A Tasting of 2017 California Chardonnays

Ramey Cellars Chardonnay

A first event of a long weekend of Chardonnay Tastings, held at Clearview Estate Homestead in Hawke’s Bay. This was a stellar line up, with a few ‘international superstars’ thrown in the mix to shake things up. Later on we would move onto sessions devoted to tasting the Chardonnays of Australia and Hawke’s Bay – both from single vintages (2019 for Oz, and 2020 for the NZ versions).

The list of all the Tastings resembled a ‘Who’s Who’ of each category, and the California one was no different – including four single vineyard expressions from Ramey – plus Stags Leap, Aubert, Flowers and Kistler. We were kept on our toes by the introduction of several outstanding wines from ‘elsewhere’ so you had to focus on picking the actual Californians in each flight of four. Not easy, and no-one got them all correct across the afternoon. Our Host, Gabor Sareczky also wanted to know if we thought any of the wines to be “flabby” – after comments to the effect that ‘all California Chardonnays are’ from Mat Kirby.

Flight 1

Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2017 A golden-green colour, with spicy notes of nutmeg, vanilla and cashew butter. Sweet-fruited and opulent. The richness here could be heading ‘flabby’? 90pts

Sacred Hill Riflemans Chardonnay 2017 Yum. With a brisk acidity, there’s no way this seems Californian – I’d call French if anything… A distinctive apricot over lemon peel and mandarin citrus notes. Beautiful balance. Pass me that bottle. 95pts

Bouard-Boonefoy Saint-Aubin 1er Cru- Le Charmois 2017 A sharp, saline acidity. With apple and white peach on the palate, counterbalanced by slightly savoury preserved lemon and green olive flavours. Also a curious petrol note. 93pts

Ramey Cellars Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 A dashing range of flavours on show here – from white cherry through vanilla, acacia and jalapeno. The balance of that, plus oak and acid is quite clever. Generous and Californian. 94pts

Flight 2

By now our heads are turning – the Ramey was excellent, but the Hawke’s bay wine easily the best on show. And the only one I was 100% sure was from the US was the Flowers. We continue..

Leeu Passant Chardonnay 2017 From Stellenbosch – a beautiful wine area I’ve enjoyed visiting immensely. I didn’t pick the location! Floral, and vivid on the nose. Lively acidity and a gorgeous, steely freshness, showing verdant ripe fruit. 94pts

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Karia Napa Valley Chardonnay 2017 Obviously Californian, waving that Napa Valley flag quite proudly. Starting off vibrantly, with hazelnut and lemon curd on the nose; but then it is oddly balanced and rather bland on the palate, lacking acid and drive. 89pts

Hubert Lamy Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Chaumees 2017 Not unsurprisingly, sharing some of the character of the St. Aubin, with a medium acidity and plenty of finesse and elegance into the palate. The finish loses shape and ends quite short though. 90pts

Finishing this flight as well, comes a wine from Ramey Cellars, the Woolsey Road Chardonnay 2017 from Russian River. This has everything in the right place. A more straw-like yellow in the glass, with almond meal and apple on the nose. A pithy citrus acidity that is well balanced and tart. Elegant with plenty of personality. 94pts

Bell Hill Chardonnay 17
Flight 3

Bell Hill Chardonnay 2017 Fresh, floral and slightly funky on the nose, with a dash of reductivity adding interest. Well judged oak, briney acidity and a sweet creme caramel texture. So complex! A drying, pithy finish that lasts for an age. Stunning. 96pts

Ramey Cellars Rochioli Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 A big boy of a wine – lots going on here! A greener eucalypt/fennel tone on the nose, with some white pepper and spring flowers following swiftly behind. Walks a tightrope of balance – the tautest of all the wines on show so far, but with tension came real vibrancy. Different, in a good way. 94pts

Ramey Cellars Woolsey Road Chardonnay 2017 We’re getting Ramey-tastic now, with a third out of four in the row. More obviously of it’s homeland, with vanilla, big oak and a brioche crumb flavour to the opulent nose. Sweet, with spice and stonefruit, but turning more refined deeper through the layers. Finishes long and complex. 93pts

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2017 Palest green in the glass, and with an almondy-oatmeal biscuit note also popping up on the nose. Riding a train of acidity straight out of the station – quite confronting and intense after some of the generosity on show previously. A challenge to love this one. 90pts

Patrick Piuze grand Cru 17
Flight 4

Tolpuddle Chardonnay 2017 A degree of solids-influence showing on the nose – smoky and flinty. Honeysuckle, sweetcorn, lemon zest and fresh green apple. Lovely oyster-shell minerality. Exquisite and simply delicious. 94pts

Patrick Piuze Chablis Grand Cru – Blanchots 2017 Purity and tension evident immediately. aromatic, with marzipan, crushed thai basil and nashi pear on the nose. Nice line of acidity, no oak influence, and the texture is spot-on, with a lanolin, waxy pillow to relax into. 94pts

Aubert Vineyards Chardonnay Powder House Estate 2017 Not shy on the oak – California rides into town. But hold on, this has depth, weight and character plus. It is sweet, sour, green, plush, nutty, generous, all at once, A beautiful chaos that somehow also has balance, power and punch. Superb. 97pts

Kistler Dutton Ranch Chardonnay 2017 Focussed, with a ripeness not seen anywhere else this afternoon. Perfumed with quince, nectarine, salted caramel and a lemon blossom floral lift. Rich, ripe and huge, but well toned and muscular rather than flabby. A salty minerality sits nicely amongst some toasty oak influence, and it is a rounded, precise wine of immense length. 96pts

Some special wines to discover here, amongst learned company – we had a collective knowledge of Tim Turvey, Richard Painter, John Hancock, Mat Kirby and Larry McKenna around the table to compare notes with. Wine is intensely personal, and we did not all agree – either here or later into the weekend. There won’t be many tastings where the Leeuwin Art Series finishes towards the bottom of the pile, for sure. A New Zealand wine was leading the charge until those late runs from Aubert and Kistler, and the Ramey wines were a revelation.

Read more on the companion tastings in the following days on Winefolio – with Australia and Hawke’s Bay Chardonnays in the spotlight.

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