Olema Sonoma County Chard: A Perfect 1, 2, 3

friendsI love Chardonnay, but I’m really fussy about it.

I’ve tasted way too much over-oaked, fake-oaked, or way-too-buttery Chard. There are too many out there that are way off balance in one direction or another, and I’m done with suffering through them.

So I’m thrilled when I taste balance. That’s what stopped me in my tracks recently when I tasted Olema Sonoma County Chardonnay 2009.  I thought, “OMG, I taste wonderful richness without a 2 x 4 in my teeth!”

Olema has a great back-story. It’s actually the second label from a winemaker who’s a veritable Napa Valley icon.olema

Ever heard of Georges de Latour Private Reserve? Or BV Cellars? Of course you have, and you know that BV’s Private Reserve is one of Napa’s classic Cabernets, created for more than 25 years by winemaker Joel Aiken. He left BV to pursue his own wine interests, and ended up hooking up with some good friends to form Amici (Italian for “friends”) Cellars.

I pulled an Amici cork out of my Olema, because it’s is the second label from Aiken’s winery. But this Chard is anything but second-rate. Let me give you my 1-2-3 on that.

1 – The nose on my Olema Chardonnay was positively beguiling, with luscious butterscotch mingling with bright tangerine, and some creamy tapioca creeping in as it warmed in my glass. I could have sat with my nose in the glass all night, but that would have made me really unpopular with my dinner companion.

2 – My mouth tasted rich tropical fruit, with more butterscotch (or was it creme brulee?) rounding out the back.

3 – The finish, which I’d been afraid would have that California “butterball” thing going on, was tangy and bright, lifted up by good natural acidity.

Wow! I should have expected this quality from Joel Aiken — I just didn’t expect to find it in a wine under $20.

My research showed that there are a few reasons why this Chard hits my sweet spot. First, only 58% of the juice underwent malolactic fermentation. That may be an unfamiliar term, but Chardonnay lovers should get up close and personal with this key determinant of a Chardonnay’s style. This secondary fermentation takes the grape’s natural malic acid, which is like the acid in green apples, and turns it into lactic acid, or the acid in milk. Chard’s that undergo 100% ML have that buttery (some would say “flabby”) finish.

Aiken uses just enough ML to round out the mouthfeel. His oak treatment is equally restrained. Only 50% of the wine goes into French oak barrels, with the balance aged in stainless steel. That’s why Olema Chard reminds me of vanilla creme brullee instead of a 2 x 4.

Of course, Aiken had some great raw material to work with. Grapes were sourced from Carneros and Russian River vineyards — arguably the best sources for California Chardonnay. And 2009 was an awesome vintage, with mild temperatures and a long Indian Summer allowing the grapes to ripen slowly and develop lots of flavor and complexity.

So here’s my summary — just go buy this. Then pour it for someone who thinks they have to spend $40 to get a top-quality Chardonnay. Cheers!


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