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james laube's wine flights

Vines, Wines, Values and Videos

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Apr 15, 2008 1:45pm ET

Yesterday was video day in Napa and Sonoma. Gloria Maroti Frazee, director of education for Wine Spectator School, spent the day with some of our staff, working on features that will run online in conjunction with the magazine stories.

We talked about a pair of Chardonnays that represent the varietal at its stylistic opposites, so to speak.

I uncorked a 2006 Diatom Santa Rita Hills Huber Vineyard ($42, about 300 cases made) and a 2005 Kistler Vine Hill Russian River Chardonnay ($75, 3,645 cases). Diatom is Greg Brewer’s label (he of Brewer-Clifton winery) and it is made in what some people call a “naked” style, that is, it's fermented in stainless steel and marked by wonderful lemon blossom scents, rich, intense grapefruit and green apple flavors and zingy acidity. It never sees the inside of a French oak barrel.

Steve Kistler, on the other hand, is one of California’s Chardonnay gurus, having made great Chardonnays dating back to the late-1970s. His Chardonnays (he makes about 10 different bottlings) are barrel fermented in mostly new oak and he is a practioneer of many Burgundian techniques, such as sur lie aging, barrel fermentation, etc. So his Vine Hill bottling shows subtle smoky, toasty roasted marshmallow scents wrapped around a beam of fig, ripe pear and citrus notes and a creamier mouthfeel than the Diatom. Still, the acidity gives it excellent structure.

As we were talking about the wines—the differences in where they are grown (both in coastal climates, separated by about 400 miles), Gloria wondered how different the areas are, joining me in tasting the two wines.

My response is they are both from very cool appellations, which tends to let the grapes ripen slowly and evenly. She then asked about the alcohol levels, and the Kistler read 14.1 (which by California law means it could be as high as 15.1), which is probably a true reading. The Diatom’s alcohol, though, clocked in at 16.8 (which means it could legally be as high as 17.8, though I think it too was a true alcohol reading), which is about as high a level as I can ever remember for a Chardonnay from anywhere. Still, it didn’t show any heat and we later took the two bottles to dinner at the Farm at the Carneros Inn, which is an excellent dining destination, with a chic upscale interior design and creative menu incorporating many locally grown and raised products. Both of the wines remained complex, intense and worked well with a mix of entrées we tried. The Diatom never got alcoholic and the Kistler never tasted overoaked.


Jim Gallagher
Jim Gallagher —  April 16, 2008 6:30pm ET
I sense a stylistic alteration, are you intentionally muting value, hedonistic quality in your description of the wines?
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  April 16, 2008 6:37pm ET
I've had the same experience with B-C's Sea Smoke bottling. I only looked at the alcohol level after we polished off the bottle and it was 16+, which blew my mind. Not a hint of heat from nose to finish, and I'm just too dumb to understand how that can be. It was great stuff.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  April 17, 2008 4:21pm ET
16.8% Chard?????? Wow...one wonders how he maintans acidity at that ripeness level? I do like the "naked" style however, just suprised to see such a high ETOH
Gary Konas
April 17, 2008 5:21pm ET
Jim Laube stated that the Kistler Vine Hill Chardonnay label gave the alcohol as 14.1. I've seen dozens of Kistler Chardonnays over the years, and they *always* say 14.1. In the old days all Louis Martini wines said 12.5, so they could use the same labels every year while remaining legal (11-14% range). I suspect Kistler is doing this in order to re-use the same back-label template. Oddly, they do give the number of bottles produced for each vineyard and vintage but don't give the actual alcohol (except when they coincidentally hit that exact level).

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