Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Wine-Geeking It Up

I'm no fool. When my next door neighbor emails me an excel spreadsheet detailing his 400+ bottle wine collection with the note "If anything catches your eye bring over a loaf of bread sometime and we can crack open a bottle," I'm there in less than 48 hours with two bottles in mind.

I rarely reach for chardonnay, but his older vintages of some of Napa's most famous producers intrigued me. 1994 Grgich, 1999 Chalk Hill... there were a few on there, and suddenly I was curious - how were these babies holding up? After spotting a 2005 Puligny-Montrachet, I suggested cracking one of those open next to the 1994 Grgich to see how it was holding up. (I had a brief stint brokering some of the wines that the then Grgich winemaker produces now, so I was curious to see how his chards age.)

I knocked on the door at 6:15 with a creamy French goats milk cheese and soft Italian loaf in hand. I thought the cheese would work nicely with the white Burgundy in particular, which had been described to me as "France in a glass".

As I was welcomed into the kitchen I started to peruse the wines that were sitting out on the counter.

"Oh, here's that chenin blanc!" I exclaimed.

One of the wines in his collection was one bottle of 1985 Chappallet Chenin Blanc, which upon seeing it on the list sparked a slew of mental questions. A chenin blanc that old? Where did he get it? Was it just a random leftover that has been sitting around for years,
or had someone told him that it was going to age well? Are any of them - outside of Vouvray - supposed to age at all? Did Californians even make chenin blanc twenty-five years ago? But I had refrained from mentioning it for this casual night because there was only one and I didn't want to overstep my bounds.

"Yeah that's probably the most random bottle in my collection. I got it a few years ago at an auction for a restaurant that was closing. Not like I paid a lot for it or anything. I figured, what the hell? Let's crack it and see what it's like."

As he eased the cork out of the bottle, the top half denigrated and it became apparent that some major cork surgery was going to be required. A few minutes later what was left of the cork eased out and we poured the amber-colored wine into our glasses, excited for a potential miracle.

Sniff, sniff - didn't take long for my hopes to be dashed and reality set in. Let this be a lesson - California chenin blanc does not age. (Shocking.)

And so it was on to the next. First we opened up the 2005 Puligny Montrachet from Domaine Bernard Millot, which soared out of the bottle and into our glasses. Lightly straw colored, with green apple aromas and a crisp but solid mouth-feel, this wine embodied white Burgundy. It was absolutely lovely.

Then came the 1994 Grgich, which I had high hopes for. Sure, California chardonnays aren't exactly known for aging potential, but this is a pretty substantial producer and it's not that old.

Predictably, it came out of the bottle looking like honey. It was thick and dark yellow. One quick dip of the nose, though, revealed - nothing.

"It's dead."

"No, maybe..." Bart started.

"Nope. Dead."


"It happens. But you know, I'm actually tempted to think that this is just a random bad bottle. I'm really surprised that it's this dead. Maybe it's oxidized, or has some other random flaw. I'll bet a different bottle of the same might not be this bad." (Identifying oxidation and other flaws, like bret, is not really my strength. I can call corked from ten paces but the others sometimes allude me, so I wasn't entirely sure with this one.)

Luckily, Bart had a backup chilling in the wings. He pulled out a Napa producer that I wasn't familiar with - Chateau Potelle - and explained the story behind the Frenchman who had been lured to Napa with a big house on a hill in exchange for winemaking services as he opened up their 1999 chardonnay. The wine was in a heavy, simple bottle and came out with the same honey color as the Grgich, but had a rich, developed nose.

"There we go," I sighed as I breathed in the toastiness. It was full bodied, still pretty oaky, and with a decent amount of fruit. Decidedly not dead.

But still, it was different than I had expected. My hopes with tasting the older vintages of Napa chardonnay was that some of the inevitable oak would have mellowed a bit and that they would have become more crisp and Burgundian in style, but I didn't really find this to be the case with this one. I suppose that was naive of me, but a girl can hope.

All in all, even if two of the four wines were disappointing, we had a fun time. And hey, isn't that what this is all about?

Next time, we're going for pinots...


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