THE NEXT CHABLIS SUPERSTAR: SEBASTIEN CHRISTOPHE

Chablis is an interesting place.  The yellow soils are unlike anything we have seen anywhere else in the wine world.  Yet for as uniform as the surface area appears, there is a great variation to the various elements of terroir and how it manifests in the hands of a broad array of producers.  While people speak of the flinty aspects imparted by the Kimmeridgian and Portlandian soils, great Chablis is more than ‘how do you like your rocks’.

Some examples lean more chalky, some more like seashell in this ancient marine area, and a lot of producers can be successful by simply playing that aspect of the terroir.  But the real differentiating factor is how the fruit plays.  It is remarkable how specific the profiles of the various Crus play out, with Les Clos having a more floral and peachy undercurrent to Grenouille with its extremely flinty, more savory profile.  We love quality Chablis in  virtually any form, but there is a particular profile that is perhaps our favorite.

We picked up on a certain aspect of fruit, for lack of a better description, sour apple, back when we were exploring a new label we were quite excited with back in the early 90s called Raveneau.  We saw a certain expression of that same apple and flint combination woven through the wines of Tomas Pico’s Pattes Loup.   We see that again as a backdrop to the wines of the still relatively unknown Sebastien Christophe.

This guy isn’t in town but on the outskirts.  His first property was a tiny parcel in Petit Chablis.  But it has been clear from the first taste that this vigneron has special skills.  His domain has expanded via rental and purchase, but if you make your bones with Petit Chablis and Chablis Villages, it may be a while before fame hits you.  This guy is destined to be a force, but we are more than happy to quietly enjoy his appley, stony, bright, precise and reasonably fleshy Chablis at normal prices while the rest of the world figures it out.

The Christophe et Fils Chablis Village 2017 is not only beautifully made but reflects the specifics of a singular spot.  The wine exhibits serious endowment of talented vineyards as most face the Grand Cru Blanchots and sit just behind the great 1er Cru Montee de Tonnerre.  The soils are almost purely Kimmeridgian stones that are unusually brittle and sharp.  It is a deeply savory and fully ripe wine that shows the greatest degree of what a Chablis “village” wine can accomplish.

In other words this does not show like an entry level Chablis, with a surprising density to the fruit that sits on top of perfectly proportioned acidity.  It is of an unexpected quality and purity for ‘villages’ level and can play with Premier Cru efforts from other producers.  We have been early to the table with a number of exceptional Chablis producers over the years, and we think this is one of those times.  For under $30, it’s a find and one that has found its way into our own drinking rotation.

Sneaky Good Buy on Cali Chard from Santa Rita Hills

First of all, we must make the point that this Pence has nothing to do with politics that we know of.  Blair Pence owns a 200-acre working ranch in the western part of the Santa Rita hills with his vines situated on rocky soils .  By their own description, “Seen from above, it appears as an island on an elevated plateau, which has been slowly eroded over time on all sides and is thus fully exposed to merciless cold ocean winds, morning fog and other Pacific Ocean influences. It is this combination of stressful conditions that provides the character considered essential to making great wines from our location.”

Thing is it seems like everybody has some sort of angle to assert that their wine is better.  This one actually is.  The Pence Ranch Chardonnay Santa Rita Hills 2016 is one of the best under $20 Chardonnays we have tasted from California in quite some time.  To some people that means something that is ‘rich and round, mouth-filling and oaky’ (and probably pumped up with residual sugar and wood chips).  If you are looking for that kind of in-your-face style, this is not that.

This one surprised us because it had sufficient size, a great palate feel, nuanced flavors of pear, ‘butter’, and apple, and bright acidity.  In other words, it tasted like Chardonnay, with the kind of fruit, purity, balance and nuance that engages rather than overwhelms.   We’re going to go out on a limb and presume that the winemaking probably has a lot to do with this.

As soon as we tasted this one, we were pretty sure whoever made it knew what they were doing. The winemaker of record here is one Sashi Moorman, a talented fellow involved in a few side projects as well as his own PiedraSassi, Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte labels.  The stuff coming out of Sandhi now is quite impressive, and his touche seems to have worked beautifully with Pence’s ocean-influenced Chardonnay.

Yeah we can produce a review from Jeb Dunnuck, “92 Points!  The 2016 Chardonnay Estate has some caramelized notes as well as ripe orchard fruits and brioche, lip-smacking acidity, a rounded, beautifully textured feel, and a great finish. Aged 9 months in 25% new Ermitage barrels, drink it over the coming 3-5 years.”

But one on one, as opposed to some kind of multi-item blind review tasting, one will be able to sense a lot going on.

This is a beautiful option in today’s varied Chardonnay world.  But it wasn’t made to win a tasting with added bell and whistles.  It was instead made to be what it is supposed to be, a well-made, tasty, versatile, personality-filled ‘real’ Chardonnay made by a guy who is well acquainted with what great Chardonnay is supposed to taste like.  A sneaky value, we could try and make a big splash but, frankly, that’s not the format to sell a wine like this.  This Chardonnay speaks for itself without yelling and enough people should ‘get it’.

OREGON CHARDONNAY 2.0: LINGUA FRANCA BUNKER HILL 2016

There’s a lot to digest here.  First of all, it would have been easy for us to dismiss this as another ‘somm label’.  You know, famous sommelier decides he can do it better and goes off to create some undernourished wine that ‘pairs well with food’.  Only in this case the sommelier in question is one of some repute, Larry Stone, and he partnered with a ‘hall-of-fame’ Burgundy producer, Dominique Lafon.    They then hired Thomas Savre, an accomplished young winemaker from Evening Land’s Seven Springs Vineyard and put him to work on the project.

Perhaps even a bigger challenge here is that we are going to talk about an Oregon Chardonnay that sells for around $50.  But the performance here was so remarkable that we are thinking about it not as an Oregon Chardonnay, but as a white Burgundy look-alike that, given the cost of ‘real’ white Burgundy these days, actually looks reasonably priced.  We know a lot of you are still like we used to be, thinking of Oregon Chardonnay a sea of lean, mediocre juice grown in the wrong location, planted to the wrong clone.  There is still a lot of that.  But the upswing in quality from those who have reoriented their Chardonnay programs and corrected some of the old mistakes is astounding.

Lingua Franca Chardonnay Bunker Hill 2016 is exclusively from Salem’s Bunker Hill in Eola-Amity, with 20-year-old CH76 vines on pure Nekia soils at an altitude of around 800 feet. It is a west-facing vineyard that is exposed directly to the cooling ocean winds of the Van Duzer corridor (yeah pretty geeky stuff). The name of the winery, Lingua Franca, which is defined as “a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different”, seems an appropriate tongue-in-cheek reference to this ‘Franco-American’ endeavor.

All we can figure is that these guys, who have tasted some of the world’s greatest wines, have figured out a way to make something in the image of a great white Burgundy.   No easy task but knowledge is power.  The wine has both substance and lift.  The aroma is complex with layers of mineral, smoke, herbs, caramel apples, and a faint hint of that hazelnut character we associate with Meursault (or is that power of suggestion?).  The wine is intense, long, racy and complex on the palate with a lasting finish of citrus, herbs, and white flowers.  There are flinty, mouth-watering mineral notes as well, which we don’t typically associate with Oregon Chardonnay.

All in all this is an impressive glassful and indicates this project is going to turn some heads (the inaugural 2015s got some nice ink from Vinous), and that Oregon is capable of bringing Chardonnay drama when the juice is in the right hands.  A good run of vintages probably hasn’t hurt the early success here but, clearly, there is some vision here as well.  Talking about $50 domestic Chardonnay typically isn’t our ‘jam’, but exceptions do come along.  We highly recommend this one as a breakout kind of effort as well as a darned tasty bottle of serious Chardonnay that deserves attention.  Also there’s that whole thing about ‘preconceived notions’…

Benovia Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2015

If you look at our product listings, you will note that we post ‘third party’ reviews on the wines offered just like most everyone else.  What’s different about our approach is that you will also note we write a number of original pieces.  We taste a lot of wine over the course of the year and will make the point that context makes a huge difference in how a wine comes across.  So we give ourselves the opportunity to use our own voice to point out exceptional efforts that may not get that big score when judged in some sort of rapid fire tasting but sure hits the right notes for us ‘one-on-one’.  That is, incidentally how most of you will be consuming your wines.

If there was ever a prime example of how we see things quite a bit differently than the wine media, it is with Benovia winery.  We have been big fans of winemaker Mike Sullivan since back in his early Zin days with Deloach, and through an impressive group of Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels as he got the Hartford Court project going.  We have been quite pleased with his work since becoming the mind behind Benovia and have recommended a number of things from there over the years.

We’ll be the first to admit that the Benovia wines aren’t the kind of blowsy monsters that get easily noticed by the media.  They are, rather, succinct, pure and harmonious with well-woven flavors and nothing sticking out.  These are the kinds of wines to drink because they are outstanding examples of California classics of the type that were prevalent back in California’s more ‘formative’ years.  They are made to ‘seduce’ rather than ‘bludgeon’.

Not a lot of evident wood here, the style of this Chardonnay is an exploration of the terroir of the Russian River.  You’ve got finely meshed apple and citrus fruit with hints of almond and spice notes, the result of night harvesting, indigenous yeast and whole cluster fermentation and a sojourn of 12 months in oak.

The flavors are clean, persistent, and engaging while always fresh and vibrant.  The Benovia Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2015 comes mainly from the winery’s Martaella estate and relies on a layered, nuanced, rather impressive demonstration of the vivid house style for its impression.  It will probably again get modest reviews from the press because it isn’t overtly big (though don’t get us wrong there is plenty of character).  But this one impresses where it counts, in the glass.  That is where this Chardonnay is made to perform, and we’d rather drink this than a lot of the other, higher- scoring (often oaky and flabby) options we have.

It would be easier for us to simply point to a Chardonnay that got a big review, and we have those, too. But this is one we believe in and the 2015 is a fine example to make new friends for what we feel is one of the more under-rated wineries around simply because the wines are balanced and made to drink rather than to go after ‘numbers’.

 

Thomas Pico Chardonnay…No Ordinary ‘Vin de France’

What, another new Chardonnay?  Well, yes, on the surface it would appear that way.  But there is much more to the story than that, starting with the name.  Not many folks will know the name Thomas Pico off the top of their heads, but he is a Chardonnay producer of some repute.  But he is known for the wines of his own estate, Pattes Loup.  We started selling Pattes Loup a few years ago and hailed Thomas as one of the most impressive new talents on the scene.  The reputation of Pattes Loup only expanded as he had additional vintages under his belt, received significant attention from the media, and established a fiercely loyal following among Chablis ‘dorks’ in particular.  It is a label of importance even if the guy’s name isn’t a household word.

If you saw the ‘Fire and Ice’ piece we posted in the ‘Stock Report’ on Sept 3, we talked a lot about how, with all the concern about global warming, ‘ice’ has been a much more devastating enemy of the grape than heat in certain parts of the wine world.  There have been numerous incidents of frost and hail that have wreaked havoc on a number of vineyards in Europe.  The Loire has been ‘abused’ on multiple occasions and 2017 in particular has created an extensive ‘casualty list’ in France, Spain and northern Italy.

As you may know, 2016 was a particularly brutal year for Thomas Pico and many other growers in Chablis. Frost in April adversely effected bud break and vine health and then hail in May came in and devastated much of what was left of the he crop. What little did survive was assaulted by mildew following the heavy rains of May and June.  Joys of farming? Not so much this time.

Yields at Pattes Loup are uncommonly low to begin with and the Pattes Loup wines have been a success thanks to talented winemaking but also because Pico keeps his yields down as a practice.  In 2016, thanks to all of the various weather malaise, Thomas was now expecting only 20% of his normal harvest, which is well below the norm under normal circumstances.  What was left would not generate enough income to keep Pattes Loups full time employees.

Fortunately, some friends who grow organic Chardonnay in high altitude vineyards of the Limoux region came to the rescue and offered Thomas a small quantity of wine to supplement his own harvest. Thomas was able to pick the grapes with his friends in Limoux to the south (it is southwest of Carcassone in the Languedoc, and then truck the juice back to Chablis in time to harvest his own grapes.

Thomas apparently bottled what little Chablis he had as Chablis.  But from the Limoux Chardonnay, Thomas made a Vin de France, aged in steel tanks. The Vin de France label thing has to do with not bottling the wine in Limoux or some other technicality under French wine law, as opposed to something to do with sketchy grape sourcing.

Meanwhile, Pico has put a lot of work and energy into developing his name among the wine cognoscenti, he wasn’t going to put his name on something substandard now.  There is a brightness and energy to the Thomas Pico Chardonnay  Vin de France 2016 that is reminiscent of Chablis, with all of the verve that Pico’s wines are known for.  But the flavors are naturally a little different than the citrus and salinity of his usual produce, these high elevation, organic grapes flavors leaning to floral scents, stone fruits, honeyed notes, and a different mineral undercurrent.  Clarity, purity and lift, the guy’s talents show through and it’s pretty compelling juice for the tab.  It is certainly the best Limoux Chardonnay we have ever had!….$19.98