By Celia Strong
Has anyone noticed how many bottles of Chardonnay we all seem to buy and drink? Although we don’t talk about it too much, our featured wine this week is a Chardonnay from California that is definitely worthy of discussion.
So, we go to Mendocino County in California. This is an appellation, designated as such on labels, which is actually a part of the much larger North Coast AVA. Mendocino County has some of the most diverse climate conditions of any wine producing area. There are, in fact, two distinct climate zones, and 10 separate designated AVAs within Mendocino County. Also, with nearly 25 percent of the grape growing land farmed organically, Mendocino has been called “California’s organic wine Mecca.” (We must remember, the term “organic” refers to the grape growing process, not actually to the wine.) Most of the vineyards in the county are planted in the eastern side.
The most well known AVA of Mendocino County is the Anderson Valley. This is one of the coolest growing regions in the state, with cool Pacific fogs coming off the coast. In the 1980’s, the success of Roederer Estate, the Anderson Valley branch of the French Champagne house Louis Roederer, led to others planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the area for other sparkling wines and still wines also. Success with Riesling and Gewurztraminer followed. The Anderson Valley is about 10 miles long, has over 20 types of alluvial soils, and has steep hills that range in elevation from 800 to 1,300 feet. Most of the vineyards are planted on the slopes of these hills, very few on the valley floor.
The early European settlers to the Anderson Valley came after 1850. These settlers practiced subsistence farming and expanded into resource extraction economies based on timber and livestock. (Redwood trees are all over the hills.) In 1880, with 1,000 people living in the valley, there were 75,000 sheep and 20,000 cattle. The first steam powered lumber mill was built in 1877. Before the turn of the century, apples and hops became successful, and the 1940’s and 1950’s were boom years in the valley. By the 1960’s, sheep, timber and apples had all started to decline. But, the first commercial vineyards were planted. It seems, too, as new people moved into the area about this time, that marijuana production flourished. But, the wine boom came in the 1980s, and the industry became the biggest in the area’s economy. Of course, the hospitality industry followed. Today, quality hotels and restaurants, art and craft galleries, musicians, writers all prosper. And wine lovers flock to them all, spending a lot of money.
Now, on to our grape — Chardonnay. This green-skinned variety, originally from the Burgundy region of France, is grown around the world in every wine producing country. The grape itself is very neutral, many of the flavors usually associated with its wines coming from the soil where it is grown and the oak used in making or aging the wines. Its wines can range from clean, crisp and minerally to oaky with tropical fruit flavors (a brief description of Old World vs New World Chardonnay wines).
The popularity of Chardonnay peaked in the late 1980s, thanks in part to its huge success in California. As of 2006, there are 34 clones of Chardonnay. So growers and winemakers around the world choose the ones best suited for their soil and climate and for the style of wine they want to make. Fortunately, Chardonnay adapts well to different conditions and it is a vigorous vine. It has a lot of large leaves, but aggressive pruning keeps them at bay to avoid too little sun and warmth on the grapes. Chardonnay vines produce their best grapes in chalk, clay and limestone soils, and alluvial soils — you know, like in Anderson Valley.
The winery this week, Lede Family Wines, was established in 2002, with 60 acres in the Stags Leap District in Napa. There, they make a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Sauvignon Blanc and their “flagship” wine, Poetry.
After years of success with Cliff Lede wines in Napa, Cliff found himself more and more interested in Pinot Noir, especially Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.
In 2009, Lede acquired Breggo Cellars in the Anderson Valley. Two years later, they got the famed Savoy Vineyard in the AVA. For our Chardonnay this week, these wines are still labeled with the Breggo name. As of March 1, 2014 (yep, just this past Saturday), Breggo Cellars was re-branded as FEL Wines. FEL stands for Florence Elsie Lede, the initials of Cliff’s mother, who was responsible for his love of good wine.
The Breggo Chardonnay 2011, while it’s still Breggo, is a blend of grapes from their Savoy Vineyard and their Ferrington Vineyard. This was a cool vintage year in northern California. Perfect for the varieties growing in the Anderson Valley. A cold spring was followed by heavy rains in June, but July, August and September — the heart of the grape growing season — were warm with even temperatures. The harvest lasted exceptionally late, into November, due to the coolness earlier in the year. The Savoy Vineyard is 44 acres, is located close to the center of the valley, and is planted with Dijon and Heritage clones. The Ferrington Vineyard is 70 acres with south facing slopes where grapes are ripened in the afternoon sunshine to full rich flavors.
The Breggo Anderson Valley Chardonnay is pressed from whole clusters in stainless steel tanks. After settling for 24 hours, the juice is fermented in French oak with limited malolactic fermentation allowed. The wine is aged, “sur lie,” in 60 gallon neutral French oak barrels.
The finished wine is full of cool-climate flavors that include flint, crushed rock (both the now popular minerality), and lemon zest. Honey, bergamot and chamomile add complexity. Orange marmalade, toasted bread with crisp acidity sparkle in the flavors, along with grapefruit and white peach. A perfect wine for shellfish and more. Possibly, one of the most excellent Chardonnays we will taste this year.
All those layers of flavors and textures and complexities would usually come with a $30 to $35 dollar price tag, but you can get it at Bill’s Liquor for only $21.99. Enjoy.