When Michael Terrien left Acacia to become winemaker at Hanzell Vineyards, he was forced to rethink winemaking. He went from a winery in Carneros that emphasized early drinking Chardonnays that were ready on release to one with a tradition of slow developing Chardonnays that aged exceptionally well.
Hanzell, perhaps as much as any winery in California, is steeped in tradition. The winery in the hills above Sonoma Valley dates to the 1950s and introduced many firsts in California, including the model of Burgundian excellence (right down to the winery being modeled to look like a miniature Clos de Vougeot), planting both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and using small French oak barrels for aging.
While it is the vineyard that drives quality, the mindset of the winemakers, namely Bob Sessions for 28 vintages, have honored ritual. Sessions captained Hanzell and only deviated from the original recipe for both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir when the situation demanded it.
Three years ago, Terrien became the captain, succeeding Sessions, and was captivated both by how little had changed since Sessions started in 1973 and how incredibly well the wines aged, particularly the Chardonnay.
As we talked about those traditions—fermenting the wine in stainless steel (as opposed to oak barrels) before moving it to new oak (with the same coopers all the time), little or no malolactic fermentation and filtration—Terrien described how the infant Chardonnays slowly develop. Because of the way they’re made, young Hanzell Chardonnays can seemingly lack flavor, taste alcoholic and even dilute, which is enough to scare any winemaker. It is only with time that the wine evolves, gains richness and complexity and begins to reveal its core of flavors, starting out with pithy citrus or grapefruit flavors and building to riper fig and pear flavors, joined by bread yeast scents early on to bread crust flavors later on.
In this video clip Terrien describes that sensation of tasting the young wine (in this instance the about-to-be-bottled 2006 vintage) and holding out hope that it will live up to Hanzell Chardonnay’s reputation for greatness.