Far Niente Winery
April 25, 2001

Chardonnay Finds Its Inner Finesse

By ERIC ASIMOV

CALIFORNIA chardonnay is brassy and loud, which has made it both America's favorite wine and a favorite whipping boy among some wine lovers, who call it a garish emblem of much that is wrong with wine today.

But there is another California chardonnay, produced by a small band of winemakers who have held out against the big and buttery style. Using an older style of winemaking, they are producing a crisper, more lively chardonnay, one that sacrifices showy power in favor of steely subtlety.

And slowly, other California winemakers are taking notice. A few have adopted this leaner style, including Woodbridge Winery, a moderate-price label of Robert Mondavi Winery, while others are experimenting with it. And though it's too soon to declare a movement, change is clearly on the minds of the state's chardonnay producers.

The older method goes by the clumsy name of nonmalolactic fermentation. While wine jargon like that may tempt people to press the mute button, it can also unlock a style of chardonnay radically different from the cocktails of oak, tropical fruit, butter and vanilla that have come to be regarded as traditional.

''They're so cloying I don't see how anybody can stand them,'' said Ric Forman, the owner and winemaker at Forman Vineyard in the Napa Valley, which has been producing nonmalolactic chardonnays since the early 1980's. Michael Chelini, the winemaker at Stony Hill Vineyard in Napa, the granddaddy of the nonmalolactic style, calls the newer chardonnays tutti-frutti wines.

Wineries like Stony Hill and Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma County were chardonnay pioneers in the 1950's, with a grape that was little known in California, though it was the exalted white grape of Burgundy. Working in isolation, making decisions by impulse, they made chardonnays without malolactic fermentation.

Everything has changed since then, of course. Chardonnay is now the most popular wine in the country, with California producing 32.2 million cases in 1999, almost all in the buttery-oaky style. But Stony Hill and Hanzell, joined in the 1970's and 80's by wineries like Far Niente and Forman, stubbornly clung to the older style. Now they are being joined by Russian Hill Estate Winery in Sonoma County and Melville Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley. Winemakers see the old style as more balanced and also better with food. Many of these wines benefit from a subdued use of oak, which adds to the overall impression of harmony.

''The result is a more fruit-driven wine that has richness and creaminess but not the buttery quality identified with malolactic fermentation,'' said Toni Sickles, a winemaker at Woodbridge.

All wine is fermented grape juice. Fermentation is what converts the sugar in the juice into alcohol. But some wines undergo a second, malolactic fermentation, which converts the tart malic acid in the wine into milder, softer lactic acid. Most top red wines undergo this secondary fermentation, and so do most white Burgundies. But not until the 1980's did many California chardonnay makers use malolactic fermentation, which they believed added complexity as well as a buttery quality.

''The true old-fashioned way of California chardonnay winemaking was, pick the fruit, ferment it in the tank and get it in the bottle,'' said Dirk Hampson, winemaking director for the Far Niente Winery in the Napa Valley. ''Only in the 1960's did they start using oak, and malolactic only became popular in the 1980's.''

The shift to malolactic came when many California winemakers were responding to criticism of their chardonnays as clumsy compared with the Burgundian model. Mr. Forman was one of more than a few young California winemakers who went to France in the late 1960's and early 70's to observe French methods.

''We discovered it was a pretty good idea to use French barrels and to ferment chardonnay in them,'' he recalled. ''But I felt that the grapes we had in Napa didn't have enough acidity for malolactic fermentation, and I resisted it all along.''

While working for other wineries Mr. Forman didn't always have the final word. In a rich irony, Mr. Forman was a consultant at Kendall-Jackson and played a vital role in making its Vintner's Reserve chardonnay, which became a popular standard bearer of the sweet-oaky school. When Mr. Forman started his own winery in 1983, he forswore malolactic fermentation.

''The wines age better, and they taste better,'' he said.

Far Niente, which went into business a couple of years before Forman, also avoided the secondary fermentation. ''We've looked to Burgundy for the proportions of our wines,'' Mr. Hampson said. ''But we have to recognize that we have very different conditions in the Napa Valley than in Burgundy.''

Grapes do not get as ripe in Burgundy as in warmer California climates and so usually have less sugar and more acidity. After a secondary fermentation, which almost all white Burgundies undergo, they should have enough acidity to retain crispness and structure. In California, the secondary fermentation, while adding weight and richness, can also leave wines soft and unbalanced.

Unlike many other California chardonnays, which are extravagant early but fold up quickly over time, old-style chardonnays can benefit from aging, which is rare among white wines, but evident in riesling and chenin blanc, other highly acidic whites that do not undergo a secondary fermentation. Stony Hill shows its delicate power only gradually, seducing you rather than beating you over the head. While nonmalolactic chardonnays age well, they need more time to open up, which can make young bottles seem austere.

''A lot of people use malolactic so you can have instant gratification with the wine,'' Mr. Chelini said.

It's not hard to single out the nonmalolactic wines -- once they're in the glass. Picking them out in shops is another matter, though. Very few wineries indicate their fermentation methods on the label, although some do, like Staglin Family Vineyards and Russian Hill.

One reason the style fell out of favor, its adherents say, is that critics promote the louder style.

''The superhuge buttery style, what some people call the extravaganza style, is what gets huge scores from famous wine writers,'' Mr. Hampson of Far Niente said. ''The concept of elegance and grace is obviously a different approach than the bigger-is-better that many wine critics like.'' And Mr. Forman added: ''You taste 40 or 50 wines at a time and what's going to show up? The overwhelming wines.''

One famous wine writer, Robert M. Parker Jr., scoffs at that notion. ''I think you blame white Burgundy for the malolactic style,'' he said. ''Obviously, there are different climates and different soils in California, but when it's done right, malolactic adds texture and nuances that you don't find otherwise. I'm as big a critic as anybody of the overwooded, flabby chardonnays.''

There's a lot more to winemaking than fermentation. Weather, soil, barrels and a winemakers' style all play crucial roles. Even different clones of the same type of grape can produce radically different wines, so it is too simple to say that all single-fermentation chardonnays are similar. For instance, Sanford Winery in Santa Barbara County uses new oak barrels for its single-fermentatation Sanford & Benedict Vineyard chardonnay, which leaves the wines intensely oaky, vastly different from the fruity Stony Hill.

While wineries like Stony Hill are wed to the single-fermentation technique, others use it as one more tool at their disposal. Trefethen Vineyards, known for its nonmalolactic chardonnays, produced a blend in 1998 that was 11 percent malolactic. Robert Mondavi Winery aims for a 50-50 blend, while Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton in Santa Barbara County says his chardonnays are typically a third to a half malolactic. But Mr. Brewer, who is also the winemaker at Melville Winery in Santa Barbara, just bottled a non malolactic chardonnay from the 2000 vintage for Melville.

''It totally depends on conditions,'' Mr. Brewer said. ''But if I were to lean to one side or the other, I'd lean to the nonmalo side. I think it's more interesting.''

Chateau Woltner, which has vineyards on Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley, has always made nonmalolactic chardonnays, but Woltner was sold last year, and the new winemaker, Karen Culler, is not sure what approach she will take. For the 2000 vintage, she combined methods.

''We wanted to hit a happy medium,'' she said. ''The malolactic takes the edge off the acidity.''

She is concerned, though, that the nonmalolactic chardonnays will appeal only to a small niche market. ''People are really used to opening a chard and getting that real buttery, woody character,'' she said.

Shari Staglin, an owner of Staglin Family Vineyard in the Napa Valley, says her family adopted a nonmalolactic style because they admired Stony Hill chardonnays. She sees a coastal divide on the issue.

''People in California are used to the malolactic, oakier chardonnays,'' she said. ''The huge market for us has been New York.''

Some partisans of the leaner style say, with more than a bit of hope in their voices, that their approach is on the rise. ''I remember when I started it was big, oaky, buttery chardonnays, and now there is a mountain of it in the marketplace,'' Mr. Brewer said. ''I don't know if it's one of those cycles, but it seems that a lot of people are growing weary of those really big, buttery wines.'