Someone whose palate I respect poured a wine saying, “This is what California Chardonnay wants to be when it grows up.”
Behind such a statement I can find many points with which to agree, but in general, although the idea that anyone can do anything as long as they put their mind to it may be good parental advice to a kid struggling with pre-calculus, in the world of botany, a simpler adage applies:
It is what it is.
Of the non-vagaries in California Chardonnay, much has been written, some of it accurate, some not, most of it (though not all) relatively complimentary. When you consider the words written by the truly great wine writers of our time—Hugh Johnson, Oz Clarke, Jancis Robinson (none of whom are Californians)—much solid interpretation can be found, both of grape and ground and resulting wine character.
One thing that none of them can deny, however (nor can you), is that more Californians claim to make Chardonnay in a ‘Burgundian style’ than Burgundians who claim (at least in public) to make Chardonnay in a Sonoman or Napanese style.
Remember, Poseur is a French Word…
California will never be France, and in every sense, shouldn’t try. New world wines have, or should have, an entirely different way of approaching the classic flavors of Chardonnay, and that—in the simplest of psychology vs. physiology debates—is both the result of nature and nurture. Which is why, for the most part, the rules governing the way Chardonnay is done in Burgundy is overseen by Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée regulations, written specifically to avoid generic tastes.
Not that there are not generic Burgundies, of course; there are plenty of them and these are principals in the abstract. But too often in California, the attempt to duplicate the mysterious splendor of lieu-dit is done by assigning wines specific vineyards names, then elevating the concept of ‘vineyard designated’ wines to some rarified stratum where they really don’t belong. Time is on the side of the French, who have had many centuries to develop the concept; California Chardonnay producers (with a few exceptions) are dealing in decades.
And the simple truth remains that for the most part, a specific vineyard name on a New World bottle is in no way a guarantee of quality. On the contrary, many of these wines would be better if they were blends. The branding might suffer, but the wines would not; very few growing sites on Mama Geo can produce wines of absolute distinction, and for any number of reasons—geology and climate foremost—an awful lot of them landed in the narrow strip of land that is Burgundy.
Like Darwin, we are dealing in tendencies rather than absolute rules of thumb. Or in this case, tongue.
Château de Maltroye Chassagne-Montrachet
Château de Maltroye is unusual from the very first glance; virtually every Bordeaux begins its name with the word ‘Château’ but few do in Burgundy. That’s both truth and tradition; like the direct English translation of poseur is ‘trying to act like something one ain’t’, château means ‘castle’. Due to its climate and proximity to the sea, the Médoc especially has always been a destination land of wealth and distinction. As a result, there are many meticulously preserved manor houses from the days of yore.
That cannot be said in mid-country Burgundy, and in fact, the immaculate 18th century château at the Clos Maltroye is one of only a very few in the region. Other than the headquarters of Jadot and Bouchard Père, it would be difficult to name another.
And in any case, Burgundians are more interested in showing off the fruits of the vine, and less the pedigree of their nerve centers. That’s why Château de Maltroye is careful to (and legally obliged to) label some wines as Grand crus, others as 1er cru and the rest as Villages.
Since that is a descending level of quality, the fairest contrast between a like-priced California Chardonnay ($55) is with the Château de Maltroye’s basic white Villages offering.
For this price in California, I am buying a bottle of Cakebread Cellars Reserve Chardonnay from Carneros or a WALT ‘Dutton Ranch’ from the Russian River Valley—big, fat, in-your-face wines full of oak and butterscotch. At this end of the scale, California tends to provide Chardonnay making statements that are the social media equivalent of writing in all capital letters.
Some people legitimately like this style of wine; others are bullied into thinking they’re supposed to like it. I have no beef with the first faction—with the other, I suggest that a red Bourgogne might go better with beef.
And In the Other Corner, Wearing the Hard-To-Pronounce French Trunks…
The damp-pavement minerality in the Château de Maltroye (mahl-twah) was so striking that at first, I thought it might be the glass itself—it has happened in the past that glasses washed in certain municipal waters dry with a particular calcium residue that shows up when you first nose a wine. So I sniffed out a perfectly clean glass, and tried again. The same aroma, known as ‘petrichor’, was dominant, and the man with the bottle said that this particular aroma was a signature of the estate, and asked me to allow the wine a moment of respiration. Et voilà, literally in the length of time it took me to carry the glass from one end of the counter to the other (to avoid some lilies that, for some reason, the tasting room displays) the wine exploded with an effusion of fruit and soft, buttery lusciousness—a transformation as quick and remarkable as dipping a litmus strip into a glass of lemon juice.
Along with the fruit, malic-acid creaminess and toasted almond richness were the discernible vagaries of Chassagne that the domaine mentions, which by wine writers are often encapsulated with the single, unsatisfying word, ‘complexity’. When so many layers appear in a wine that describing them becomes an exercise in poetry florid enough to come across as ludicrous, they remain—as the domain also points out—unwritten. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity, you may not be able to define complexity—or minerality for that matter—but you know it when you see it.
To me, these are the subtle notes that bespeak the centuries of Burgundian excellence, a wash of nuance, a bright shadow of flavors that are at once nutty, fruity and rocky; the quietness of the expression is the key, not the bombast that can be found in top California Chardonnay estates across the ocean. No amount of ‘growing up’ will change the essential geology of Sonoma unless it somehow involves the San Andreas fault.
Alas (or not, depending on your preference) my prose leans towards an American level of boisterousness, while Johnson, Clarke and Robinson seem capable of phrasing passages with less noise and more import.
They’re who I’d like to be when I grow up.
Unfortunately, most of the factors that underscore the differences between French wine and California wine are about the very thing that both celebrate, terroir, leading to an inescapable conclusion:
You work with what you’ve got and try to make the most of it.
Which, in conclusion, is why I will never write wine books like Hugh Johnson.