For as many California wineries that claim to model their Chardonnays after “the classic Burgundian style,” very few actually produce wines with any sort of true “old world” character. While I’m not trying to criticize California’s efforts, I’m simply pointing out that most California Chardonnays skew towards the opulent “apple-pear” side of the spectrum, as opposed to the austere “flinty minerality” of something like a top-level Chablis. But while I admittedly enjoy many of California’s fruit-forward Chardonnays, the local product can sometimes taste homogenized. Fortunately, for those of us who enjoy variety, there are always exceptions to the rule.
Stony Hill Vineyards offers one of the Napa Valley’s most distinct California Chardonnays, which has more in common with an authentic Chablis than anything else in California. I visited Stony Hill this week, which is always an incredible experience, since the winery has so much history here in the valley. The first vintage of Stony Hill Chardonnay was produced in 1952, giving this facility a 20-year head start on even the most established wineries in the Napa Valley. To that end, Stony Hill winemaker Mike Chelini has worked at the property since 1971, and has been making the Chardonnay since 1977.
In its earliest days, Stony Hill was one of just a dozen wineries in operation, as founders Eleanor and Fred McCrea staked their claim on a rugged 160-acre parcel on Spring Mountain in 1943. The winery currently features 40 acres of white grapes planted on beautifully terraced vineyards, a throwback to a bygone era and much simpler times (terracing is now prohibited under Napa Valley’s Agricultural Preserve: opponents of terracing feared the hillsides of Napa Valley could eventually be over-farmed, thus leading to potential top-soil erosion, as well as an affront to Napa’s natural beauty).
• The tasting began in Stony Hill’s small barrel room, where I sampled the recently-fermented 2008 Stony Hill Chardonnay. Most of the barrels at Stony Hill are 30 and even 40 years old, which is almost unheard of in this day and age (at least in the Napa Valley). Most wineries that wish to limit the oak component in their Chardonnay will age their wine in stainless steel, which is much easier to clean and maintain than decades-old neutral oak. Still, an oak barrel allows a wine to breathe, and so stainless steel is not a perfect substitute for aged wood. As one might expect, the 2008 Chardonnay was pure in character, slightly cloudy, with a profile reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc.
• After more barrel samples, we returned to the old McCrea House to taste Stony Hill’s current releases. I began with the 2007 Stony Hill Gewurztraminer, which was light in body and fermented to complete dryness. The 2007 Stony Hill White Riesling was next in the flight, slightly off-dry in flavor, with just under 1% residual sugar. As with the Gewurz, the Riesling had pleasant fruit flavors, with a crisp and lingering finish. Either of these wines would be terrific to drink in the summertime. The 2006 Stony Hill Chardonnay was true to form, as flinty as ever, with a seamless acidity and plenty of finesse. For those who are accustomed to typical California Chardonnays, the Stony Hill version may present a challenge to preconceived notions. It is a remarkable wine in its subtlety, though many people may be left searching for the apples, pears, or butter.