By Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
This may appear to be an odd approach to examine California chardonnay, but bear with us. Considering most wines purchased in the U.S. are consumed within 24 hours, why write about older wines much less California chardonnay? Forgetting the reality of immediate consumption, even most winemakers and wine pundits recommend a few years for peak enjoyment of domestic white wine. However, tasting three old to very old California chardonnays opened our eyes to the benefits of aging high-quality California chardonnay.
Aging French white burgundy is an accepted practice for wine collectors. Winemakers and wine writers routinely recommend aging white premier cru and above French white Burgundies 10-15 years and even up to 20 years for some. They are using the same grape as California producers and often even use the same French cooperage for aging. So, why not California chardonnay?
We’re not sure what motivated us to squirrel away these wines. We have a vague memory of a noted winemaker advocating that aging quality California chardonnay would pay off. In any event, we found these gems in our cellar and opened them at different times over the last year.
The wines we tasted were the 2004 Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay Alexander Valley Belle Terre Vineyard, 2006 Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay Napa Valley and the 2011 Sbragia Family Vineyards Sonoma County Dry Creek Valley Home Ranch. Ed Sbragia, owner of Sbragia Family Vineyards and former winemaster for Beringer Vineyards, was involved in the creation of two of these wines.
All three of our aged wines displayed wonderful honey and dried intense baked apple and tropical fruit notes with a hint of buttered toast. The nose and flavors were intense and only needed minor chilling to maximize their qualities.
Our recommendations for aging domestic chardonnay are to choose well-respected producers, good vintages and store the wines in a cool, light-free environment away from any vibration.
If you are lucky enough to find an older California chardonnay in your cellar, don’t despair. Open it and you may find a wonderful reward for either your forgetfulness or patience.
We recently tasted three Rioja red wines from Ramon Bilbao, which has been producing wine since 1924 and was purchased by the Spanish-owned large drinks conglomerate Zamora in 1999.
The vineyards hug the border with Basque country near the city of Haro in the northwestern corner of Rioja. Tempranillo is Spain’s most widely planted grape variety.
Tasting these wines illustrated the marked difference among the levels of Rioja red wines. Each level must adhere to strict rules administered by Spanish wine authorities to achieve recognition.
DOC (Denominacion de Origen Calificada) Rioja red wines are classified into one of three levels defined by aging requirements. Crianza wines require two years of aging with at least one year in oak. Reserva ages for three years with a minimum of one year in oak. And gran reserve wines must age for a minimum of five years with a minimum of two years in oak.
We were pleased with the deft touch of oak in these wines, unlike many of the over-oaked riojas of the past. Following are our tasting notes:
Ramon Bilbao Rioja Crianza 2019 ($18-20). A terrific value presenting fresh cherry and plum notes with just a bare whiff of oak. Very quaffable.
Ramon Bilbao Rioja Reserva 2016 ($25-28). Not as fruit-forward as the Crianza, but it offered a more reticent pleasant drinking experience. Cherry notes and a bit of spicy oak.
Ramon Bilbao Rioja Gran Reserva 2014 ($38-40). Fresh fruity notes in a big, elegant package. Not overly oaked but the oak is apparent with some vanilla notes. A special wine.
Ram’s Gate Carneros Pinot Noir 2020 ($85). This fruit-driven wine has gobs of cranberry and brambly, wild berry flavors and baking spices. Winemaker Joe Nielsen introduced whole cluster and native fermentation to the estate pinot noirs to get better concentration.
Lange Twins Thirty Eight Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($32). Brad and Randall Lange are pioneers of sustainable winemaking in Lodi. Now in its fifth generation, the family has turned out a number of excellent wines for the price, including this fruit-
forward, expressive cabernet sauvignon. Black cherry and plum notes with hints of cocoa and spice.
Clean Slate Riesling Mosel 2021 ($13). This is a well-made German Riesling with the perfect balance of sweet and acid. Peach melon notes dominate in this white wine offered at a great price.
Gaia Monograph Moschofilero Peloponnese 2022 ($16-19). This is a really fun wine to drink in the upcoming summer season. Very fresh lemon, pear notes with bright acidity. Very quaffable and food friendly.
Root:1 Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley Estate2019 ($10-12). This cabernet sauvignon from Chile offers a lot of bang for the buck. Sweet cherry compote and a hint of mocha and vanilla present a complex taste profile for not a lot of money.