Start your Memorial Day party with the good value 2011 Chateau St Jean Sonoma Coast Chardonnay.
Chateau St Jean is one of the most beautiful properties in the Sonoma wine region. It was built in 1920 by the Michigan mining family Ernest and Maude Goff. The Goff’s planted white grapes on the property until Prohibition, when they planted fruit trees. But the Goff’s initial selection of white grapes presaged the estate’s future.
In 1973, the estate was purchased by two couples (one of the wives lent her name to the winery, which is pronounced like blue jean, not the French pronounciation). Richard Arrowood was hired as the winemaker and over the next 17 years, he made Chateau St Jean the foremost white wine producer in Sonoma County, and, arguably, in California.
Margo Van Staaveren graduated from the America’s preeminent enology program at the University of California at Davis in 1979. She soon joined Chateau St Jean as Arrowood’s laboratory technician. Van Staaveren became the assistant winemaker in 1989, and assumed the mantel of winemaker and director of operation in 2003.
Van Staaveren has witnessed the estate’s transition from one that made numerous small lots of single-vineyard dry and sweet white wines in limited quantity, to a winery that produces a quarter-million cases of white and red wines under the ownership of an international Australian-based wine conglomerate. Throughout these changes, Chateau St Jean has kept its focus on quality—in part, I suspect, because Van Staaveren has been its winemaking linchpin.
A few weeks ago, Van Staaveren brought a selection of wines to a luncheon at Manhattan’s excellent Tocqueville restaurant. The two white wines were the winery’s flagship Robert Young chardonnay- which was one of Arrowood’s and California’s first vineyard-designated white wines- and Chateau St Jean’s newest chardonnay, the 2011 Sonoma Coast.
The 2010 Robert Young Chardonnay had all the rich fruit, full body and balancing acidity that it is rightly famous. But it was the first vintage of the 2011 Sonoma Coast chardonnay that caught my attention.
True to Chateau St. Jean’s heritage, Van Staaveren sourced the grapes from outstanding Sonoma vineyards. Cold Creek and Westside Farms vineyards are in the Sonoma Coast sub-region. Adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, the cold winds and cool fog blanket the vineyards in the morning and late afternoon, giving the grapes a long maturation of flavor development while preserving the acidity.
The first thing that I noticed about the 2011 Chateau St Jean Sonoma Coast Chardonnay was the pleasant citrus aroma that resembled many Burgundy white wines.
Van Staaveren said the wine was aged in neutral French oak barrels, which explains the absence of the candied vanilla scent so prevalent in California chardonnays from overexposure to new French oak barrels.
The citrus scent gave way to a tasty lemon and mild white fruit flavor; a cleansing acidity kept the palate fresh and the flavors lingering. It was the perfect wine for Tocqueville’s delicious lemon-parmesan risotto.
Chateau St Jean was the forerunner of small lots of exquisite chardonnays, and the 2011 Chateau St Jean Sonoma Coast Chardonnay is true to form with only 3,134 cases. Be sure to get yours.
The 2011 Chateau St Jean Sonoma Coast Chardonnay retails for about $19.