Back at home, with a new jewel of a wine

in Wine by

By Celia Strong

Well, my world travels are over for the moment. It took a bit of extra time (like nine hours more than the original schedule) and fortitude on the return trip from my visit to Italy, but home was reached. Having done that, it became the choice for this week’s wine to come home to a new American one. So, off to California we travel.

We are going to Sonoma County, and to our winery for the first time — Chateau St Jean. First, and there has been some confusion on this over the years, they pronounce it “jean.” It may look like a French chateau, and it may be spelled like the French name for “John,” but “jean” it is.

Founded in 1973, Chateau St Jean is located at the foot of Sugarloaf Ridge in Sonoma Valley, near the town of Kenwood. The winery is recognized as a leader in vineyard designated wines. And, the winemaker, Margo Van Staaveren, has been with them for 30 years. (The 2011 vintage was her thirty-second at Chateau St Jean.)

The winery and the chateau were designed to keep control of their grapes and wines close to home and to enhance, with gardens and terraces, their visitors’ enjoyment of these wines. There is a statue of Jean, their namesake and Saint John to us, in the main courtyard by a decorative fountain. In 1999, Chateau St Jean was the first Sonoma winery to be receive the “Wine of the Year” award, a very prestigious honor from Wine Spectator Magazine. The award was for their 1996 Cinq Cépages, a Bordeaux style red blend.

At Chateau St Jean, there really is a chateau. It was built in 1920 as a summer home for Ernest and Maude Goff and their family. This family had made a large, large amount of money in iron mines and lumber in the Pacific-Northwest. The property had 250 acres where they did plant white grapes, only white grapes, which seems contrary to their later praises for the Cinq Cépages.

When Prohibition came, the Goffs changed to growing prunes (yes, I know they start as plums) and walnuts. When the winery, Chateau St Jean, was established in 1973, the chateau was totally restored and opened to the public. It is now listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Another part of what we need to learn for our wine this week is about the art of not oaking wines. Most of us, having done all the drinking and studying and tasting that we have done, realize that the use of oak in making a bottle of wine can add flavors and textures and complexities. And some wines just have it done better than others.

Well, I think we have to accept that unoaked wines can have “unoaking” done better in some wines. Oak or no oak is a style, resulting in different styles of wine. Duh. Neither one better than the other, just different. The most common place we find “unoaked” used is with Chardonnays. Winemakers of Chardonnay all over the world are choosing to not use oak. Chardonnay is actually a fairly neutral grape, hard to believe when it has so many flavors in its wines, but true. In fact, it was this neutral character that made it a good candidate for oak barrel fermenting and/or aging. Unoaked, though, we get a lighter, crisper, fresher style of wine with just as many flavors, although just flavors of the grape itself.

It’s interesting to note that some wineries make both oaked and unoaked Chardonnay. Tasting these side by side is a very enlightening wine experience!  When pairing unoaked Chardonnays with food, we find they do well with high salt foods, low sweetness foods, moderate fats and oils. Shellfish and fish are delicious with the lighter, crisper unoaked Chards. Firm cheeses like cheddar and imported swiss do better than creamier cheeses like Brie. Cream sauces do not do well with the acidity of unoaked Chardonnays. Fried foods, crispy,  do better.

Now, for our wine of the week: Chateau St Jean Bijou Chardonnay. “Bijou” is a French word that Chateau St Jean chose this as the name for its new, mostly unoaked Chardonnay because it means “jewel.”  Not necessarily expensive, but it can be just a pretty, shiny trinket. Like this wine.

This wine is made from 100 percent Chardonnay. Whole clusters of grapes are pressed into stainless steel tanks to make this wine. A little, little bit of French oak is used in the fermentation to add a little, little bit of creaminess and texture to the final blend. Malolactic fermentation to reduce the acidity and sur lie aging to add richness and depth are both part if making this wine. (See, the art of making unoaked wine!)  The finished wine has tropical aromas of passion fruit and guava, as well as lemons and pears. Flavors of pineapples, peaches, nectarines, citrus and kiwi come with your first sip. Juicy textures fill your mouth. The grapes’ natural acidity shows in the finish and makes this a great food wine.  My first taste of this wine was with crispy, fried shrimp. Yum, yum.

Now that we’ve learned a bit about unoaked Chardonnay, we almost have one. Only, there’s a woman at Chateau St Jean who decided almost was better. And, when you taste the Chateau St Jean Bijou, you’ll see exactly why. Not really oaked, but kissed with some. Subtle and delicious, loaded with fruit flavors and great textures. Yes, we might say, a real jewel of a Chardonnay.  A real jewel of a wine.

For only $8.99 at Bill’s Liquors on Lady’s Island. Enjoy.