Chardonnay has a reputation for being a grape with a neutral flavor profile, which best reflects terroir and oak rather than grape flavors. While not as distinctive as Gewürztraminer or Sauvignon Blanc, we think Chardonnay displays perceptible varietal fruit in Mendocino's cool climate. In Burgundy, Chardonnay from Grand Cru vineyards has been traditionally barrel fermented ten degrees warmer than fruit from the less highly regarded Premier Cru sites; this was done to eliminate fruity esters which might interfere with the coveted Grand Cru terroir. Additionally, wine from expensive Grand Cru vineyards is frequently fermented in new oak barrels, so these wines typically have strong oak flavors. Grand Cru wines became the model for California Chardonnay in the Sixties resulting in wines with strong oak flavors and minimal juiciness.
Chardonnay is easy to recognize as it is the only vinifera grape where mature leaves have a naked petiolar sinus (the vein closest to the stem hugs the edge of the leaf). In France, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc were commonly confused until the middle of the 19th century, when ampelographers began inspecting the vineyards of Chablis and Burgundy, identifying the true Chardonnay.
Water is at a premium in California. We use a pressure bomb weekly to measure water potential in our grape leaves. A leaf is placed in a chamber and as the pressure increases, sap finally appears at the cut end of the stem; the pressure required indicates the amount of water stress affecting the vine allowing us to irrigate only when needed.
Then, California vintners muddled things further by often fashioning a secondary malolactic fermentation to produce diacetyl, which has a buttery taste. Navarro's 2011 Mendocino Chardonnay is 100% Philo-grown and the juice was cool fermented to retain the grape's fruity character, then racked to seasoned puncheons and barrels, where it rested seven months sur-lie and only part of the wine experienced a malolactic fermentation. The finished wine does have hints of oak, butter and yeastiness but the emphasis here is definitely the Anderson Valley fruit, suggesting crisp pear and apple. Gold Medal winner.
Day Ranch Chardonnay in early May. Suckering requires nimble fingers as each spur has many shoots and all are removed except the two fruitful ones.