If Chardonnay isn’t California’s greatest white wine, then what is it? Tough question, because I’m not sure many people know the answer, including me. One person that should know is Brian Talley, owner of Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande, California. Since the late 1980s, Talley Vineyards has built a reputation for Chardonnays that don’t fit into any of the convenient boxes that seem to define California Chardonnay today. Talley Chardonnays are lean with mineral nuances, and with oak influence that lends a textural note much more than overt seasoning.
A passion for the Burgundian grape varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is what got Talley started in 1986. Since that first vintage, Talley Vineyards has been turning out long-lived Chardonnay from fruit grown in Arroyo Grande and just over a line of low hills in Edna Valley. Talley brought his Chardonnay road show north recently, putting on a three-flight retrospective tasting in the heart of Napa Valley, where wineries like to show off their own approach to Chardonnay.
As Talley sees it, the edge he has growing Chardonnay in Arroyo Grande is cool weather that promotes high levels of acidity. “The weather is cool enough for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Arroyo Grande, and we get low pH and high levels of acidity, meaning that we don’t have to over-manipulate the wines,” he says. The Talley family owns and farms five vineyards in the Arroyo Grande Valley and Oliver’s Vineyard in the Edna Valley. Rosemary’s Vineyard is named for Talley’s mother, and Oliver’s Vineyard for his grandfather, who established the Talley’s presence in the Arroyo Grande Valley in 1948 when he planted vegetables on the valley floor.
Talley says that grapes were a natural next step for the farming family. “The cool growing seasons and good natural acidity in the Arroyo Grande Valley help the grapes to mature evenly,” he explains. “It’s the right combination for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And from the beginning, promoting the vineyard name is the philosophy the winery wants to follow in line with our love of Burgundy.” He adds that balance and low pH are the two prime factors for Chardonnay to age well. “Terroir is less so, but balance and flavors must be right.” Talley is not a fan of high alcohol, believing that Chardonnays with too much alcohol are better for present drinking, but not aging. And although Talley Chardonnays are known for their longevity, Talley stresses that the goal was never to make the wines age-worthy. “Our goal was to make the best wine we could, with the aging potential a bonus.”
Although Brian Talley knows his way around a wine cellar, he has never been the winemaker. Veteran winemaker Steve Rasmussen was the Talley winemaker until 2007, when Eric Johnson took over. For Talley, the emphasis has always been on balance and a combination of ripeness and approachability, with structure and a hint of minerality. “It’s what I like about white Burgundy,” he says. When it comes to the use of French oak for maturing his Chardonnay, Talley believes that less is best. “Oak is in the mix as a framework, but it shouldn’t be the first thing you smell or taste. We’ve backed off on the use of new oak to 25%. “
Talley staged the Retrospective Chardonnay Tasting at Redd Wood, a trendy bistro in the Napa Valley village of Yountville. He put a dozen Chardonnays in all on the table, divided into three flights, with the four 2010 wines first including Estate, Oliver’s, Rincon and Rosemary’s. His aim was to show that Talley Chardonnays have longevity due to the vineyards closeness to the cooling air of the Pacific Ocean and the minimum use of new oak and the time the wine spends in oak.
The four 2010 Chardonnays all displayed the individual characteristics of the three single vineyards and the estate blend. Together they formed a nice prelude to what was to come, but the young wines still had baby fat and that fruit-forward freshness that characterize young wines. Non-intrusive oak surfaced mostly as a textural element, combined with brisk acidity and layered fruit, indications that these Chardonnays would age gracefully for at least a decade or even longer if storage conditions are ideal.
The two Rincon Chardonnays in the middle flight were a study in contrasts, with the 2006 Rincon showing more mineral notes, while the 2004 Rincon was all ripe pear and dried peaches backed by smoky oak notes. Brian Talley said that the two wines showed slightly different at other tastings, perhaps due to vintage variations and bottle maturity. Mature fruit and hints of roasted nuts characterized the two Rosemary’s Chardonnays, with the 2005 still offering tropical fruit notes of youthful Chardonnay.
Flight 3 presented a nicely structured 1997 Rincon, with dried fruit notes and good acidity; a bright and fruity 1995 Rosemary’s, with traces of toasted nuts and bracing acidity; a richly textured 1994 Estate, showing levels of crème brulee and toasted nuts, balanced by crisp acidity. Except for the 1992 Estate Chardonnay that was a bottle of cooked fruit, these aged Talley Chardonnays amply showed that when quality grapes are sourced from cool climate vineyards and made into wine with patience and temperance, California Chardonnay will age nicely.
The three flights of selected vintages illustrated Talley’s points about
aging and longevity: The four 2010 Chardonnays demonstrating potential, with the 2006 and 2004 Rincon and 2005 and 2001 Rosemary’s in the middle flight and the four Chardonnays from the decade of the 1990s, showing the evolution and maturity of the wines. It was an enlightening and educational experience.
With the 2010 vintage, Talley added the second label Bishop’s Peak wines that highlight Central Coast fruit. Besides Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the moderately-priced line includes Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah. The heart of Talley Vineyards, though, are the Burgundian-style wines, as well as Brian Talley’s on-going effort to show that California Chardonnay is not all of one piece.