Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Judging mid-range chardonnays in San Francisco

Mike Dunne, right, and Martha Dunne, second right, judge at the 2014 San Francisco Chronicle competition.
Mike Dunne, right, and Martha Dunne, second right, judge at the 2014 San Francisco Chronicle competition. Courtesy San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition

For a sweeping as well as sensual scan of the American wine scene, nothing beats sitting on a panel at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition early each year.

It is the largest wine competition in the nation, this year drawing 7,164 entries from 28 states. All are tasted blind, with panelists knowing only varietal or style, approximate price and residual sugar (where fitting).

Over three days, our panel evaluated 316 of the wines, then on the fourth met with other judges to taste 79 entries that had been nominated for sweepstakes consideration.

Some random notes from that experience:

▪ Off the bat, we were assigned 46 chardonnays priced between $26 and $30. In that niche, chardonnay should be varietally distinctive and balanced. Most were that, but several were disappointingly flabby. On the up side, more vintners are dialing back on new French oak, letting more of the grape show itself, provided it is being cultivated smartly in the right place. One in that vein is the Joullian 2014 Arroyo Seco Roger Rose Vineyard Chardonnay ($30), our best of class. It smelled and tasted freshly of chardonnay, and was dry, lean and spirited.

Other chardonnays I especially liked were the willowy and tropical Husch Vineyards 2013 Mendocino County Special Reserve Chardonnay ($26), which won a silver medal; the citric and lithe Bonneau Wines 2013 Los Carneros Catherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay ($28), also a silver-medal winner; the quietly persistent Roche Winery & Vineyards 2014 Carneros Chardonnay ($28), a gold-medal winner; the rich yet animated Darms Lane 2014 Oak Knoll Chardonnay ($28), a gold-medal winner; and the lean and subtly complex Ellipsis Wine Co. 2013 Russian River Valley Laguna Nuevo Vineyard Chardonnay ($28), a gold-medal winner.

The white-wine sweepstakes winner at the Chronicle, incidentally, was a chardonnay, but it didn’t come from our panel. That wine was the flamboyant V. Sattui Winery 2014 Napa Valley Los Carneros Chardonnay ($38).

7,164Number of wines entered in 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition

▪ Our most curious class was simply called “All Red Blends,” priced between $10 and $20. As a measure of just how popular this ambiguous style has become, we tasted 66 of them while a neighboring panel tasted 64 more. Any sort of black grape can go into this type of wine, and the wines can vary in impact from readily accessible to frightfully rigid.

The number of entries for this class reflects several currents in the wine trade: Consumers have stopped insisting on drinking only varietal wines and are more receptive to proprietary blends, especially, so it seems, when they are cleverly named and their label is artful. More varieties of grapes are being grown, and vintners are nervous about whether consumers will accept them as varietal wines, so they are throwing them into the same vat. New wine regions are being developed, and not all areas are as receptive to certain varieties as growers had hoped, so weak juice is being blended with stronger (think syrah). Finally, just about every winemaker will tell you that blends make a more complex and elegant wine at just about every price point.

We gave 10 of the wines gold medals, a respectable percentage for any class of wines. Our best of class was the sweetly fruity and friendly Whiplash 2013 California Red Wine, a blend of 35 percent zinfandel, 25 percent cabernet sauvignon, 23 percent malbec and smaller portions of petite sirah and tempranillo ($16).

Others I especially liked were the fruity, lively and lean Francis Ford Coppola 2014 California Rosso ($8/$12), almost Beaujolais-like in its youthfulness and unassuming vitality; the lushly sweet Smashberry 2013 California Central Coast Red Wine ($15); and the fresh and spirited Navarro Vineyard 2014 Mendocino County Navarrouge, an unusual blend showing primarily the spice of zinfandel and the fresh cherry/berry fruit of pinot noir ($16).

3 of the golds went to a single winery making riesling in California

▪ Riesling is made in so many styles, from bone dry to syrupy dessert wines, that the classes at the Chronicle are organized by sugar level. We were assigned 40 whose residual sugar ranged from 1 percent to nearly 2 percent. Such wines often are labeled off-dry or semi-sweet. Their sugars, we found, generally were more supportive than distracting, adding a hit of refreshing sweetness without overpowering the essential fruit.

The big surprise wasn’t that four of the 12 gold or double-gold medals we awarded went to wines from Washington state, or that three more gold-medal wines were from the Finger Lakes district of New York, the principal sources of exquisite domestic riesling these days. No, the shocker was that three of the golds went to a single winery making riesling in California, not seen has having the sort of cool climate receptive to the grape, especially in recent years. Nevertheless, V. Sattui Winery in Napa Valley pulled off the triple win with its apricot-laced 2014 California Off-Dry Riesling ($24), its vibrant, medium-bodied 2014 Napa Valley Off-Dry Riesling ($24) and its fine-boned and elegant 2014 Anderson Valley Riesling ($26).

V. Sattui sells its wines principally at the winery, but other gold-medal rieslings possibly in the Sacramento market are the taut and concentrated Dr. Konstantin Frank 2014 Finger Lakes Semi-Dry Riesling ($15), a rare spontaneous double-gold, meaning the panel instantly and unanimously agreed it deserved a gold medal; the peachy, sweet and buoyant Pacific Oasis Winery 2013 Columbia Valley Riesling ($7/$9), also a double-gold wine; and the rich and minerally Long Shadows Poet’s Leap 2014 Columbia Valley Riesling ($20).

Some of these wines are just being released and may not yet be in the Sacramento region.

Our panel also judged classes of cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, tempranillo and petite sirah. Impressions drawn from those classes will be the topic of a future column.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.