An Exploration of California Chardonnay, Part 1: SIMI

Few things are as frustrating to me as when people group all wines from a particular varietal, or from a particular place, into a single, homogenous category. This happens all the time, and we’ve all heard the crazy exhortations: I hate Merlot; all Pinot Noir is great; California Chardonnay universally tastes like movie-theater popcorn and caramel.
It’s this last one that’s perhaps the most widespread among casual wine-drinkers. And, as fans of the great Chardonnays of California know, it couldn’t be further from the truth. One upon a time, perhaps, it rang truer than it does now--wine styles ebb and flow, after all--but that gross generalization is certainly no longer the case.
I’ll be writing about a number of California Chardonnays in the coming weeks in an attempt to explore its many styles and variations in the Golden State. I think you’ll be surprised at the range it’s crafted in these days--even from producers you thought you knew.
To that end, we’ll begin our trip through Chard-land with two from SIMI, the Sonoma County stalwart that’s been producing wines there since 1876. Each, in its own way, either plays into or confounds our expectations for California Chardonnay. They were a fascinating side-by-side comparison to taste.

SIMI Chardonnay 2007, Russian River Valley
A beautifully shimmering, deep golden color strikes you immediately before the nose of this expressive white jumps from the glass, its classic notes of butterscotch, French vanilla creme brulee, fig, and lemon curd coming through with real exuberance and elegance. On the palate, rich, sweet flavors of fig, creme brulee, ripe melon, and minerals sing through a silky mouthfeel. This is classic California-style Chardonnay in the best sense of the term, and the lingering finish, with its flashes of tarragon and warm vanilla ice cream, are thoroughly charming. Drink now.
SIMI Chardonnay “Reserve” 2009, Russian River Valley
Aromas of apple, pastry creme, popcorn, and minerals leads to a palate that, for all its new-oak vanilla, white tea, and toast, remains unexpectedly lithe in texture. Don’t let the “reserve” designation fool you: This is less weighty than the 2007 above, though unlike that one, this wine will benefit from some time in the cellar, perhaps 1 - 3 years. Once all the oak integrates, I expect the wine to express itself even more nicely than it does now. If the 2007 is more Chassagne in style, this is Puligny, higher-strung and more feminine.


Damp-Day Reds

It’s a damp, ugly morning here in Philadelphia--perfect weather for shirking all work responsibilities, opening a few bottles of expressive red, and camping out on the couch the rest of the day.
Sadly, that’s not an option for me today. But if it were, these are the wines I’d consider popping open.
Waterstone “Study in Blue” 2007, Napa Valley
Inky and opaque in appearance, the nose here bursts with blueberry compote and fig paste: This is a big, lush wine, fully confident in its sheer aromatic mass, and showing a hint of mesquite to boot. The palate expresses much the same character that the nose implies, with fig Newton filling coming to the fore, a hint of peppercorn spice and flowers at the edge, and the entire construct luscious and exuberant. This wears its size beautifully.

P + S Quinta de Roriz “Prazo de Roriz” 2008, Douro
Lots of dark, rich berry fruit, plums, mulling spices, and a vague hint of mineral on the nose. On the palate, it’s a well-structured wine with dusty tannins, primary fruit, and a pulsing sense of drive. There’s also burnt twigs, cherry liqueur, and the potential to age another 3 - 5 years. With grilled steak, it’s perfect.

Mount Veeder Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley
The nose here speaks of dark berry fruit, vanilla, toasty cedar, and a hint of bramble, as well as blueberry-pie filling and a touch of pastry crust. On the palate, flavors of cedar, young oak with its vanilla and still-integrating tannins, and oolong tea, as well as raspberry-ganache-filled dark chocolate and toast, still need time to evolve, but promise an exciting maturity in 5 - 7 years.

Hope Family Wines “Treana Red” 2008
An intense florality wafts above the glass, as well as distinct mint, fraise de bois, and crushed cherry. Sappy textured, this wine coats the palate and teeth in a film of violets, purple-berry fruit, and plums. What a lush, unabashedly expressive wine, perfect on its own or, even better, with a mole...or even a steak au poivre with very fresh peppercorns that themselves show floral notes. Flat-out yummy.


Learning to Love Lagrein

The wine world is way too big and varied to stick with the same old grape varieties and regions every time you pop a cork. And while most of us enjoy a good Cabernet or Shiraz whenever the opportunity presents itself, living only on the Famous Grapes leads to a dull drinking life, indeed.
Which is where Lagrein, one of the great red grape varieties of Northern Italy, comes in.
Eric Asimov, wine columnist for The New York Times, put it well this past March, writing that Lagrein is “a grape that, like its counterpart Teroldego in nearby Trentino, is grown almost nowhere else. For such an unusual grape, though, it produces congenial, straightforward wines that can be deliciously plummy, earthy and chewy, dark and full-bodied but not heavy, with a pronounced minerally edge.”
Sounds nice, no?
It is, and it’s often a serious bargain in addition. This, of course, is typical of so many of the great lesser-known grape varieties of the world: They have to be solid bargains because if they weren’t, people really wouldn’t take a chance on them.
I recently had the chance to taste a selection of Lagreins, and was very impressed by their character, versatility with food, and, with some of the bottles, agability. My tasting notes are below. I cannot recommend these heartily enough.
Alois Lageder Lagrein Rosé 2010
This is a serious rosé, with aromas of spicy cherries that lead to a taut, mineral-tinged palate flecked with garrigue spices, tart cherries, and perfectly balancing acidity.
Elena Walch “Castel Ringberg” Lagrein Riserva 2006
A rich, deep, almost inky color, with a distinctive nose of dried flowers, brambly herbs, and dark berries, all limned with subtle warm vanilla pod. Flavors of savory herbs and silky blackberry and boysenberry compote are carried on a velvety texture. This riserva finishes with an almost salty note, lending this fascinating Lagrein a wholly unique expression to its spice. Classic food wine.
Cantina Terlan Lagrein Riserva “Gries” 2007
Aromatically, this is the wine equivalent of a nice, warm blanket: Comforting aromas of fraises de bois and perfect cherries, violets, rose petals, licorice, and love. It’s wildly complex and layered on the palate, with more crushed purple berry and cherry fruit, aromatically complex spice, violets, currant-gel candies, bittersweet chocolate truffles, and well-balanced acid and tannins. One of the best Lagreins I’ve ever tasted.
Cantina Tramin Lagrein 2009
What a lovely warm nose--it wraps around you with enveloping brown spices, dark cherries, and minerals. These turn to a palate of red and black raspberries, dark cherries, bittersweet chocolate, black licorice, and warm mulling spices. Delicious, and will be even better with a bit of a chill on it.

Note: For more on Trentino - Alto Adige, click this link to the excellent ItalianMade.com web site.