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Chardonnay has been the white wine king. Can it stay that way.

Chardonnay has been the white wine king in the U.S. but the once popular, rich, over-oaked style has tarnished the crown. Fortunately that's changing...
and that's no oak.

Chalone (AVA)

Want Classic Chardonnay?
Michael Michaud Still Makes It That Way

He’s one of a trio of Chardonnay producers that have been making Chardonnay for decades with a careful touch to avoid over-use of oak, over-the-top alcohol, and all-important acid - honest-to-goodness Chardonnay that reveals the place from where their grapes originate.

by Alan Goldfarb
August 21, 2007

When I offered my neighbor a bottle of California Chardonnay, he stepped back a foot, threw his hands in front of him, and uttered these words: “Thanks, but I don’t like Chardonnay!”

I understand his unabashed refusal and I wasn’t the least bit insulted. So, I asked to explain his unbridled reticence. He told me American Chardonnays are too sweet, too high in alcohol, and way over the top in oakiness.

He would be right. Not only that, his comments reflect Chardonnay’s deep, dark foray into the land of commodity-driven, characterless wine.

As a consequence, Chardonnay has practically fallen over the side of the North American continent, even though once not too long ago, it was the generic white wine of choice. Where once Americans loved their sweet, buttery Chardonnays, all of a sudden they were told – and they bought – the notion that sweet and buttery was no longer in fashion.

But Chardonnay began to make an oh-so-slight comeback a couple of years ago, when those in the forefront of style got it into their brainpans to release Chardonnay with the claim on their labels “no oak,” or “unoaked.” But those wines too were disparaged, even by those who couldn’t discern a Chardonnay from a Charbono. Consumers realized quickly that those oak-challenged entries were insipid and just as un-hip as the popcorn-like Chards they had earlier eschewed.

All this is to tell you that if the likes of Michael Michaud and Peter McCrea and the Smith brothers, Charles and Stuart, have anything to say about it,
Michael Michaud
Michael Michaud with his vineyard stretching back to the Pinnacles.
Chardonnay is on the comeback trail; and will once again capture the imagination of a populace that’s just waiting (as it is wont to do) for the next fantastic thing.

Except that the next best thing from the likes of Michaud and his Michaud Vineyard, McCrea at Stony Hill and the Smith boys at Smith-Madrone, have been with us all along; it’s just that the vox populi didn’t know it.

This trio of Chardonnay producers has been making Chardonnay for decades with lots of restraint and a careful touch when it comes to things such as over-use of oak, over-the-top alcohol, and all-important acid. More to the point, they’ve been making honest-to-goodness Chardonnay that reveals and informs the place from where their grapes originate.

Stony Hill and Smith-Madrone are kissin’ cousins, situated next door to each other on an anomalous piece of ground atop Spring Mountain. They’re both Chardonnay producers when all around them Napa Valley Cabernet is Mr. Big.

As for Michael Michaud, not only has he had to battle the citizenry’s repudiation of the poor, beleaguered variety, but he’s done it in a remote corner of California that’s more populated by rattlesnakes and other critters than people.

Michaud himself threw off the yoke and comfort of the Hollywood Hills where he grew up. He somehow wound up at the end of a dead-end road on top of a mountain, more than a dozen miles from the nearest town. A town that was more infamous for its correctional facility (read: prison) than its grape-growing prowess.

In what became known as the Chalone American Viticultural Area (AVA), principally because of its sole wine inhabitant, Chalone Vineyards, Michaud – who had been Michaud Vineyardsthe longtime winemaker at Chalone – started his own vineyard 20 years ago. It was adjacent to something called the Pinnacles National Monument, one of a chain of remote California parks, and 13 miles from the dusty Monterey County town of Soledad and its Soledad Prison.

It’s up there, at 1,500 feet that Michaud makes some of the best, most interesting, and most distinctive Chardonnays in America. Indeed, they are Chardonnays that sing of the region from which they are produced. And they are priced at a very reasonable $38.

We at APPELLATION AMERICA recently conducted a blind tasting of six of Michaud’s Chardonnays dating to 1998. The 9-year-old wine was showing some maderizing from years in the bottle, but it still had freshness and a patina of minerality that was consistent throughout. Additionally, the presence of oak was at a minimum, used merely to round out the wine, although the acidity throughout was prevalent and welcomed.

Michaud holds his wines back in order for them to gain some bottle age before release. It’s interesting to note, that while many Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons from the 2004 vintage are selling out, Michaud won’t release his ’04 Chardonnay until September.

I spoke with Michaud (pronounced ME show) recently to find out why he does what he does and from where he does it.

Alan Goldfarb (AG): Jim Laube (Wine Spectator) and Robert Parker once called Chalone Vineyards’ Chardonnays the ‘Montrachet’ of California. I disagree. I think your Chardonnay is the ‘Chablis’ of California.

MICHAEL MICHAUD (MM): I would go with that kind of idea. But I’d rather drink a Domaine Leflaive (which makes
Pinnacles National Monument
Pinnacles National Monument is a spectacular backdrop to Michaud Vineyards but also reveals the lack of water in the area.
[Photo by Clayton Mansnerus / National Park Service]
Montrachet and Puligny Montrachet Burgundies) Chardonnay. They’re an absolute benchmark. We don’t have quite the acidity (of Chablis). There is nice acidity here, and the wines aren’t too lean, but lean for California. The profile of flavors for me is very similar (to Chablis). But the aspect of the mouthfeel is different. But we have the minerality and flintiness that complements the fruit. These wines have an amazing ability to evolve in the glass and in the bottle.

AG: When I say your wines are reminiscent of Chablis, I mean that they do have the acidity and oak restraint of Chardonnays from Chablis. I agree that the acidity in your wines is not as prevalent as in Chablis, although they are beginning to use more new oak. But your Chardonnays show they can age as do Chablis and they take on a patina of honey as they age, just as in Chablis. What is your thinking behind holding back your wines?

MM: They are tight and closed in their early years. After a year or so of bottle age, they tend to open up more. If we were an older wine culture, like in Europe, it would be handled a little differently. It would be decanted in restaurants. But we’re not quite there yet.

AG: When people here think of Chardonnay, they don’t think of it as age-worthy. Why is the ’98 still available?

MM: The ‘98 was set to be released in 2000 and a certain publication came along and wrote that the ‘98 was crap. So I held it back. Then the dotcom crisis came, then the energy crisis, then September 11. So it’s been a lot harder to sell, and that slowed my release dates down. But the good news is the wines age well and we’re aging them on our nickel.

AG: Your wines definitely do buck the trend in the marketplace.

MM: I’m kind of stubborn that way. I’m hoping before I get tired or get hit by a meteorite, I can continue to do this. But you know wine is trendy. (And now) we’re obscuring the very thing that’s important, and that’s place.

AG: I want to know more about your vineyard. You have 28 ½ acres planted about 20 years ago, with another seven that is staked and irrigated. You use only estate fruit from your vineyard Michaud Vineyards Chardonnay that is comprised of limestone and decomposed granite and the Chardonnay comes off a little more than 13 acres, most of which are planted on their own roots. The village of Chablis happens to be loaded with limestone and fossilized soils. Do you think it’s similar to your vineyard?

MM: They don’t have that decomposed granite. Perhaps the high level of calcium in the limestone has an effect, too. Ours is a rare combination in that it’s embedded in that limestone base. I’ve never found an actual fossil, but we have found limestone that looks like it’s been on the bottom of the sea.

AG: What specifically do you think the limestone and granite does for your Chardonnay?

MM: When you look at all the wines, you can find the same thing in the Pinot and the Syrah. There’s a mineral-ness, a flintiness.

AG: I’ve detected a licorice flavor or fennel in the Chardonnays.

MM: There is a wild herb, spiciness component, but it’s not necessarily soaking up the wild herbs that grow up there.

AG: What is it about the Chalone AVA that attracted you?

MM: It’s little understood and it’s extremely difficult to grow grapes. We have a
Another view of Michaud Vineyard in the Chalone AVA.
lot of predators, not a lot of water, and no major highway. Chalone (Vineyard) had nothing in 1979, just generators and a radio telephone in the truck where we had to move around to find a signal and you’d have three minutes to tell someone what you were going to tell them. We had one foot in the 20th century and one in the 19th.

All of those things make growing difficult. I have only a certain amount of water I can buy and this year we have very low rainfall. There are very big temperature swings – 40-50 degrees – and 100 degrees between the hottest day and coldest day. We have frost, and now it’s every other year instead of every five. I’m going to buy a wind machine because I don’t have enough water (to fend it off).

AG: So, why did you go up there in first place? It really does sound like a recipe for failure.

MM: Even though it was remote, I fell in love with the place. I saw the results with the grapes that you could grow up there, and this wonderful potential for wine and grape quality. I thought it would be a great place to have a vineyard.

And the land prices were vastly different from Napa. It was $350 an acre in the early ‘80s.

AG: You seem to be picking at under 24 Brix (measure of sugar), yet your Chardonnays consistently come in at over 14 percent alcohol. I must say I was amazed that they all are over 14 because you could have fooled me – and did.

MM: You get great grape flavor at 23-24. As we move into the new era with climate change now, it gives you 14. I would guess that the native yeasts (are an influence too, resulting in higher alcohols). Whatever we have in our local yeast population has more efficiency or the fermentation is slower.

AG: Wouldn’t you prefer less alcohol?

MM: I’m starting to pick a little less ripe -- closer to 23 and 23.5 with the ’06. But I don’t want to diverge too quickly.

AG: You seem also to be using one-third new French barrels for less than a year fermentation time. I detected no evident oak flavors or aromas, which I love, but you’re obviously using the new wood to round the juice out. How did you decide on 33 percent new wood?

MM: It’s drifting back to 25 percent. I’ve always felt if you have very good fruit, the oak should be a serving platter and not a lid that you have to pul

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Michaud Vineyard and Winery 2002 Chardonnay - Estate Showy, youthful and enticing, rich and smooth textured, layers of fruit and a long finish.
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Michaud Vineyard and Winery 2004 Pinot Noir - Estate
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