Jordan Vineyards was founded on the principle that northern Sonoma County can make superb Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon Blanc, which it has done with the same winemaker since 1976.
Over that period, Jordan Cab has been more widely distributed around the country, notably in fine restaurants, than just about any top-rate California Cabernet.
And from the beginning Jordan Chardonnay, as nice as it was, never reached that pinnacle of quality, either in style or public perception. It was always very good, never a star.
In recent years, however, it has taken a slow, not-always-recognized move toward greatness.
Winemaker Rob Davis knew from the start that the odds were against him ever developing a Chardonnay that could rival French white Burgundy because of where the grapes grew. Yet decades of hard work have paid off.
His latest, the 2016 Jordan Chardonnay, may have reached the level of quality he and the late André Tchelistcheff, his mentor, dreamed of decades ago.
This Jordan Chardonnay (see below) probably is the finest yet produced by Davis and is the culmination (until the 2017 is released!) of decades-long work to solve problems all winemakers face. Among them:
-- How do you make a wine that will be served in some restaurants at temperatures approximating the average January nighttime reading in International Falls, Minnesota – and at some warm-climate beachside cafés where un-iced bottles quickly get to the September high in Thermal, California?
-- How do you make a wine that will be stored in the front window of some retail shops and restaurants and remain stable?
-- How do you make a wine that will be sold to consumers who love oak and those who detest it?
-- How do you make a wine that will be so consistent that it always has a “house style” that is replicable year after year and carries both fruit and complexity?
Davis is one of the state’s finest wine strategists. For more than a decade after Jordan’s founding, he seemed locked in to using Alexander Valley Chardonnay fruit. Yet he was never satisfied. Then he got a revelation.
“André and I often traveled to Burgundy, where Chardonnays reflect the soils they are grown in. That first visit was a trip of discovery. The wines of each region of Burgundy showed differences related to where they were grown.
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“André was intense about the need to make a Chardonnay that showed where it came from. He hit me over the head so many times about terroir.”
On one trip, he and André spoke of the fact that their Chardonnay wasn’t like France’s best. “We were in the wrong spot,” he said. “I’ll never forget André taking a long drag on his Carlton cigarette and saying, ‘The only thing that will grow well there is hay.’”
That was in the mid-1980s. Yet Jordan stayed with Alexander Valley Chardonnay fruit until 1987, when Davis began to experiment with fruit from the far cooler Russian River Valley.
“It took us 12 more years before we were 100 percent from Russian River Valley,” Davis said.
In the early years, to achieve more richness and stability, Jordan Chardonnay went though a full malolactic fermentation (ML) to soften the acidity. The tactic compromised the fruit aroma a bit.
“I suggested to André that we reduce the ML to express more fruit,” said Davis. Davis knew that doing a partial ML risks it occurring on its own in the bottle.
“André liked the idea but he said, ‘My dear sir, you’ll never sleep at night. And you must pray every day.’
He had such a great sense of humor.
“But with Russian River Valley fruit, we could get some of that great Fuji apple aroma we have in the wine and better acidity.”
Davis said his first cooler-climate Chardonnay reminded him of Burgundy, where the Chardonnays “showed a lack of ego by the winemakers.”
Since 2000, when the winery went exclusively with Russian River Valley Chardonnay, the ML has dropped from 50 percent to 20 percent. And the wine has progressively gotten more impressive.
“I got more comfortable not wanting the ML to be so expressive. With too much ML, I don’t have the nice mineral finish I like. Some people like a more buttery Chardonnay. But we are harvesting earlier – we are one of the first to pick – and we love to preserve the natural acidity we get.” That acidity is a hallmark of the new style.
Wine of the Week: 2016 Jordan Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($33) – This most stylish, elegant and still complex Chardonnay leans more toward the floral, citrus, and subtle spice notes of Puligny-Montrachet than to heaver, richer styles. Complexity is enhanced by great acidity, which leaves it crisper than many, allowing it to be enjoyed less chilled. There is oak there, but its impact takes a back seat to its impressive balance.