If there is only one more bottle of chardonnay you intend to drink, let it be a Ramey.
We’ve been tasting chardonnay for decades and rarely do we get this excited about chardonnay. Perhaps we are numbed by a parade of chardonnays whose producers are either chasing a fad or settling for mediocrity. Haven’t we all had enough chardonnay that is as out of tune as an unused piano?
There is nothing out of tune with Ramey’s line of six chardonnays even though winemaker David Ramey tries to keep his hands off the natural process of turning grapes into wine. A non-interventionist, he steadfastly refuses to fashion a chardonnay into something it’s not meant to be. And, that’s not the case with a cadre of producers who are fond of over-extracting, over-oaking or over-sweetening their chardonnays.
“I don’t think that dry wine with food will ever go out of style,” he said in a recent meeting. “So, we’re going to do what we always do. And, people will follow us.”
The Wine Spectator awarded the 2016 Ramey Cellars Hyde Vineyard Chardonnary its seventh most exciting wines of 2019.
Ramey draws grapes from both Sonoma and Napa counties. He calls his chardonnays “neo-Burgundian” – not quite the premier crus that cost more than $100 a bottle but modernized chardonnays that offer more complexity at half the price. Even at $60 a bottle, Ramey chardonnays are a good value relative to French prices.
It’s not as if this brilliant wine scientist hasn’t had a chance to experiment with style. After getting his master’s degree in oenology from University of California at Davis, he traveled to Australia and France to get the European approach. But, as he said, it wasn’t easy working under a French owner in Pomerol who didn’t think much of chardonnay, so he came back to the States where he worked alongside Zelma Long at Simi. He also had pioneering stints at Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill and Rudd before joining is wife in launching Ramey Wine Cellars in 1996.
There was a lot of chardonnay under the bridge by the time he perfected his own chardonnay. Now, he uses only native yeasts to give his wines a silky feel and doesn’t filter his wine. He lets his wine go through natural malolactic fermentation and leaves his wine on the lees – spent yeast cells – for an extended time to give his chardonnay more texture. It’s just as the French have done for centuries.
“Man has been making wine for over 6,000 years before oenologists came around,” he laments.
While many producers, including the touted Chateau Montelena, eschew malolactic fermentation, Ramey embraces it. “ML is not a nefarious plot by winemakers. It’s natural.”
We liked the delicacy and freshness of these wines – unlike the over-extracted, buttery chardonnays that will oxidize in just a few years.
“The process is not ideological,” he said. “I don’t dictate the style of a chardonnay.”
Ramey also disagrees with the trend toward unoaked chardonnay.
“There are two things that shape chardonnay: malolactic fermentation and oak. Unoaked chardonnays take away one leg away. No oak is the wrong answer to over-oaked chardonnays. Less oak is the answer.”
Ramey also poured us his luscious pinot noirs, a cabernet sauvignon-based Claret, and a premium Bordeaux-grape-blend called Annum. He also makes a complex and textured Sonoma Coast syrah.
But it was the chardonnays that remind us that Sonoma County is one of the great areas for this grape variety. These wines are delicious for just sipping but will do well with fish and fowl.
Here are the three we liked:
- Ramey Wine Cellars Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2016 ($42).
- Ramey Wine Cellars Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 ($65).
- Ramey Wine Cellars Rochioli Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 ($65).
Yalumba is the oldest family owned winery in Australia founded in 1849 in the famed Barossa wine growing region. We recently tasted two excellent red wines from Yalumba we recommend.
The Yalumba Shiraz Barossa 2017 ($21) is easily identified as shiraz. Aged in only a small amount of new French, Hungarian and American oak, the balance of aging takes place in older versions of these barrels. Fresh blueberry fruit notes with a hint of licorice are wrapped in a medium bodied red wine that is a delight to drink.
We especially enjoyed the Yalumba Bush Vine Grenache Barossa 2018 ($21). Aged only in the same older oak barrels as the syrah, the rich fresh fruit flavors of raspberry and plum shine through. If you have a hankering for Grenache, you will love this wine.
- Clarendelle Blanc Bordeaux 2018 ($19). A classic white Bordeaux blend of 42 percent semillon, 30 percent sauvignon blanc, and 28 percent muscadelle. This wine is produced by Domaine Clarence Dillon. Clarence Dillon is the owner of iconic Bordeaux luminaries Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion and his firm uses the same oenologists to produce the Clarendelle Blanc. Clarence Dillon also makes a very rare white wine from Chateau Haut-Brion which we recently saw for sale for $850 per bottle! We’re not representing that the Clarendelle is the same quality of the Haut-Brion Blanc, but it is a very good example of a quality white Bordeaux. Very smooth and rich from the dominant semillon grape with pear fruit notes and a hint of nutmeg. A great introduction to the white side of Bordeaux wines.
- Dry Creek Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Dry Creek Valley 2018 ($20). This is a consistently good offering of outstanding quality for a fair price. Fig and melon notes with a hint of citrus are delivered in a smooth and rich package. The wine is mostly stainless-steel aged but is supplemented by a touch of the sauvignon blanc that is wood aged. A terrific package.
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Tom Marquardt (email for questions) and Patrick Darr have been writing a wine column since 1985. They’ve traveled extensively to vineyards in France, Spain, Italy, Greece and the U.S.
Tom lives in Florida with his wife, Sue, where he conducts wine tastings. Patrick is in the wine retail business in Annapolis, Md.