Meet the “New” California Chardonnay: Midnight Cellars 2008

midnightBack in the day, we all loved chewing on a log. Or at least it seemed like it, because the California Chardonnay we drank was so full of oak that you thought you were chomping on a 2 x 4.

Not that that was a bad thing…

For years, American Chardonnay was aged in young American oak barrels, and put through 100% malolactic fermentation, which was a secondary fermentation that resulted in the crisp malic acids (like the acid in green apples) being converted to lactic acid (like the acid in milk). The result was a “buttery” mouthfeel, and combined with 100% oak barrel aging, it produced a Chardonnay that was so rich and heavy it tasted like you were drinking butter on toast.

So fast forward to 2010, when imported and domestic Pinot Grigio has begun to steal some of Chardonnay’s market share. The savvy marketers at the big wine conglomerates noticed the trend (they don’t miss a trick) and postulated that Americans might be getting tired of traditional California Chardonnay.

And I believe they were. I could see it in my customers when they said, “You know, I think I’ll try something different from my usual Chardonnay.” And winemakers saw it too. Or maybe they also got tired of over-oaked whites.

In any case, that brings me to the Chardonnay I’m enjoying tonight. Midnight Cellars Paso Robles Estate Chardonnay 2008 comes from the Paso Robles region of California, which sits smack dab between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The climate is, well, HOT during the day, but they get these lovely breezes every afternoon that blow through the Templeton Gap and cool down the fruit every night. This creates grapes with intense flavors and good acid balance.

You can taste it in this Midnight Cellars Chard. The nose is not at all heavy, instead showing a slight mineral overtone with pear, green apple and tapioca. The palate starts out light and crisp, until some rich, almost oily flavors kick in. Every now and then I get this great shot of green apple and licorice — go figure. The finish has just a hint of vanilla, with a lingering suggestion of spice.

I like it a lot, and here’s why it’s different from the old style of Chardonnay: it’s aged in French oak barrels instead of American, which imparts a more subtle oak influence, and only 25% of the juice goes through malolactic fermentation, which produces a much crisper style of Chardonnay.

Let’s call this “New Wave” Chardonnay. You could drink it all day, and you could pair it with lots of foods. I’m drinking it with Kettle Cooked Potato Chips, which are totally NOT politically correct bur for which I had a real craving. And I’m happy to say they work GREAT with my Midnight Cellars.

Please experiment with these and other lightly-oaked California Chardonnays — I think you’ll become a convert to the new style.


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