The rebirth of great chardonnay has finally arrived

Despite the many white wine challengers to come along like Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Reisling and the like, Chardonnay continues to be the No. 1 white in sales in the U.S. Birthed in California, the grape whose origins are imbedded in the Bordeaux district of France, gained stardom as a result of the 1976 “Judgment of Paris.”
Most of us are familiar with that landmark event when the producer of what was up to then an all-French blind-taste annual event, invited selected Napa Valley wineries to enter in competition with the French as a gesture to the 200th birthday of this country. The Chardonnay representative was from Chateau Montelena with Mike Grgich as the young winemaker.
Mike believed, when it was not fashionable, that great Chardonnay came from small grape clusters of concentrated flavor, carefully cultivated over the growing season. He also believed that greatness came from “many footsteps in the vineyard.” Fermentation was coaxed along for five to six weeks at lower temperatures than normal to maximize aroma and fruitiness. Some barrel aging in oak occurred and after careful cultivation and constant tasting every step of the way, the “perfect from the very beginning” 1973 Chateau Montelana Chardonnay was ready for the rest of the wine world. The rest, as they say, is history as Grgich’s Chardonnay defeated all of the French Chardonnays and entered a new age of California wine dominance.
All of this leads us to the current vintage of Mike Grgich produced Chardonnay at his vineyard and winery, Grgich Hills Estate, which he established in 1977 in the Napa Valley community of Rutherford. The 2007 estate-grown Chardonnay has come full circle in the most classic Grgich style of making this venerable white. It was a great year with a long, dry growing season and a heat spike at just the right time before harvest. The grapes were smaller, holding back yield and concentrating the flavors. The vineyard is now practicing holistic farming, converting to all biodynamic practices without artificial fertilizers.
Chardonnay at its best is a complex wine and in my opinion the only white which ages gracefully with delicious acidity, rich in the aromas of ripe peach, mango, tropical flowers and a hint of minerality. Its 14.3 percent alcohol content provides just enough balance to the fruit flavors.
Grgich Hills is leading the parade of 2007 Chardonnays which could be the best in 3 decades, when it stripped the French of supremacy in the wine world (suggested retail $42). See more at www.grgich.com.
The latest from wines with screwcaps
Apprehension is still high among consumers of wine as more wineries move away from corks and embrace the favorable features of the screwcap to seal their wines. I’m seeing more of it in the move-up, mid-price range as the public, once they try it, understands and accepts this trend.
Ok, here’s my take on screwcaps. Not to worry, they will never replace traditional corks entirely. High-end wines with enchanting tastes and reputations will always make the ritual of opening a corked bottled part of their allure. This is especially true of bottles that should be aged to bring out the excellence of their vintage. But once opened, with a cork you have a brief window of time to finish that bottle (maybe 72 hours) before it oxidizes, gets moldy and spoils. With a screwcap, the life of that opened bottle of wine is extended because it’s airtight.
Even though I have encountered some hard-to-open screwcaps, generally it’s easy to break the seal by hand and navigate open. Corks can be feisty to open without a lot of practice, especially with a straight bar corkscrew. I have had my share of crumbled, dry corks that have had pieces in the bottle, compromising the taste.
Finally, quality cork is getting more expensive to deliver to the wineries. It comes from a certain type of oak tree found in very few areas of the world, mostly Portugal, Spain and North Africa. The trees need to be at least 25 years old and cannot be re-stripped of its cork bark for nine years thereafter. Corks are not recyclable. So, screwcaps are going to be more the way to go. Look for more wineries to go that way.
Wine Bytes
— The Hilton Anaheim and Chateau Ste Michelle Wines present a wine dinner on Fri. Oct. 23 on the 14th floor lounge at 6 p.m. Wines featured will be: Indian Wells ’07 Cabernet; Horse Heaven Hills ’08 Sauvignon Blanc; and Luxe Brut ’03 Sparkling Wine. Enjoy dessert while watching fireworks. The cost is $65 each. RSVP at (714) 740-4412.
— San Diego Brain Injury Foundation hosts a wine event and auction at Friend Plaza, UCSD Campus on Sun. Oct. 25 from 1 to 4:30 p.m. Cost is $50 in advance, $60 at the door. Wines include Silver Oak, Caymus and Chalone. Call (619) 294-6541 for details.
— West Steak and Seafood Restaurant in Carlsbad has Rombauer Vineyards of Napa Valley featured in a specially prepared menu on Mon. Oct. 26 from 7 to 9 p.m. Top wine will be the ’04 Diamond Selection Cabernet, served with a sautéed venison medallion. Cost is $90 per person. Reserve only at (760) 930-9100.
— Firefly Grill and Bar in Encinitas has released its wine dinner schedule: Oct. 27 is the Gundlach Bundschu event, Nov. 12 is Bangles and Bubbles champagnes, Nov. 18 is Tamayo Winery dinner and Nov. 19 is the Anglim Winery Winemaker dinner. Check times and prices at (760) 635-1066.
— Vigilucci’s Restaurants in La Jolla and Carlsbad have events Marchesi di Barolo comes to La Jolla at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 28 for a winemaker dinner with RSVP at (858) 454-9664; and Carlsbad has the Dalla Terra Wine dinner at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 29. RSVP at (760) 434-2580. Check Vigilucci’s for pricing.

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