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California Chardonnay According to David Ramey

“Some people say, ‘Why shouldn’t California Chardonnay be something else entirely, instead of like the whites of Burgundy’ and there’s no reason why it can’t be,” says winemaker David Ramey. “If you can reinvent the wheel, go ahead and do it. But the techniques of Burgundy evolved over thousands of years,” he continues.

“Someone once said that tradition is the result of experimentation that has succeeded. When it comes to California Chardonnay, I find myself fairly ecclesiastical on these matters. Trying to reinvent the wheel is just an ego quest.”

If anyone could have succeeded in such a quest to reinvent what Chardonnay could be, David Ramey certainly possesses the skills to do so. At the age of 64, and still going strong after 35 years of making wine, Ramey is one of California’s most accomplished winemakers and consultants. Few winemakers can boast having done their first winemaking internship at Château Petrus. Ramey’s resume also includes working as an assistant winemaker to the Zelma Long at Simi Winery before holding head winemaker positions at Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus, and Rudd Winery.

It was while at Dominus that Ramey first had the opportunity to begin his own brand. “Christian Mouiex was trying to get me to come work at Dominus,” recalls Ramey, “and I told him that I was interested, but pointed out that he wasn’t making any white wine. He said that if I wanted to make a little Chardonnay on the side, that was fine with him. Up until that point the thought of a side project hadn’t actually occurred to me.”

Ramey and his wife pulled some money together, and in 1996, they convinced Ramey’s friend Larry Hyde to give them a little bit of Chardonnay fruit from his oldest block, and Ramey Wine Cellars was born. The next year, they added another Chardonnay made from Lee Hudson’s vineyard in Carneros.

Ramey soon left Dominus to help Leslie Rudd take the old Girard winery and turn it into what would become Rudd Vineyards and Winery. Girard had been making Chardonnay from several locations, including Napa’s Carneros District, and so Ramey created a Carneros and a Russian River line of Chardonnays for Rudd. In the process he found what he believed to be some of the best sources for Chardonnay in California, including the Bacigalupi Vineyard in the Russian River Valley.

“We went from crushing about 20 tons of Chardonnay in 1999 to about 120 tons in 2000,” recalls Ramey, who was excited about the quality of what he had been able to source.

The only problem was, Leslie Rudd didn’t particularly like Chardonnays, nor did he want to be making wine from vineyards that he didn’t own and farm himself.

“It really scared the pants off the sales manager at the time. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to sell it, and convinced Les to sell it on the bulk market.”

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The Platt Vineyard

“I was depressed,” says Ramey, “and I remember going home and telling my wife. She was sitting on the porch drinking Port, and I told her I thought we ought to buy it all and sell it ourselves, and god bless her — she’s my chief enabler — she said yes.”

When he made Rudd an offer to buy most of the Chardonnay, Rudd told him to take it all, and Ramey Wine Cellars added 6000 cases to its production overnight.

Now Ramey makes more than 40,000 cases of wine, and sells to all 50 states and 23 foreign countries. “We didn’t have a plan,” chuckles Ramey, “and I guess we haven’t really set any limits either. We’ve just grown organically.”

While Ramey eventually added red wines to his portfolio, including most recently the first Pinot Noir under his label, Chardonnay has always been the bedrock of Ramey’s brand.

So what is the right way to make California Chardonnay according to David Ramey?

“From my perspective the true story and best path of California Chardonnay for the past 35 years has been the gradual adoption of the true Burgundian method,” says Ramey, who learned what he thinks is the right way to make Chardonnay during his first years of winemaking experience in France.

“It’s pretty simple,” he says. “No skin contact, meaning you press your whole clusters or destemmed fruit right away, you ferment in the barrel, you age it on the lees, and you let it go through malolactic fermentation.”

“What can I say,” says Ramey, “I’m a classicist. To my way of thinking this is the best way to make Chardonnay. I’ve spent countless hours freezing my toes in February in Burgundian cellars, and that’s the way they do it.”

“Chardonnay at its best has richness with a combination of minerality and acidity,” continues Ramey. “It’s the red wine of white wines, and for two primary reasons: barrel fermentation and malolactic fermentation. All the other aromatic white grapes of the world are typically non malo and aren’t barrel fermented.”

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The Hyde Vineyard

But these techniques don’t yield great wines on their own, Ramey goes on to say.

“In the late Nineties, and early 2000, a couple of the critics began to give high scores to broad, thick, oaky, low-acid Chardonnays, and things began to go downhill [for California Chardonnay],” says Ramey. “Not all the wines were like that, but a lot of the high ranking ones were. The reaction to this, in recent years, which is sort of an anti-Parker, anti-Spectator reaction was to prevent wines from going through malo and to ferment and age them in stainless steel.”

“To me,” says Ramey, “that was the wrong answer. The answer to over-oaked Chardonnay is just less new oak. The barrels are critical for making sure smaller quantities of wine get in contact with the lees, which is huge both in terms of texture, and in terms of balancing out the wine’s chemistry.”

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Ramey is his frankness and openness about how he makes wine, including the steps that more dogmatic approaches to wine consider “interventions.”

“One thing that doesn’t get talked about much when it comes to Chardonnay, is that, you know, if you are going to put Chardonnay through malolactic you may find yourself needed to add some tartaric acid to the juice” says Ramey. “And don’t think that this is just something we have to do because of California’s warm climate. They add acid to their juice in Burgundy, too. I’ve talked to a ton of Burgundy winemakers and everyone told me they add tartaric to their juice. Only Latour said he doesn’t, and Jobard told me he adds citric acid the wine instead of tartaric to the juice.”

The explanation for the prevalence of tartaric acid additions in Chardonnay goes something like this. The total amount of acidity of any given grape is made up of a combination of different acids, with tartaric and malic acids making up the bulk of any grape’s acidity. Each vineyard site is different, but it is not uncommon to have malic acid make up more than half of the total acidity of the grape.

The process of malolactic fermentation converts malic acid to lactic acid, a transformation via bacteria from a dibasic acid group (with two hydrogen ions) to a monobasic acid group (with one hydrogen ion). As the result of this conversion, while the amount of acid in the wine remains the same, the pH rises because the acid has lost about half of its hydrogen ion count. And for those like me whose eyes glaze over a bit even at basic chemistry, the result is that the sensation of acidity in the wine dramatically softens.

For Ramey, adding a little tartaric acid to keep the pH of the wine lower is the winemaker’s equivalent of adding a bit of salt to steak or butter to cooked carrots.

“Wine is the product of intervention,” says Ramey. “Man makes wine. God makes vinegar. Are there big industrial producers adding all sorts of crap to their wines? Yeah. But the appropriate reaction to that is not to do nothing, only to do much less.”

California Chardonnay has come a long way in the last 10 years according to Ramey.

“Eight or ten years ago we’d do a comparative tasting of Chardonnays and the wines would be all over the map, especially in color. Some would be dark gold and some would be buttery and some would be oaky,” he says. “There’s much more uniformity now in a good way. They’re in better balance. They taste better. People are clearly paying attention and honing their craft.”

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The Hudson Vineyard

“The most significant development in California Chardonnay is the march to the coast. That has been nothing but beneficial. Areas thought too cold for Chardonnay thirty years ago are now producing our best wines.”

But there’s still work to be done.

“The main ways we can improve California Chardonnay is through farming,” says Ramey. “We need to replant vineyards with better design, better layout, closer spacing, better row orientation, better rootstocks, and continue to explore cooler sites. The future for California Chardonnay is tremendous.”

Ramey produces six Chardonnays — two appellation designated wines and four single vineyard bottlings. The current vintage on the market is 2011, thought the 2012s will be coming soon.

TASTING NOTES:

2011 Ramey Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma
Palest greenish gold in the glass, to the point of being nearly colorless, this wine smells of lemon curd, vanilla, and cold cream. In the mouth, lemon curd, cold cream and pink grapefruit juice vibrate electrically on the tongue thanks to razor sharp acidity. Excellent balance between fruit and a deep minerality with just enough toasted nuts to give the wine some complexity. 14.5% alcohol.3621 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2011 Ramey Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma
Palest gold in color, this wine smells of wet stones, pink grapefruit and a hint of cold cream. In the mouth, beautifully juicy pink grapefruit, unripe apple, and citrus pith flavors have a fantastic brightness thanks to excellent, racy acidity. Beautifully mineral, with a very restrained use of oak, there is only the faintest nuttiness of wood in the finish. 14.5% alcohol. 8690 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2011 Ramey “Ritchie Vineyard” Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma
Palest greenish gold in color, this wine smells of macadamia nuts, lemon curd, and white flowers. In the mouth, the wine has a gorgeous silky texture and a wonderful floral quality, as white flowers float above flavors of lemon curd, pink grapefruit and wet stones. A faint hint of oak’s vanilla sweetness hovers at the edges of the wine, but pure lemon curd and grapefruit pith linger in the finish. Outstanding. 14.5% alcohol. 933 cases made. Score: around 9.5 . Cost: $60. click to buy.

2011 Ramey “Hyde Vineyard” Chardonnay, Carneros, Napa
Palest gold in color, this wine smells of buttered popcorn and lemon curd. In the mouth beautifully silky flavors of lemon curd, lemon rind, and pink grapefruit have a tangy resinous quality to them. A hint of oak and vanilla creep into the finish, but mostly this wine offers a tangy pink grapefruit quality that is very charming. Great acidity. 14.5% alcohol. 910 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2011 Ramey “Platt Vineyard” Chardonnay, Coast, Sonoma
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of golden apples, lemon oil, and a smoky piney quality that is startling and alluring. In the mouth bright, gushy lemon rind and lemon juice flavors also take on a Fuji apple snappiness. Gorgeously bright, with juicy acidity and a long chalky mineral finish. Excellent. 14.5% alcohol. 795 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2011 Ramey “Hudson Vineyard” Chardonnay, Carneros, Napa
Pale yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and cold cream. In the mouth, lemon curd, cold cream, and lemon rind all have a juicy snap, thanks to excellent acidity. Gorgeous minerality underlies the lemon and pink grapefruit juice notes that linger in the finish. 14.5% alcohol. 937 cases produced. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

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Photographs courtesy of Ramey Wine Cellars.,