inside of an oak barrel and are crisp, like biting into a ripe green apple. Mer Soleil’s Santa Lucia Highlands Silver Unoaked 2011 and Morgan’s Monterey Metallico Un-Oaked 2011 are good examples of stripped-down, bare-bones Chardonnays.

At the other end of the spectrum are bottlings that are ripe and well-oaked. Winemaker John Kongsgaard, based in Napa, believes that aging Chardonnay in oak for extended periods gives the wine added layers of complexity and a silkier texture, not the heavy-handed wood presence some might expect. Both of his 2010 Chardonnays are sensational. The Judge (96, $175), openly rich and smoky yet graceful and polished, is named in honor of Kongsgaard’s father and makes a profound statement about Chardonnay style. The Chardonnay Napa Valley (95, $75) is a tour de force that stretches the range of flavors, adding roasted, smoky marshmallow and tiers of marmalade, tangerine and roasted fig.

Chardonnay lovers have plenty of options—with bottlings from 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 all currently in the market. By most accounts 2012 will be an exceptional vintage, benefiting from great weather and a bountiful crop. In many ways, winemakers say, it is the opposite of 2011.

Boosted by the variety of styles being produced, there’s a little something for everyone when it comes to California Chardonnay.

Senior editor James Laube is Wine Spectator‘s lead taster on California Chardonnay.

To get more detail about the 2011 vintage for Chardonnay in California, read the full article, “Storm Clouds, Silver Lining,” in our online archives.