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Beautiful Subtlety
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
May 20, 2014
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Hilliard Bruce, Sta. Rita Hills (California) Chardonnay 2011 ($45):  I could go one of two ways on this review. I could tell you about the winery owner I met for lunch in a casual Manhattan restaurant -- a lovely, sensitive woman who breeds Arabian horses and loves the California countryside -- and how I liked her Chardonnay and her Pinot Noir despite the ordinary glassware and distracting surroundings of our encounter.  Or I could tell you about the blind Chardonnay tasting I conducted at home, in which I and my fellow taster each selected her wine as our favorite.

I’ll go with the second option, because it is the more objective.  I blind-tasted eleven Chardonnays from ten California appellations and one Washington AVA, ten different producers, mainly 2012 vintage wines ranging in price to $50-plus.  There was not a bad wine in the group, but my expectations were high and my scores were therefore conservative.  Most of the wines scored in the 88 to 89 zone and only three wines scored 90 or better.  When I learned that our clear favorite was the 2011 Hilliard Bruce Chardonnay, I was delighted.

The husband and wife team of John Hilliard and Christine Bruce purchased the 101-acre Hilliard Bruce property near the western boundary of Sta. Rita Hills in 2002.  In 2004 they planted a 21-acre vineyard now comprised of 15.7 acres of Pinot Noir and 5.3 acres of Chardonnay.  Christine, the white-wine maker, is a musician, but both of them are artists as well as master gardeners, which they say carries over into their viticulture through an element of meticulous precision.  Hilliard Bruce produces as many as six wines, mainly Pinot Noirs.
Hilliard Bruce’s Chardonnay vines grow on steep, rocky terrain.  Chardonnay vines were grafted onto existing plants to replace Pinot Noir vines that were not well sited.  Production is very low, with only 19 barrels produced in 2011.

What I liked so much about this Chardonnay in my blind tasting was its complexity of flavor and the integration of its structural components.  Many of the other Chardonnays had vibrant fruit character with full body and high acidity, a combination that resulted in a somewhat severe and aggressive style. (On the positive side in general, overly high alcohol and excessive oakiness were not issues.)  The Hilliard Bruce, however, has a gentleness of expression.  Its aromas and flavors suggest fresh apple, mild citrus, nutty lees and perfumed oak.  The wine is full-bodied, soft and ample, with creamy texture and with acidity enough to bring depth to the wine without making it strident.  The finish is particularly long and gently rich.  All the parts of the wine work together.

Christine Bruce explained to me that because 2011 was such a cool vintage, the wine could not complete its malolactic fermentation, and therefore about ten percent of the strong malic acid remains; this gives the wine a nervy energy, although not to the point that it detracts from the wine’s gentleness and subtlety of expression.  This 2011 was entirely barrel-fermented and 30 percent of the oak was new, which is a decrease from the 40 percent new oak in the 2009 and 2010 vintages.  This year for the first time she will produce the wine in the family’s own winery.

Because production is limited, you can’t find this wine in all markets, but it is available in New York, California, Missouri, Florida and Hawaii, as well as through the winery.  

91 Points