Chardonnay…**yawn**…Sorry. Drifted off for a moment, there.
Chardonnay and Merlot are the two most abused wine grapes on this planet…and probably on any other planets where vitis vinifera can grow, too. Merlot was basically killed by (mainly) California wineries that tried to turn it into Cabernet because Cab was the IT grape in reds and they wanted to sell the stuff. They picked over-ripe, oaked it unto grim death, left in residual sugar (at least in the cheaper bottles), and sold it young, before it was really ready, using all the aforementioned to make it palatable.
Chard? Well, that got beat to death by the oaking thing, primarily, but also by sheer repetition. We’re Americans. We’ll take a good thing and run it straight into the fuggen ground and Chardonnay may have been Victim Zero in that cultural phenomenon, at least in terms of comestible products. Back in the late 60s, many Cali wineries – by far the largest US cluster of Chard producers – started barreling all Chards for extended periods, infusing it all with that most prized troika of crowd-pleasing attributes: “vanilla/butter/smoke“. Oak for those who may not know, contains the substance vanillin, which is also the root of the vanilla extract you have in your cupboard and which you’ve embraced since your first tastes of baby food. Oak = Vanilla and so shall it ever be. That and, again, picking over-ripe produced ponderous, syrupy wines that would horrify European Chard drinkers but which Americans chugged like Budweiser.
In the past fifteen+ years, there has been a substantial aesthetic backlash against Oaky/Smoky and Chard has been cleaned up considerably, in general. Many producers are striving for a balance between the ultra-clean steel barreled Chards that are currently popular and the Old School Vanilla Bombs, often aging just a portion of the yield in oak and the balance in steel tanks. Many are enormously graceful, just as quite a few of the steel-fermented bunch are wildly acidic and tough going. But, as happens with any trend in beverages (twenty-five years from now, we will still have breweries making milkshake IPAs and Pastry Stouts, just not as many of ’em) the Old School Cali Chards will never completely go away. They will become assimilated into our cultural catalog and remain, even as the hybrid versions take over the market.
The trick to making a our great Chard is striking the right balance of Unoaked and Old School and the sad fact is that, while MOST American Chardonnay is quite drinkable and enjoyable (it’s hard to completely screw up Chardonnay), few are wines about which you will say, “WOW!“, upon that first sip and become non-verbal about as you continue. My wife calls these “Wow Wines” and if that is Judye Allman’s only contribution to the literature of American wine, it’s a damned good one.
The Hess Collection “Panthera” Russian River Valley Chardonnay is a swoon-inducing, sexy, lavish, eye-popping Wow Wine; one of the two or three best of the Semi-Old School California Chards I’ve tasted in the past ten years, out of that virtual ocean of Chardonnay I’ve been asked (nearly forced) to sample. It could serve as a template for how to treat Chardonnay grapes for the New Millennium. Chilled to the PROPER (Goddamnit) FIFTY to FIFTY-FIVE degrees(!) and NOT chilled ice-cold as we US dolts often insist upon, it immediately lays a fine sheen of condensation on the glass and glows with an alluring lambent light gold color, while aromas literally waft from the open glass, whispering “Drink me, baby!“. It smells a great deal like apple pie, with warm apple scents and subtle spices underpinned by a fleeting toastiness, like sugar cookies smelled from a distance. Closer to the rim, your nose is going to pick up some honeysuckle and wildflowers and more of that inviting pie crust. So, you sip because…well, you’d be a fool not to, right?”
All those attributes follow instantly on your tongue, along with ripe pears, honeydew melon, peaches, grilled pineapple, creme brulee, gooseberry jam, and wet wood. The toasted notes warm up the whole enterprise – again, as long as you don’t chill it to death! – but leave the wine’s near-perfect crispness and mild acidity completely intact. The winemaker’s notes state that the yield was 35% aged in new French oak for 15 months but does not mention whether the balance was put up in steel or neutral, multiple-use barrels, which contribute oak tannins for silkiness – that fabled “buttery” sensation – but not much vanilla flavor. I’m going to guess the neutral oak, as the wine is stunningly silken and tongue-painting but some portion may well have seen some steel.
I deliberately didn’t mention the vintage of this wine because I did manage to get a taste of its descendant, the gorgeous 2017, a few weeks back and it was, if possible, even better than the inaugural 2016 that I received from Hess. I believe, given Hess’ rather shocking history of an almost freakish consistency, vintage to vintage, that Panthera is dead-bang certain to be this fine every year. Hess’ judicious buying from other area vineyards, their immaculate vineyard management and smart acquisition of land, back before the Sonoma area was even a Thang, certainly suggests grapes that will produce at this slammin’ level, pretty much any year that is not rained out or freakishly frozen. The wine will NOT fail to meet this standard because of winery shortcomings because Hess winemaker, Dave Guffy, along with his gifted associates, Alison Rodriguez, Stephanie Pope, and Randle Johnson have all had deep and extensive experience with Chardonnay and could make the stuff while under sedation, probably, and still turn out something spectacular.
Panthera is a brilliant distillation of accumulated wine knowledge about Chard and that more subtle, more sophisticated, more thoughtful style of Sonoma, versus Napa or Paso Robles or Lodi or most other California appellations. It speaks to the virtues of great and careful farming, wise placement of vineyard rows, smart trellising, picking at that exact right moment, gentle crushing, avoiding excess extraction, and then exercising immaculate judgment in doing the things inside the winery that will produce a wine with optimal balance, expression, and flavor. I was in Sonoma last February and the wine in this glass is a dreamy, near-perfect evocation of the magic that led so many people to stake their fortunes, their time, and their lives on those misty little hollows and fogs-shrouded valley floors, in the first place, especially in the valley that follows the lazy Russian River, the land that spawned this and so many other jaw-dropping wines.
In our mad rush to make appointments in Healdsburg and its surroundings, we drove right past Hess’ hilltop facility and never stopped. My bad. I should have, damnit, swung off Redwood Road, there in Mt. Veeder, and sampled (and BOUGHT!) some wines. I didn’t and I am poorer for it in my wine fridge. DON’T let this happen to you. If you’re in the Napa/Sonoma wine country, make Hess a Must See stop. And in your wine shop or grocery store, DO NOT, for any reason, pass up bottles of ANY Hess wines without at least giving them a good, long look. (TIP: Their Allomi single-vineyard Cabernet is one of the two or three best values in American Cab that you will find anywhere!)
Panthera goes for somewhere in the neighborhood of $45, a bargain considering what you WILL pay for a LOT of Chards from its same region. My number is below but it’s instructive to see what TheWineAdvocate had to say about the 2017 Panthera.
From the Hess website: “This is the second vintage of this wine. Fruit comes primarily from Dutton vineyard. The 2017 Chardonnay Panthera charges out of the gate with energetic white peach, lime leaves, fresh apricots and lemongrass scents with wafts of honeycomb and nutmeg. Full-bodied, rich and seductive in the mouth, it has an enticing oiliness to the texture and plenty of racy freshness to balance, finishing long and savory.” 93 Points
I’m going 95 on it, mainly because I’m not as jaded about California Chard as the WineAdvocate reviewers. Either number you want to take, this is an Exceptional bottle of wine that will remind wine veterans of why they ever loved Chard, in the first place, and will make casual wine drinkers and even newbies dizzy with delight. 95 Points