At Sonoma-Cutrer in Windsor, Calif., Chardonnay is not just a grape or a varietal wine, it is a way of life. The winery produces more than 50,000 cases of Chardonnay; no other grapes are grown in its vineyards. The aim is to concentrate on making Chardonnay in the classic tradition of single-wine vineyards that produce French white Burgundy.
The venture is the idea of veteran wine maker Bill Bonetti, who in 1985 celebrated his 36th California vintage, and proprietor Brice Jones, a Harvard Business School graduate. Merging their talents in 1981, the two decided to make only one wine. They selected Chardonnay because of its popularity and because Bonetti had been tinkering with Chardonnay since 1962, when he helped fashion wines at Charles Krug winery.
Although California is growing more than 30,000 acres of Chardonnay, there are relatively few complex, exciting wines capable of making wine lovers forget the likes of fine Montrachet. Sonoma-Cutrer, with only four vintages to date, is well on its way to doing just that.
A Debut Vintage
Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnays are superb. The 1981 is showing lovely complexity of age, somewhat reminiscent of the beautifully honed early Chardonnays of Hanzell, which also were fashioned after upper-crust white Burgundy. This debut vintage displays the unique Chardonnay toastiness of maturity with a complex taste. It is a big, generous wine and a joy to drink.
That the wine is Hanzell-like is not by accident. Brad Webb, Hanzell’s early wine-making consultant, was a fellow wine maker and research associate at the E&J; Gallo Wine Co. in Modesto where Bonetti spent five years. He then became senior chemist at Cresta Blanca, later doing wine-making stints at Charles Krug and Souverain.
Bonetti, born and raised in northern Italy, attended Italy’s oldest wine school, the Conegliano School of Viticulture and Enology. It was during his association with Webb and later experimentation at Krug that he developed the effective innovative techniques used at Sonoma-Cutrer.
The thrust of Bonetti’s success is to inhibit oxidation and provide the environment for wine to evolve naturally. Grapes are harvested by hand and brought to the winery in small, ventilated wooden lug boxes to avoid juicing or bruising. A special Bonetti innovation at the winery is that whole clusters of grapes are air-chilled in a unique refrigeration tunnel and hand-sorted to remove undesirable material, which in some vintages is essentially rot from unseasonal rain.
After hand-sorting of grape clusters, instead of the usual stemming and crushing, the grapes are pressed gently on their stems (and this is critical) in a membrane tank press, which has been purged of oxygen by using inert nitrogen.
Longevity and Complexity
This is similar to Hanzell’s method, which provided longevity and complexity in the wine. Recently, I tasted remarkably exciting Hanzell Chardonnays that were more than 20 years old.
The procedure, while not revolutionary, is costly and demanding and requires the utmost care and dedication. It ensures virtually no negative oxidation and allows a wine from a good vintage to develop and pick up the kind of complexity the ’81 is showing.
Current releases, all from the ’83 vintage and each with a vineyard designation, are Les Pierres, Cutrer and Russian River Ranch. The Les Pierres, the most costly at $15.50, is already beginning to show excellent fruit intensity and balance. There is full texture and strong backbone here, together with high concentration and generosity of flavor. Flavor retention because of Bonetti’s techniques surely will provide complexity.
The Cutrer, at $13.75, is leaner, less intense, perhaps crisper, with lower alcohol and acidity and nicely developing flavors. It should age well, but not for as long.
Russian River Ranches, at $11, is the least complex of the three, but nonetheless is a big concentrated wine with fine assertive varietal character. Structure and backbone are nicely in place so that several years of bottle aging are essential for attaining complexity. Grapes are from several of the winery’s vineyard parcels in the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, which Bonetti believes has the coolest and longest grape-growing season on the North Coast.
The ’85 Russian River Ranches is from an excellent vintage with a bit of vanillin showing. It is intense with fruit and surprisingly forward in taste and nuance development, and as a consequence should mature faster than earlier versions. Les Pierres ’85, in a leaner style, shows fine concentration of flavor and a steely character, not unlike a fine Meursault.
Les Pierres 1984, to be released in September, still needs aging and is not as generous and full flavored as the ’85. In a fatter, rounder style, its 13.6% alcohol does not intrude, and a longer life is anticipated.
Continuity of Style
What was fascinating with all the wines, especially the Les Pierres, was the continuity of style from controlled vineyards and similarity of production technique. Even during a vintage like ’82, somewhat impaired by rain, it is easy to recognize the lovely roundness and developed flavors of exceptional delicacy and breed. Obviously, the no-oxidation program is succeeding.
The prestige vineyard apparently is Les Pierres and is the one to taste even though it is the most expensive. The vineyard is at the southern end of the Sonoma Valley at Carneros. Its name, meaning “the stones,” is appropriate because of the cobble-size stones from this former rock quarry location. Like many fine white Burgundies, vines here are subjected to stress from low-level nutrients and inferior water-holding ability resulting in lower yield and reduction of cluster size, thereby creating greater flavor intensity.
Other than the early starts of Hanzell and Stony Hill, there is probably no other winery devoted exclusively to Chardonnay. Bonetti and Jones are so struck with Chardonnay that a symposium “Focus on Chardonnay,” which will include French white Burgundy authorities, will be held at Sonoma-Cutrer on July 27. For three days, research papers and seminar-type discussions will be delivered, all with the concern that Chardonnay always can be made better.