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California Chardonnay for the Ages
By Linda Murphy
Dec 9, 2008
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Seldom do wine writers get the opportunity to taste aged California Chardonnay.

Most of us don't have it in our cellars because we can barely keep up with tasting the boatloads of new-release, New World Chardonnays that hit our collective shore. Some of us have older white Burgundy on our racks, because since early on, we've been told that California Chardonnays fall apart after three years, while white Burgundy doesn't begin to become drinkable until after three or more years. Few California wineries stage tastings of their aged white wines, leaving the verticals to their more age-worthy Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs.

So I jumped at the chance to taste 10 Patz & Hall Chardonnays with some bottle age on them, the oldest from the 1999 vintage. Overall, the wines showed extremely well, yet it was the most senior of the group, the 1999 Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley, that was the most alluring for drinking now.

Nine years after the grapes became wine, the color had turned a deep golden color, suggesting oxidation, yet the Chardonnay was anything but tired. It was remarkably fresh, with a touch of oak spice and mineral on the nose, lush, juicy pear and spiced apple flavors, citrusy tang and mouth-coating texture whisked clean by bracing acidity. It had a sort of Grace Kelly elegance and perfect balance.

A great, cool-climate (for California) vineyard, excellent vintage in Russian River Valley, meticulous winemaking, proper storage conditions, a sound cork and the final ingredient, time, came together in one delicious Chardonnay - and I'm as hard as anybody on the California Chardonnay category, having suffered through too many wines that all smell and taste alike, of oak, butter, fruit and little else.

While California winemakers have backed off recently in using heavily toasted barrels and too much malolactic fermentation (which follows primary fermentation and softens the sharp malic acid found naturally in grapes, and can contribute a movie-theater popcorn aroma and taste when 'ML' is overdone).

The 1999 Dutton Ranch wine was produced at a time when many winemakers were infatuated with toasty French oak barrels and malolactic fermentation, going for a soft, rich style of Chardonnay that was, at the time, embraced by top critics and consumers -- dessert in a glass some called them.

Too many of these fat butterballs lacked the structure to withstand the test of time; that Patz & Hall winemaker James Hall's 1999 evolved so beautifully was such a pleasant surprise, considering the winemaking trends at the time the wine was produced.

Who knows how the 1999 would have shown a year ago, or how it would taste a year from now, but on this November 2008 day at Patz & Hall's Napa headquarters, it was in fine form. So was the 2000 Dutton Ranch Chardonnay -- minerally, firmer and a little less generous than the 1999 (and from a slightly less successful vintage), suggesting that another year of bottle age might allow for more evolution.

The 2001, from an outstanding growing season, was perfumed and had a riper, more tropical/yellow peach personality than the previous two vintages, and is still a baby. The 2002 and 2004, from two of Sonoma County's best Chardonnay vintages, taste great now, with a sweet vanillin oak nose, plump fruit (lots of green apple) and a crisp finish; they should be even better in a few years, when the components meld together and the oak becomes less prominent.

Because the 1,100-acre Dutton Ranch is comprised of several Dutton family-owned vineyards in the Russian River Valley, Patz & Hall buys grapes from different blocks, and the blend for this bottling can change a bit from year to year.

The Dutton Ranch wine is typically rich and powerful, yet variations in aromas, flavors, texture, structure and other characteristics occur from vintage to vintage, depending on which vineyards make the cut.

Hall's winemaking stays pretty much the same, however, for all its Chardonnays -- whole-cluster pressing, cold settling, primary fermentation in French oak barrels (50 percent to 75 percent new), malolactic fermentation, aging for 10 months on the yeast lees, and in most cases, no filtration.

Patz & Hall, established in 1988 by partners Hall, Anne Moses, and Donald and Heather Patz, specializes in vineyard-designated Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, sourcing fruit from Napa Carneros, the Sonoma Coast, Mendocino County and Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County.

For the Chardonnay vertical tasting, they also poured five vintages of Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay, from Larry Hyde's famous vineyard in Carneros. With a slightly warmer climate during the growing season and a mosaic of clones (mostly Hyde-Wente, Musque and Robert Young) providing blending diversity, the Hyde Vineyard Chardonnays from Patz & Hall tend to be slightly more exotic than the Duttons, with ginger, orange marmalade and tropical notes, some green apple, and firm acidity . Hyde often gets more new oak than Dutton, about 75 percent of the total, particularly in cool vintages. 

In tasting the 1999 Hyde against the Dutton of the same year, Hyde had an ethereal mouth impression, almost floating on the palate, with a juicy, mouthwatering finish. I give it five more years of improvement, at least. The 2000, from a vintage in Carneros that was rated more successful than in Russian River Valley, was ever so slightly corked on the nose, yet still delivered a crisp, refreshing wine with a creamy middle and fine oak/acid/tannin balance. It has a long life ahead of it, too.

I was less impressed by the 2001 Hyde, which seems to be maturing rapidly. Less full-bodied than its predecessors and slightly oxidized, it's one to drink sooner rather than later, though with much reward now, as the fruit is vibrant and the acidity mouth-watering.

The 2002 and 2004 Hydes (2003, a very hot vintage, was excluded from the tasting) were youthful and balanced, with minerality, passionfruit and guava exoticness and age-worthy structure. Don't open them for two to four years, if you appreciate older wines that deliver more than primary fruitiness, and have developed some secondary, complexing nuances.

Not everyone wants this sort of Chardonnay, yet long-time producers such as Hanzell, Mayacamas, Mount Eden and Stony Hill always have and likely will continue to bottle Chardonnays meant for the cellar, and their fans are legion.

Despite all the unapologetically fruity, hedonistic and powerful California Chardonnays being consumed today, presumably with great pleasure, I predict there will be a growing interest in older Golden State Chardonnays -- as long as producers such as Patz & Hall are committed to making wines that are tasty on release, and become more elegant, complex and better matches for food with a few years of age.

Now, if only those unaccustomed to mature Chardonnay can be patient enough to wait for the payoff ...