Let me make two fairly definitive statements, as I start this review of the 2013 Holman Ranch Estate Grown “Virgin Chardonnay”…
1. I love the character of wines from in and around Monterey and Carmel, California. Morgan, Leal, Chalone, Hahn, Pietra Santa, Pessagno, the spectacular Joyce rosé, and now Holman Ranch. One of the top three domestic Syrahs I’ve ever tasted came from the Monterey appellation, and several more uber-memorable wines I have stuck in my memory, too.
2. I hate Chardonnay. Not all Chardonnay, just most of it. Chard is the white Merlot; a grape so mistreated and manipulated and over-engineered and tarted up and befouled with additions it absolutely does not need that tasting unadorned Chardonnay, made by resolutely non-interventionist methodology, is almost shocking. The Big Enchilada of American Chard Abuse is the massive and wholly-gratuitous character of about 90% of what was made in California – and, yes, Washington and Oregon, too – until about fifteen years ago, with years-long marinating in new oak barrels and all the smoky/vanilla cream facade that heinous practice erected between that noble grape and our collective taste buds. The thing about it is, Chardonnay is a wonderful wine grape. And, don’t worry: I’m not going to launch into some phony knee-jerk adoration of Burgundy, here, that many wine “experts” will reflexively recite as though it were the Cub Scouts Oath. The French play with their Chardonnay, too; not as much and in a different way but it’s manipulated there, too, and to no better effect.
The fact is, there are literally millions of Americans who count themselves as long-time fans of Chardonnay who actually have NO idea what Chardonnay tastes like. They’re addicted to that oaky-smoky wood veneer and that’s what they’ve been drinking for fifteen, thirty, fifty years and would think a glass of Chard that was not tarted up like a French whore tastes “funny”.
Well, courtesy of a growing and far better understanding of wine in general and led by Washington and Oregon winemakers who were never sold on making white wines according to the California oak-opulence ideal, in the first place, Chardonnay has begun to shake off its stylistic shackles, just over the past decade. Make no mistake about it, the vanilla cream style still vastly outsells the stainless steel – or sometimes, for the very kinky, concrete vat – fermented versions but the tide is turning. The trick – and freakin’ HUGE trick it is, somewhat akin to trying to argue logically with a Donald Trump supporter in terms of sheer wasted effort – is to make people taste an unoaked Chardonnay and not miss the oak. Many have tried, few have succeeded.
So, FedEx pulls up to my house, last week, with a slim package from Holman Ranch, a drop-dead gorgeous actual ranch – complete with stables and horses and trails ‘n’ such – in the hills surrounding Carmel. Holman’s PR folks actually had contacted me with a query about my willingness to taste their Chard or Pinot, so I was expecting the box but had already worked it out in my head that they were sending a Pinot because…well, everybody does. That statement about my “hating” Chardonnay, above? Double that for Pinot Noir. And I get literally inundated with Pinot Noir, as in “up to my ____ing neck” in the stuff.
Instead, I open the box and find the Holman Ranch 2013 Estate Grown Virgin Chardonnay. Stopped me in my tracks. For a winery that makes Pinot and Chard to send their Chard to a brand new, hyper-opinionated, snotty, wine-geek critic like me is a Statement. It told me that Holman Ranch believes they are Onto Something with this bottle of wine…
And they absolutely are.
I’m not going to make this wine out to be a total game-changer because making unoaked Chard has been done a lot and some have done it pretty well. But unoaked Chardonnay almost always shows some distinct lack of body and heft and intensity and a less opulent texture because, well, taking the barrel out of the process removes the oak tannins that make it chewy and creamy and the infamous “buttery”, while it negates that caramel/vanilla/smoke overlay that suggests luxury. It seems…Less, most of the time. In this nicely maintained 2013 from Holman’s winemaker, Spring Mountain Vineyards veteran, Greg Vita, we have a big, fat, juicy, happy bottle of unadulterated Chardonnay, untouched even slightly by barrels and showing everything that the grape is capable of, California Edition. California is waaaay warmer than Burgundy or WA/OR and the wines are both praised and universally ridiculed for their sheer power and size. The French drone on and on about “elegance” and “nuance” and “sense of place” and all that stuff they preach to basically set themselves apart from us, the New World upstarts who have eaten the apple off their heads in domestic wine sales for the last thirty years, ever since we figured out that we don’t really need or even want the “Old World Ideal“.
This wine is not about elegance or nuance. This is an American unoaked Chardonnay, a very California unoaked Chardonnay, and it’s generous and undoubtedly too big for a Burgundy freak and maybe even too big for one of those Northwest wine geeks who preaches the superiority of our wines for, basically, not being like California. This is a swaggering stevedore of a white; a wine that is so juicy and immediate and round and full-bodied that you might well drink it and think “California” and not even realize that it has no oaky overlay. And, if you’re open-minded enough and your tastes are inclusive enough, you probably won’t care when you do find it out.
This is a lavish mouthful of yellow apples, Bosc pears, apricots, honeydew melon, quince, gooseberries, buttermint, fresh cream, mild baking spices, a tangy minerality, and even, improbably, a little whisper of vanilla lurking around the long, lazy finish. There are prominent florals on the nose and palate and a whoppin’ hit of fresh citrus peels suffusing the whole enterprise. In addition, the wine hasn’t undergone the knee-jerk malolactic fermentation that almost every American wine goes through because the conversion of the more tart malic acids to milder lactic acids usually makes for a creamier, softer wine. I completely agree with their decision not to do Malolactic, here, because it simply doesn’t need it. Those looking for power and size and immediacy of flavors are going to find those here, in spades. And, it should also be noted that Greg Vita’s decision to basically just vinify what were obviously some spectacular grapes in what is a somewhat unorthodox way shows an out-of-the-box kind of thinking that bodes very well for Holman Ranch as a source of other and more adventurous wines in the future. Maybe…dare I say it?…an unoaked red? I know that, if Vita makes one – maybe a Cab or Syrah(!) sans barrel – I will probably walk down to Carmel to pick some up because I’ve been begging Washington winemakers to do that for well over a decade.
This is a very fine, flavorful, judicious, and beautifully made bottle of wine that can, if enough people taste it, further the legitimate discussion of why we really need our Chardonnay gussied up with French oak barrels – and $1000+ a pop – at all. Chardonnay prices have risen, at least in part, as a result of wineries maintaining that article of faith that says we Americans won’t drink a Chard that hasn’t sat in a cask for 12 – 18 months. Barrels that used to cost $600 ten years ago are now running $1200 to $1500 apiece routinely. Without that albatross, wines like this may be able to show up priced like this little bargain: $27 each. I freely admit that I knew of Holman Ranch wines really only as a name on a catalog page before tasting this. Now, I know better. I’ll be looking for Holman’s label on store shelves and I urge you to do the same. 94 Points