Six Best New Washington Chardonnays
The backlash against Chardonnay—summed up by the “ABC” (“anything but Chardonnay”) trend among wine drinkers and the result of one too many characterless butter bombs as Chardonnay’s popularity rose in the ’90s—is currently in the midst of its own backlash, as that fickle pendulum of wine fashion swings back toward this noble white grape.
By the end of 2014, there will be at least three new Chardonnay-only winery projects in Washington, and they join a handful of local wineries with long track records of producing outstanding Chardonnays. The message is strikingly similar among rookies and veterans alike: With this new Chardonnay renaissance, it’s all about the vineyards.
Array Cellars founder Henry Smilowicz was one of the first on the new Chardonnay scene in Washington, and he was determined to source from cooler Chardonnay vineyards and make crisp, bone-dry, mouthwatering wines. “We wanted to leave the bigger, riper California style of Chardonnay behind,” he notes. “Minerality, balance, good acidity and food-friendly flavors are the driving forces.”
Photo: Brennan Leighton, Andrew Latta and Charles Smith are singling out vineyards for their Sixto Chardonnay, by John Valls
Smilowicz launched Array in Woodinville with the 2010 vintage, and beginning in 2011, the Array team expanded its lineup to include two single-vineyard and one multiple-vineyard Chardonnays. One is from 1980s plants at Otis Vineyard. For many years, the Otis fruit was under contract to Columbia Winery. Only in recent years have boutique wineries had a chance to make wines from Otis grapes. “It’s a treasure hunt of sorts,” Smilowicz says.
That hunt for old-vine fruit is generating deep excitement among Washington winemakers. Chardonnay is known as a grape that is especially expressive of the climate and soil conditions in which it’s grown, and the deeper the vines dig, the more they transmit a sense of place in the glass.
Chris Gorman of Gorman Winery is another old-vine Chardonnay hunter, and his Chardonnay-only label, Ashan Cellars, launched earlier this year. With Ashan, he’ll focus on three single-vineyard bottlings, including two from some of the oldest Chardonnay material in the state: Celilo Vineyard, planted in 1973 in the cool-climate Columbia Gorge; and Kestrel Vineyard, planted in 1972 in the warmer Yakima Valley.
“I work very closely with the farmers and respect what they do,” enthuses Gorman, going so far as to print names of vineyard managers on the Ashan labels. “I’m a fan of the history of the grape, so having the oldest blocks in Washington humbles me.”
In Walla Walla, Charles Smith sought not only old vines for his new Chardonnay-only label (which will be called Sixto but also has found choice locations for Chardonnay that remain unexplored and unplanted. “I feel that Washington is almost like France,” begins the inimitable Smith (K Vintners, Charles Smith Wines), “where there’s a place for every varietal somewhere in our state. Chardonnay must have its great spots.”
Finding those spots is the raison d’être for this partnership between Smith, his longtime collaborating winemaker Andrew Latta, and Brennan Leighton, who, prior to joining this project in 2012, made a glorious Chardonnay for Efestē.
Like Array’s forays into old Columbia-owned vineyards, Smith et al. have tapped into a 36-year-old Chardonnay site called Moxee Vineyard that Chateau Ste. Michelle used for years. Along with a Moxee Chardonnay, the plan is to bottle two additional single-vineyard Chardonnays (Frenchman Hills Vineyard and Roza Hills Vineyard) for release in autumn 2014. Despite the triumvirate of winemakers involved, Smith emphasizes that the project is not about winemaking. “This is about winegrowing and vineyard selection,” he says. “The work is done in the vineyard. If you’re going to leave the wines so naked, you have to have everything coming right out of the vineyard.”
PAUL'S CHARDONNAY PICKS
Buty 2012 Chardonnay, Conner Lee Vineyard, $40
Since 2000, Conner Lee has been the source of one of Washington’s finest Chardonnays, this single-vineyard bottling from Buty. The original goal, according to Nina Buty, was to find a vineyard that would “let the land speak, with a focus on pure flavors.” Raised in a combination of oak and concrete, it offers a lovely mix of stone fruit and tea leaf, with thrilling cool-site acidity even in this warmer vintage.
PAIRS WITH: Mussels steamed with wine, lemon, tarragon and cream.
Abeja 2012 Chardonnay, $36
Chris Gorman is not the first to be seduced by the mineral Chardonnay of Celilo. This magical site, planted in the soils on the southern slopes of the extinct volcano Underwood Mountain, also plays a major role in John Abbott’s beautiful Chardonnay for Abeja. Abbott praises the site for its “balanced acidity and exotic fruit,” both on display in this dry, supple, creamy-textured Chard.
PAIRS WITH: Linguine with roasted cauliflower, breadcrumbs and anchovy paste.
Woodward Canyon 2012 Chardonnay, $44
Rick Small of Woodward Canyon, who made his first Chardonnay as a home winemaker in 1976, calls Celilo “a fantastic location for Chardonnay,” noting that wines from this site are “bright, express the varietal character I seek in Chardonnay and are extremely well balanced.” Each year, his Chardonnay is a mix of Celilo and Woodward’s estate vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley. This 2012 displays a full, rich, creamy texture, but the fruit is never overblown, displaying lovely restraint to the peach, plantain and lemon curd flavors.
PAIRS WITH: Fried razor clams.
The New Chardonnays
Ashan Cellars 2012 Chardonnay, Kestrel Vineyard, $45
Are these the oldest commercial Chardonnay vines in Washington? At 42 years and counting, they have a legitimate claim to that distinction. Regardless, this is a throwback to the Napa-style bottles that got many excited about Chardonnay in the first place. Barrel-fermented and aged in 100 percent new French oak, it’s a luscious powerhouse. The creamy tropical fruit (pineapple, mandarin orange, mango) is swaddled in barrel notes of caramel and smoke, and the finish just won’t quit.
PAIRS WITH: A late breakfast of Dungeness crab eggs Benedict.
Array Cellars 2011 Dijon-clone Chardonnay, Otis Vineyard, $32
This offers the first opportunity in many years to taste an Otis Vineyard Chardonnay from a producer other than Columbia Winery, and it’s the only bottle on the list from the cooler 2011 vintage. Right from the first sniff, it grabs your interest with its dusty/earthy component overlaying peach fruit. The first sip reveals a live wire, a palate stainer, coating your mouth with plantain fruit, hazelnut, lemon oil and sweet spice.
PAIRS WITH: Seared sea scallops over creamy risotto.
Sixto 2012 Chardonnay, Moxee Vineyard, $55 (bottle Not shown)
Tasted from the barrel in summer 2012, this already displayed the breathtaking combination of intensity and purity that well-chosen older vines can provide. It should be ravishing by the time it is released later this year.
PAIRS WITH: Lobster tails with drawn butter and lemon.