My Current Fave: Benziger Signaterra Chardonnay

sangI think I’m in love. And I didn’t even expect to be “in like.”

I had a bottle of Benziger Winery’s single-vineyard line, Signaterra. This was a 2009 Chardonnay from the Sangiacomo vineyard, a very prized plot owned by the Sangiacomo family in the Carneros region in southern Napa/Sonoma. I’ve tasted other Chardonnays from this vineyard and loved them, particularly Barnett Winery’s.

But what I’d read in Signaterra’s tasting notes had me scratching my head. First, I read that this Chard is totally un-oaked — aged in stainless steel instead of oak barrels. Now I know there’s a distinct trend away from heavy-handed, over-oaked Chards, but I still hanker for a little bit of roundness and toast.

And the notes said the Signaterra undergoes 100% malolactic fermentation, which is a secondary fermentation that takes the tart malic acid (like in green apples) and converts it to lactic acid (like in milk). This creates that buttery mouth-feel that many California Chardonnay drinkers have grown to love.

Both these processes are standard, but as far as I know, not generally used in combination. The way I think of it, stainless steel treatment heightens acid and freshness, while complete ML minimizes it. So what’s this combination gonna taste like?

Pretty damn good, is the answer.chad

Better than that, really. I enjoyed this Chardonnay more than anything I’ve tasted in recent memory. And I drink a good bit of Chardonnay…

Let’s start at the beginning. The Benziger family and Sangiacomo family go way back, like 30 years back. That’s earned the Benzigers the right to source fruit from ”the sweet spot” of Carneros called the West Rows. The naturally cool climate combined with well-drained soil and protection from the often harsh winds, produces some very spectacular fruit.

The weather during the 2009 growing season was also a humdinger: there were warm days when they were needed to push ripening, and enough cool days to slow down the ripening process and allow complex flavors to develop. The grapes were picked relatively early to preserve good acidity and keep sugar levels on the low side.

So here’s my take on Signaterra West Rows Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay 2009.

Right off the cork, the nose was not your typical Cali Chard. It took a few minutes and a few degrees of warming for rich tropical aromas (read pineapple) to start flowing. That was layered with hazelnut and vanilla (where does that come from in an un-oaked wine?) and lovely sweet fig.

The palate was rich and juicy and tangy all at the same time. I got more tropical flavors that morphed into creamy tapioca and then into palate-cleansing acid. I thought the balance was tremendous, and I would like to humbly apologize for questioning the “ML and stainless” thing.

This wine is like potato chips — you can’t stop drinking it. Actually, I’ll admit that I was eating chips (the No-Trans-Fat, kettle-cooked, sea salted variety, of course). The rich/juicy/tangy thing worked incredibly well with the salty/crunchy/greasy thing. I think I may have found another classic food pairing!

The punch line is — this is a wine that develops beautifully in the glass, and will continue to develop in the bottle. I’d love to put some down for a year or two and see what happens, and I’d encourage you to do the same. It may be difficult to find because production is small, but see what happens if you contact the winery. Cheers!

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