Recently, I had the kind of online wine sample tasting experience that would make my girlfriend cringe – only because she happens to dislike 99% of the Chardonnay wines that I put in front of her (I know… I know… I’m working on it, people!). For those of us who never gave up on California’s most-planted grape variety, Dutcher Crossing Winery offered up a curated run-through of a handful of their single-vineyard Sonoma Chardonnay releases, along with winemaker Nick Briggs, as well as Charlie Chenoweth, Pam Bacigalupi, and Dan Rotlisberger (each representing some of the vineyards that source those selections).
For wine nerds like me, this is the kind of tasting event that cannot be passed up, mainly because I’ve found myself geeking out over Sonoma single-vineyard wines throughout the recent pandemic sheltering-in-place. And with these wines, the focus was indeed on place, offering a bottled version of “being there” when most of us can’t actually be, well, anywhere. “All of these are native/indigenous yeast” fermentation, noted Briggs, “to show what these very special vineyards can offer on their own. Everything that comes in is hand-harvested. It comes down to flavor – we pick the grapes when it tastes good. If it doesn’t taste good in the vineyard, I can’t expect it to taste good in the wine.”
And, well… the wines do taste good!…
This vineyard sits just outside of Occidental, on an old apple orchard about 800 ft above sea level located near redwood country, and planted on Goldridge soils. It’s the coolest site of the four wines in this lineup. Viticulturist Charlie Chenoweth started his farming at the tender age of 10, when he was asked to uproot some family cherry trees… with dynamite (“once in a while, we’d watch a tree fly!” he told us, and I’ve never been more jealous of a farmer). “I planted it in 2009 and 2010,” he recalled about this wine’s source vineyard. “It literally was a moonshine property.” As part of that process, he collected bud-wood with the renowned Larry Hyde personally (“he brought a six-pack of beer!”). Notes of pear, with the skins still on, define the nose on this elegant white. There are complex hints of brioche toast, lemons, lemon blossom, and citrus rind, all floating on some banging acidity with nicely rounded palate edges. Just a lovely mix of textures, with a very long finish that carries toasty, nutty aspects. Gorgeous.
A well-known and historic (in California wine terms, anyway) spot. As Pam Bacigalupi summarized, “this vineyard is right along the Russian River; we’re at the north end. It’s on what we call the ‘bench’ site. We get the wonderful daytime sun, and then we get the cool breezes at night. When I’ve been down there at 4 in the morning, you really can feel the temperature drop in the microclimates.” The ranch was originally owned by the Frost family, who had planted to French Colombard forty years ago, which has since been T-budded over to Chardonnay. “It’s amazing that the block has done so well,” she mused. They think the clone is Wente “of some sort”. It certainly smells like it – this is very floral, with tropical notes all over the place (like pineapple, grapefruit, and mandarin orange). Peaches make an appearance, too. There’s creamy breadth and power here (it’s a hefty 14.7% abv) – so you could called it big-boned, but also beautiful. Toast and cream see things out on the lengthy finish.
Viticulturist Dan Rotlisberger, who farms this ancient gravel riverbed site, is a fifth generation farmer. “My wife and I live pretty much directly across the street” he noted. “It’s about 200 feet directly from the main channel of the Russian River. We get a lot of the morning fog,” which helps maintain acidity in the grapes. “This particular block is a block my grandfather planted. It’s kind of cool to get the opportunity to be farming it again.” There’s a great nose on this – peaches, yellow apples, lemon meringue, limes, toast, and white flowers. I love the palate, with it panoply of lemons, apples, peach, pear – all ripe, all full, all juicy, but also all vibrant. It demands another sip with all of that juiciness and refreshing acidity. Talk about a crowd-pleaser (it happens to be Dutcher Crossing’s wine club members’ “go-to” Chardonnay, according to Briggs, and I don’t blame them one bit).
This site was planted in 2009, using a fairly “rare” Chardonnay vine clone for California. As Briggs put it,”it’s a departure from the other styles; there’s no new oak, [and] we don’t allow it to go through ML.” The area itself isn’t necessarily a great one for Chardonnay (“it wants to get ripe really fast,” according to Birggs), but they found a Dijon vine clone that could take the heat. “It can really open somebody’s eyes” in Briggs’ opinion, when it comes to a different style of California Chardonnay. And he’s right – this one is pleasantly unique. There are definitely some herbal notes, with jasmine tinges, along with aromas of white peaches, lemon blossom, juicy and crisp yellow apples. Apricot, tons of citrus, more apple flavors, and pithiness to spare grace the palate. It has some power, but also is making a point to bring a laser focus of austere acidity. Elegant stuff, especially for this variety grown in the Dry Creek Valley.