Chamisal Vineyards: Kiwis Invade California!!

Well, not really. There’s just one Kiwi that I know of, but I think he’s made a big impression…

Fintan du Fresne is the New Zealand-born winemaker for Chamisal Vineyards in California’s amazingly beautiful Edna Valley. These rolling hills are situated about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, but are a world apart from both. I know — I’ve been there. And I still remember the spectacular view from Jean Pierre Wolfe’s front porch, as vineyards and rolling hills framed a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean in the distance.

Only it’s not very distant: Chamisal’s vineyards are just five miles from the Pacific, and Edna Valley is the California AVA that’s closest to the ocean.

Fintan says the ocean defines Chamisal’s wines. If you look at the videos on their very cool website, you can see the marine layer (or fog bank) that rolls in from the ocean and covers the valley’s vineyards most summer mornings. The fog cools down the vines, acting like a giant wet blanket that slows the development of the grapes. Is this a bad thing? Not at all. Cool is actually good, because the longer the grapes hang on the vine, the more complex and intense the flavors become. The result is wines that are delicate but intense — an award-winning combination.

Chamisal also holds a special distinction in this AVA: its vineyards were the first planted in the Edna Valley back in 1973. Chamisal now grows five varietals, and we tasted most of them during a recent streaming live online wine tasting. It was delightful to hear Fintan du Fresne (and his sexy Kiwi accent) talk about Chamisal Vineyards and its wines, the first of which was a stunning example of Fintan’s influence.

Chamisal Stainless Steel Chardonnay Central Coast 2011 is what happens when a New Zealand palate meets California fruit. New Zealand’s very cool climate produces wines high in acid and bursting with lime and grapefruit flavors (drinking some NZ Sauv Blanc is like sucking on a grapefruit…). It’s as far away as you can get from the traditional California style that favors (or at least, used to favor) lots of oak and butter.

When Fintan came to Chamisal, the first thing he did was create a bright, clean, snappy white wine. This is the “no” Chardonnay: no oak barrel aging, no malolactic fermentation, no sur lie aging. He uses a long, cool fermentation to deliver fresh, bright fruit flavors with lots of natural acidity.

But I found this wine surprisingly rich. The nose offered lots of floral aromas and candied fruit, and the palate led with rich tropical flavors. Exotic floral notes crept in behind, followed by a spice note that’s quite unique. Fintan calls this “Chamisal spice,” and says it’s a terroir thing that manifests in all Chamisal wines. I enjoyed this wine, and think it will make a great summer quaffer for all those who want flavor without oak. It’s worth noting, too, that this Chard is from the much-vilified 2011 growing season, which threw vintners and winemakers all sorts of nasty weather curves. Fintan said he actually liked this vintage because it created fruit that was better suited to the stainless style.

Chamisal Edna Valley Chardonnay 2010 is right in my wheelhouse. I gotta say I loved it for its beautiful balance of soft butterscotch and crisp acidity. The nose was certainly beguiling: creme brulee, tapioca and butterscotch from oak aging (Hungarian and French barrels) were layered with bright pineapple and that spice thing. On the palate, soft tropical fruit flavors morphed into more creme brulee and baking spice, finishing with a snappy tang. Super yummy…

Chamisal Edna Valley Grenache 2009 was a real surprise. I’ve tasted plenty of Grenache from plenty of wine regions, as varied as France’s Rhone River Valley and Australia’s McLaren Vale. In cool-climate Edna Valley, it’s a horse of a different color. Here on the cooler ocean side of the Coast Range, Fintan has to work to fully ripen Grenache, and he has to fight with the vines to keep them from becoming “a monster in the vineyard,” producing huge amounts of lesser-quality fruit. The spectacular 2009 growing season was just what the winemaker ordered.

Black fruit and spice defined this wine for me. It started out bold and dense off the cork, with dark cherry and currant bracketed by vanilla and baking spice (the Chamisal spice again?). But wonderful things happened as it sat open: after a few hours the texture had softened and woodsy berry flavors were showing. It was soft and rich without being jammy or heavy. I drank it with a red sauce, and the acidity on the back made it a great food wine.

We finished with Chamisal Edna Valley Pinot Noir 2010, which was known as a dastardly vintage. Plenty of wine growers were tricked by weather that was very cool until September, then brutally hot. Growers who had trimmed away their canopy to encourage ripening, saw their grapes blister in the blazing sun. Fintan, who spends as much time in the vineyards as the winery, managed to produce  a wine that was lighter in style but of excellent quality.

It must have been a difficult job for a winemaker whose motto was, “My Pinot is bigger than your Pinot.” The 2010 Pinot proves that bigger isn’t always better.

On the nose I got sweet fruit aromas: cherry and rhubarb pie filling. The palate hit me right away with a soft, velvety mouthfeel that was truly delightful. The flavors were delicate, with Bing cheery and gentle vanilla, but satisfying. With its good natural acidity, this wine would make a great food pairing wine (salmon anyone?).

I’d suggest you find yourself a bottle of Chamisal wine. I think the Stainless Steel Chardonnay is their largest production wine, and should be available in most markets for about $20. Enjoy it this summer, and check out all the cool videos on their website. Cheers!

  • Share/Bookmark

Leave a Reply


Wine Accessories

Switch to our mobile site