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Judge for Yourself

John Kongsgaard ages some of his Napa Chardonnays for as long as four years in oak
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Aug 29, 2013 4:00pm ET

Oak is a divisive issues in wine. One way of looking at it is that if a little is good, then more is better. Not many people would actually subscribe to that theory, though.

Napa vintner John Kongsgaard has been experimenting with extended barrel aging for his Chardonnays for years, with increasingly impressive results. Not only were his two 2010s the cream of the crop in this year's roundup of California's best Chardonnays, but one wine he's been tinkering with spent four years in oak.

The idea for the experiment dates to 1987 when Kongsgaard made his first visit to Burgundy as winemaker at Newton in Napa Valley.

In Meursault, he visited Jean Francois Coche at the Coche-Dury estate and Dominique Lafon at Comtes Lafon, among others. Both of these vintners left their wines in barrel for 22 months. In California, in those days, it was unheard of to leave the white wine longer than 12 months in barrel before bottling (unless the winemaker had forgotten about it). With the Newtons' encouragement, Kongsgaard set aside a few barrels of 1988 Chardonnay for two years of barrel aging.  

"The richest, most minerally lot in the cellar was from my Stonecrest vineyard, which then went entirely to Newton," said Kongsgaard, referring to the Kongsgaard's family-owned vineyard in the city of Napa. "We watched the two barrels as they got their extra year of barrel age and liked the result. A lot of questions were raised: How long to leave the wine with the lees, how often to stir the lees, and how many months should the stirring continue, when to add the first SO2, etc."

The long aging also allowed the wine to settle naturally, so filtration could be avoided if the alcoholic and malolactic fermentations were completely finished, he said.

Today Stonecrest is the source of Chardonnay for Kongsgaard's The Judge, an homage to his late father, the former Napa County Superior Court justice Thomas Kongsgaard.  

"I always wondered what would happen if the wine stayed even longer in the barrel, and eventually in our new cellar up here on Atlas Peak, various barrels have presented themselves as longer aging candidates," he said. "Since we do not add yeast, and because our vineyards, especially The Judge, are naturally low in nitrogen, i.e. low-vigor, the wines naturally ferment very slowly.  I don't push the fermentations, and some lots will take well over a year to complete the fermentations."

"The fruit is even further back on the distant horizon, and the structure of the wine, its architecture, if you will, is more apparent. And the extraordinarily long finish is noteworthy," Kongsgaard said. "I find it helpful to look at the extremes to understand what lies at the center of the winemaking traditions."

It's worth nothing too that the vineyard is shy bearing and is picked like a Sauternes—that is, very selectively, vine-by-vine, cluster-by-cluster.  

One last aside: At $175, it is California's most expensive Chardonnay, a fact that Kongsgaard believes would have stunned his father. "I made a few cases for Pops," Kongsgaard said. "He would have been so embarrassed by the price because he was a Depression kid and didn't have much money growing up."

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  August 30, 2013 11:50am ET
I've attended a few master classes for opera singers where the coach might ask a singer to push the boundaries of interpretation, over-emoting, if you will. The idea is not to sing the piece that way in public, but to find out just what colors and emotions the voice is capable of producing. Once you know how far is too far, you can step back and create a more nuanced interpretation.

Sounds like John is doing the same thing with extended barrel aging of his wines. This seems to have produced more dramatic, more complex results.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  August 30, 2013 5:54pm ET
We all like to take short-cuts--sometimes successfully, sometimes not--Mr. Kongsgaard's work seems to suggest that there really is no substitute for the extra time. Subtlety, finesse and integration achieved through maturity are unachievable through any shorter paths. Thanks for passing this along, James, although with the tiny production, one might wonder about any possible implications for the larger market.

David Rapoport
CA —  August 31, 2013 1:46pm ET
Yet, sadly, all too often, those singers take the wrong lessons away; leaving them giving performances where "nuanced" would not be an adjective that should be used.

Then some of them decide the want to perform Bach, and I get sad

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