I love Chardonnay. More than any other grape, I am infatuated with this one. I was reminded of this fact last night when enjoying a 2004 Louis Jadot Pouilly-Fuissé. While not from a particularly prestigious appellation, this wine presented such beautiful nuance that it shined through the rest of the evening to become my pivotal memory of the occasion. Its pale hay color glimmered in the lights dimmed to a pleasant ambiance. It presented a supple and generous nose, beautiful and open but subtle and demanding careful attention at the same time. Tart peaches, nutmeg, wet stone minerality, and a hint of oxidative nuttiness captivated me. This bottle was undoubtedly at the peak of its drinking window; I was glad that we had opened it then. The palate was a lively and crisp experience of tart fruit, bright acidity, and subtle baking spice. Its flavors lingered for a particularly long time, caressing my tongue until it was left with nothing but a sweet memory. It was a wonderful bottle of wine.
This experience embitters me against poorly made Chardonnay. I must unfortunately admit that the state of Washington is one of the most egregious offenders in this regard. All too often, Washington winemakers overwhelm their Chardonnay with entirely too much new oak. They need to understand that a gentle kiss of oak is all that’s required to create an invigorating, beautiful, tasty wine. Also, there is just too much ripeness in Washington wines. I have this opinion about California wines as well, but I think the good Chardonnay wineries down there know how to manage this ripeness more. Our Washington winemakers seem to want extremely ripe wines with high alcohol contents, but not to put them through very much malolactic fermentation, and then to use a ton of new French oak.
I’m not certain that I have the answer to this problem, but there must be one. Our growing sites are no warmer than Californian growing sites, so we ought to be able to make the rich, lush, full-bodied and slutty Chardonnays that they do. Instead, all too often Washington Chardonnay has too-evident alcohol, overwhelming oak, and tart malic acid.
I also wonder about our selection of clones and yeasts, but I don’t have enough knowledge on this front to formulate an informed point-of-view.
If I were to make a Washington Chardonnay- and, God willing, one day I will- I would do several things. Firstly, I would try to find one of the coolest growing sites in the state. I suspect that top choices would be Celilo Vineyard and Evergreen Vineyard. I’m very interested in clonal selection at this stage, but am not sure what clones are available or what clones I might be looking for. Secondly, I would pick in two phases. The first would be earlier than might seem wise, but I’m looking to maintain high levels of malic acid and lower Brix in this pass. I would ferment this juice to wine in stainless steel- I might cold soak with the skins in an effort to raise the pH, but I’m not certain- and then I would transfer to French oak barrels, about 25% new. I would ferment with Montrachet yeast, and put the majority of this wine through malolactic fermentation: 75% perhaps? During fermentation, I would try to ferment cool and long, but it needs to be steady. I would honestly probably do everything I could to ferment to dryness and not worry too much about length of fermentation; a slow fermentation would scare the living daylights out of me.
I would also pick a second phase of riper Chardonnay from the same vineyard, perhaps two weeks later. This pass would be smaller than the original pass, perhaps by half. I would ferment this juice in stainless steel as well, and put it in barrels with (probably) a similar proportion of new-to-used oak as the first batch. I would put less of this wine through malolactic fermentation, perhaps only 25%, and would likely use Montrachet yeast as well (though I’m not sure about this; if there’s a better yeast for riper Chardonnay, I would use it. M2 perhaps?) The goal here would be to include some of those riper flavors without sacrificing acidity and without resorting to watering down to maintain a reasonable alcohol level. In this way, I would hope to avoid additions such as acidifying and adding H2O. Also, I would be layering different flavors in an effort to create a more complex wine.
I would age the wines in oak for six or seven months, and would do batonnage twice a day to add a richness of flavor. I would then rack the wines to stainless steel and allow them to age in stainless steel for perhaps another ten months before bottling. The bottles would then be held for two months before release. The concept here is to allow the wines to gain some richness from the oak contact and the batonnage, but not to allow too much oxygen intake from the barrels, and then to allow them time to come together in tank before bottling. I’m also playing with the idea of barrel fermentation, which would allow me to avoid one racking cycle, but I’ve never done barrel fermentation and it makes me nervous.
Stylistically, I would be looking for a wine with some oak influence, some malolactic influence, and some oxygen influence, but one that is still bright and fruity with nice bracing acidity. My stylistic influence would be Domaine Leflaive more than anything else. I realize that this is shooting for the rafters on some level, but why not aim high? I don’t think that any Washington winemaker is trying to make a Chardonnay in this style, with the possible exception of Corliss’ Tranche Chardonnay. Most Washington winemakers make their Chardonnay in a couple of different styles: Either they are going for a rich, buttery California style (read: Gorman’s Big Sissy), they are going for a crisp, clean, unoaked style (example: Airfield’s unoaked Chardonnay and several others. I actually rather like this style, but it’s not my favorite expression of Chardonnay), or they try this mucky, high-alcohol, high-ripeness, high-new-oak contact, but not high malolactic. The latter is my least favorite style; I think it creates a mess that burns the palate more than anything else.
Domaine Leflaive may be an extremely optimistic role model for a Washington Chardonnay, but there’s no reason why it can’t be done. The important part is to be rigorous in your methodology. Ideally, I would create a wine with a low pH for Washington, somewhere in the 3.2-3.5 range. Boldness, subtlety, and a creamy texture are the hallmarks of a well-made Chardonnay in this style. We shall see.