2009 Hyde de Villaine Chardonnay, Carneros, Napa

In some quarters, speaking of the greatness to be found in California Chardonnay will earn nothing but sniggers and the complete loss of credibility when it comes to quality wine. The cognoscenti of the wine world, with few exceptions, have largely written off California’s rendition of one of the world’s greatest grapes as a failed experiment with excess: too much ripeness and too much oak.

Of course, most American wine drinkers care not a whit for what the elite of the wine world think. They never even hear their babbling. Instead they’re content to keep buying the slightly sweet, overly woody wines that make many of us cringe.

Yes, California Chardonnay largely deserves much of the criticism it gets when compared to the historical gold standard for the grape: the whites of Burgundy. Infinitely more winemakers (and to be honest, their marketing teams) compare their wines with white Burgundies than those who actually attempt to approximate its characteristics in their wine growing and winemaking decisions.

But there have always been some California Chardonnays that speak of their Burgundian heritage, and as the criticism of the mainstream California style intensifies, an increasing number of new wineries are beginning to make wines that any lover of white Burgundy can appreciate.

Not only that, but there are some wines that begin to approach a level of complexity and personality that can be characterized not only as typical and correct (if we are using Burgundy as a standard) but also profound.

There is greatness in California Chardonnay, and this bottle is one of a handful of wines that demonstrate that fact. And there is no other wine that so perfectly symbolizes the relationship between California Chardonnay and its heritage in Burgundy.

Hyde de Villaine represents the collaboration between Aubert de Villaine, Co-director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and Larry Hyde of Hyde Vineyards in Napa’s Carneros region.

Larry Hyde has been growing grapes, and Chardonnay in particular, since before most people had heard of Carneros. Since his father bought the family’s first 100 acres of land in Carneros, his name, and grapes, have become synonymous with the region and with the highest standards of quality for California Chardonnay in particular. Hyde was raised in Woodside back when it was still farms and small homesteads, and as a young man in the late Sixties, he got a job working at nearby Ridge Vineyards. His main interest was in the cellar, but because he spoke Spanish, they asked him to work with the vineyard crews, and that was the beginning, so to speak, of the rest of his life. By 1979 Hyde had enough experience working with wineries such as Stag’s Leap, Mondavi, and Joseph Phelps that he could confidently tell his father that buying a lot of land in Carneros and spending the money to plant it with grapes would not be a wasted investment.

The Hyde family is a close-knit group, which meant that Larry basically grew up with his cousin Pamela Fairbanks. Even as his generation of children went their separate ways they would often come back for family gatherings in California. Fairbanks eventually made her way to New York and became involved in fine art, a domaine that eventually led her to meet Aubert de Villaine. The two married in Burgundy in 1971 and eventually made their home there. But de Villaine and his wife would often return to California and their home in Big Sur.

It was not in California that de Villaine had his taste of the wine that would lead to this bottle, but in Paris, where de Villaine was tasting a number of California wines in 1999, including a mid-90’s bottling of Chardonnay from Hyde Vineyards. He was quite impressed and according to winemaker Stephane Vivier, on his next vacation he turned to Larry Hyde and said “Larry, why should we not make wines together? You have the vineyards, and I will help with the philosophy and the winemaking.”

The partnership kicked off with the 2000 vintage, which, along with the 2001 vintage, was made by winemaker Jean-Laurent Vacheron. But then in early 2002, Vacheron was called back to France to take over the family domaine in the Loire, and de Villaine hired a young Frenchman named Stephane Vivier who was born in the Beaune hospital the same year de Villaine was making his first vintage at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti: 1974.

Vivier studied biochemistry as a bridge to enology, eventually ending up at the school for Viticulture and Enology in Dijon, but his first winemaking job ended up being in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. He never left. Vivier made wine for Hartford Family wines in 2000 and 2001 before taking the job at Hyde de Villaine, where he is about to celebrate his 11th harvest at the domaine.

Vivier helped design the extremely modest winery that sits at the southern end of Napa Valley where he works with a very small crew of people to produce the few thousand cases of wine that are sold each year under the Hyde de Villaine label.

While the winery produces a Syrah and a Bordeaux style blend, it is not unreasonable to characterize the winery as existing primary for the purposes of making Chardonnay. From the choicest blocks of Hyde Vineyard, Vivier selects the best fruit, primarily from vines about 28 years old. Most of these vines are either the old Wente clone or the Calera clone of Chardonnay, both of which were dragged back from Burgundy under the cover of darkness. Their specific origins remain deliberately clouded in some mystery, but most people agree that the Wente clone originates in Meursault. The Calera clone’s origins are slightly more guarded, but one fact bears mentioning: the same year Stephane Vivier was being born and Aubert de Villaine was taking over the reins as winemaker, Calera founder Josh Jensen was also working at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti as a harvest intern.

The grapes grow on about 3 feet of light, sandy clay, which sits atop about 25 feet of nearly impervious hardpan. The sloping, rolling hills on which the vineyards sit drain well, but the hardpan retains enough moisture that the persistent roots of the old vines can access enough moisture to need no additional irrigation.

The grapes are not certified organic, but are farmed without pesticides or herbicides, and are given organic compost which Vivier believes help the vines retain moisture. Fruit is picked in the early morning, and goes straight into the press as whole clusters for a very, very gentle pressing before heading into a combination of stainless steel, concrete egg, and barrels to finish fermentation with native yeasts. The wine is then aged in French oak, of which 20% is new.

“The 2009 vintage was a great vintage,” says Vivier, “it was actually really, really easy. There was nothing to report. Not too cold, not too warm, no huge heat spikes, a great growing season.”

Vivier picks his grapes earlier than some, and along with the higher age of the vines, I believe this translates into the freshness that this wine delivers. With eight grams per liter of acidity, it much more resembles a racy white Burgundy than it does a fat and buttery California Chardonnay. It has a minerality and a complexity that are arresting.

As Vivier and I sat drinking this wine a few weeks ago, he let slip that de Villaine describes the 2009 vintage as “close to Grand Cru quality.”

“He doesn’t say that sort of thing very often,” suggests Vivier, who quickly adds, “and I certainly don’t say that. He said that. Not me. I’m not making Montrachet. I’m making Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay.”

Vivier has been given carte blanche to make the wines from vine to bottle at HdV, and the last few vintages I’ve tasted make it clear that the faith de Villaine has placed in him is being rewarded with some exceptional results. De Villaine provides him with what Vivier calls a “canvas” from which to work, and then Vivier does the painting. “I don’t learn how to make wine from him,” says Vivier, “I learn how to see wine. When you are in tune with the canvas, the brush strokes come not from you but from the source. They flow.”

For his part, Vivier seems to be having some influence on de Villaine as well. After more than five years of discussions and loosely sanctioned experimentations, Vivier has convinced de Villaine to reconsider his early decision to never make a Pinot Noir under the Hyde de Villaine label, lest it suffer from the comparison with DRC. So look for a 2012 Hyde de Villaine Pinot Noir, but in the meantime, do enjoy this Chardonnay.

Tasting Notes:
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of cold cream and meyer lemon zest, wet stones and a hint of piney resin. In the mouth the wine has a bright lemony crispness, with fantastic acidity, a tart lemon zest and wet slate quality with a sourish note that brings you back wanting more. Hints of vanilla and sourdough toast linger through the long and slightly savory finish. Outstanding. 14.2% alcohol. 1,916 cases produced.

Food Pairing:
I’d love to drink this wine with freshly steamed and cracked crab.

Overall Score: around 9.5

How Much?: $55

This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.