Nearly 100,000 acres of chardonnay are planted in California, by far more than any other wine grape. It accounts for more than half of all white-wine varieties in California.
What accounts for its dominant and growing popularity among American wine drinkers? Several observers of the country's wine scene muse that American wine consumers are giddy about chardonnay because they like the sweet flavor of oak more than they like the tropical, apple and citric flavors often associated with the varietal.
They're being candid, not cynical. The California style of chardonnay depends more on how the grapes are handled in the cellar than how they are tended in the vineyard, aside from getting them as ripe as possible. In addition to that, the California style rests on a fat, buttery texture and the toasty, smoky and sweet vanillin flavors descended from aging the wine in virgin French oak barrels.
While that's the prevailing stylistic goal for chardonnay in California, it isn't the only one. Some vintners are trying to convince consumers that there's another side to chardonnay, one that they also might enjoy. It's a leaner, fresher, crisper and more refined version, often made without any aging in oak barrels whatever.
Three of them are John and Lane Giguiere and their winemaker, Dan Cederquist. The Giguieres have made a 180-degree correction in their approach to chardonnay, from inculcating the fatter and busier style to embracing a model of agility and briskness. After they founded their R.H. Phillips Wine Co. at Esparto in the Dunnigan Hills of northern Yolo County three decades ago, the Giguieres got enthusiastically behind the riper, richer, smokier kind of chardonnay with an immensely popular take they called Toasted Head, a tribute to the charred heads of the oak barrels they used to complicate the wine.
In 2000 they sold the winery, yet stuck around to help run the place as sales continued to soar. They retired entirely by 2005.
Retirement, however, didn't suit them. The next year they were back in the wine business. They returned to the Dunnigan Hills, where they founded Crew Wine Co. at Zamora. With Crew, they release wines under four brands Matchbook, Mossback, Sawbuck and Chasing Venus.
Early on in their second chapter of winemaking, the Giguieres sensed that consumers might be ready for a chardonnay with less oak and more obvious fruit. One of their wines, marketed under the Matchbook label, is just such a chardonnay called Old Head, their way of letting followers know that the wine has been aged in well-used oak barrels, thus extracting less wood than was customary for their Toasted Head chardonnays.
Over the past couple of vintages they've pushed their conversion further. From the 2010 harvest, they made a chardonnay entirely without oak. Encouraged by the result and the reception, they increased production from the 2011 vintage to slightly more than 1,000 cases.
It's a Matchbook wine, but you can tell that only by reading the back label. On the front, the name Giguiere is prominent, and eventually that will be the fifth brand in the Crew lineup.
At any rate, the wine is the Giguiere 2011 Dunnigan Hills Clone No. 809 Musque Chardonnay. The wine is both fun and at $16 a bargain; even better, I bought it on sale at the West Sacramento branch of Nugget Markets for $13.
Several unoaked chardonnays are on the market, some of them quite pleasant, but none I've tasted is as aromatic, vivacious and strapping as the Giguiere. From its deep and bright golden hue through its suggestions of honeysuckle, apricot, peach and lime in smell and flavor, it shows that chardonnay doesn't necessarily need oak to command attention at the table. It's a little sweet, but it has the acidity to keep it from bogging down.
The key to the wine's authority is the "Clone No. 809" highlighted on the chardonnay's packaging. Clone No. 809 is one of more than 80 clones of chardonnay grown around the world. It also is known as the "musque" clone, which the Giguieres are using as a propritary name for the wine.
As the word "musque" suggests, the clone is most closely identified with France, where the word translates as "musky" or "perfumed." "Musque" also suggests "muscat," a family of grapes whose similarly pronounced aroma runs to flowers and soaps.
In a paper on chardonnay clones, Nancy Sweet of Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis wrote that the "slight muscat flavor" of chardonnay from Clone No. 809 was "probably caused by an accumulation of monoterpenes during fruit maturation." Monoterpenes are a family of flavor compounds or volatile oils whose further dissection best is left to a chemist with a chalkboard.
The Giguieres have just 10 acres of Clone No. 809 chardonnay, which they planted in 2001. Initially, they sold the grapes to the new owners of R.H. Phillips, where it was barrel fermented and added to other batches destined for the Toasted Head chardonnay.
After the Giguieres established Crew Wine Co. and hired Cederquist, however, they began to isolate grapes from the Clone No. 809 block. As Cederquist cold- fermented the juice and stored it only in stainless-steel tanks they recognized that they had something special on their hands and began to put together the Musque program.
"We found that the stainless steel enhanced its aromatic quality, that it could be a stand-alone wine with its own unique qualities," Cederquist said.
The Giguieres now are so convinced that Clone No. 809 chardonnay will be a hit that they are to plant 15 more acres this summer, more than doubling their acreage of the strain.
Giguiere 2011 Dunnigan Hills Clone No. 809 Musque Chardonnay
By the numbers: 13.4 percent alcohol, 1.28 percent residual sugar, 1,081 cases, $16
Context: Owners John and Lane Giguiere like the wine with cheese-filled pastas and creamy cheeses. They and winemaker Dan Cederquist also recommend that it be poured with spicy Thai dishes. Cederquist has found that the lift, spice and sweetness of the wine make it a popular aperitif at the start of a soiree.
Availability: Nugget Markets. The wine also can be ordered through the Crew Wine Co. website, www.crewwines.com.
More information: Crew Wine Co. doesn't yet have a tasting room, though ground is to be broken this spring for a new office and tasting complex.