When 60 young sommeliers are gathered in a room and the topic is California Chardonnay, it's hard to know what to expect. Chardonnay has been the poster child for the big and bold California wines that are trendy to dismiss.
But this wasn't just any Chardonnay event. The tasting, organized by the Guild of Sommeliers, focused on two of California's top Chardonnay vineyards: Hyde and Hudson.
It included 2013 vineyard-designated wines from Ramey, Patz & Hall, Kistler, DuMol, Ram's Gate, Tor, Hudson and HdV. Vintners from the eight wineries sat on a panel at Ram's Gate Winery on Jan. 13, along with Lee Hudson and Larry Hyde.
The growers talked about the history of their vineyards and what makes their terroirs distinct. The vineyards are situated about two miles apart on the Napa side of Carneros and share similar clay loam soils and rolling hills. The region is cooler than the rest of Napa, thanks to the marine air flowing through the Petaluma Gap to the west. Sommelier Matt Stamp led the tasting and called the two growers "the wine titans of Carneros." Kistler winemaker Jason Kesner called the vineyards California's grands crus.
Stamp walked a narrow line, on one hand conceding the trepidation that many sommeliers have over California Chardonnay, while acknowledging a stylistic evolution toward a style they prefer.
Of course, it's easy to knock California Chardonnay in hindsight. Many young wine lovers don't remember what it was like 20 to 30 years ago when California winemakers were just figuring the wine out. Often the winemakers were working with vineyards that today would never be planted to Chardonnay. The selection of Chardonnay clones was limited.
In the pursuit of complexity, winemakers bumped up ripeness hoping for opulence, increased the use of barrel fermentation, extended lees contact, among other techniques. Whether the style eventually evolved into oaky fruit bombs, is a matter of perspective. I look at it this way: Sometimes you have to dial the volume up to 11 before you realize that 7 is really all you want (with apologies to Spinal Tap).
Indeed, many of the Chardonnays tasted that day captured the best of what California is doing now. These were talented, experienced winemakers working with impeccably farmed vines.
Here are my personal notes ands scores on the Chardonnays, which I reviewed non-blind. WineSpectator.com subscribers can read senior editor James Laube's tasting notes and scores by clicking the links.
Carneros Chardonnay Tasting
All wines tasted non-blind
DuMol Chardonnay Carneros Hyde Vineyard Clare 2013 (94 points, $62)
Gracefully austere, it builds richness and depth with citrus and mineral notes.
HdV Chardonnay Carneros Hyde Vineyard 2013 (91, $65)
Zesty and loaded with toasty spice.
Kistler Chardonnay Carneros Hyde Vineyard 2013 (96, $80)
Sleek and elegantly rich with great texture and apple and mineral notes.
Kistler Chardonnay Carneros Hudson Vineyard 2013 (94, $80)
Aromas of briny mineral, apple and apricot open to flavors with depth and traction.
Patz & Hall Chardonnay Carneros Hyde Vineyard 2013 (92, $60)
Floral lemon and apple aromas lead to complex, opulent flavors.
Patz & Hall Chardonnay Carneros Hudson Vineyard 2013 (90, $55)
Supple and creamy with graceful spice and Asian pear flavors.
Ramey Chardonnay Carneros Hyde Vineyard 2013 (92, $65)
Great focus and length with aromas of spicy lees, mineral and spice.
Ram's Gate Chardonnay Carneros Hyde Vineyard 2013 (95, $68)
Creamy and rich but with a great core of spicy lemon zest and mineral.
Ram's Gate Chardonnay Carneros Hudson Vineyard 2013 (92, $64)
Fleshy and creamy but well-built with notes of briny mineral and green apple
Tor Chardonnay Carneros Hyde Vineyard 2013 (92, $60)
Boldly structured but complex and elegant at the core
Tor Chardonnay Carneros Hudson Vineyard 2013 (92, $60)
Elegant and expressive with ripe lemon and spice flavors
Hudson Vineyards Chardonnay Carneros Hudson Vineyard 2013 (94, $65)
Great texture and elegant richness with aromas of spice, seashells and citrus