Regular readers know that California chardonnay is a rare species in this space, but one beautiful rendition is the 2009 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Napa Valley Chardonnay.
Twenty years ago, California chardonnay balanced its rich fruit with acidity, supported it with mild oak aroma and flavor, and kept its alcohol level below 14 percent. It was a wine I collected and enjoyed. But that style disappeared.
Since the 1990s, too many California chardonnays are made with overripe fruit and are unbalanced from a lack of acidity and an exaggerated use of new French oak barrels for aging. To make matters worse, winemakers employ 100 percent malolatic fermentation- a process that changes the grape’s natural tart acidity (think green apple) to a creamy texture (think milk), which imparts a butter popcorn-like aroma and flavor. And if all that wasn’t enough of a turnoff, the elevated levels of 14.5 to 16 percent alcohol knock out your palate and endanger the drive home.
I met John Shafer about 30 years ago during trips to Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District for tastings at the new wineries. His son Doug became the winemaker at Shafer Vineyards in 1983, joined a year later by Elias Fernandez. In 1994, Fernandez became the sole winemaker when Dour Shafer joined his father in the administration of the winery.
From its beginning, I thought Shafer wines were first-rate, and I added them to my wine lists at Le Delice and Sonoma Grill restaurants, and organized well-received dinners for Shafer.
Yet it has been a while since I tasted a Shafer chardonnay, and the 2009 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay was a delightful reintroduction.
In 1988, Shafer purchased 70 acres of pastureland in the rolling hills of Carneros and developed a new vineyard, naming it for the red-shouldered hawks that fly above it. A cool climate area, Carneros became the preeminent appellation in Napa and Sonoma for chardonnay.
The grapes of the 2009 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay are only from this mature vineyard. Fernandez fermented them in a mix of oak barrels and stainless tanks, and avoided malolatic fermentation. He put 75 percent of the chardonnay in new French oak barrels and the reminder in stainless steel tanks for 14 months.
These wine making decisions resulted in a chardonnay that has Burgundy’s elegant balance of fruit and acidity with California’s heightened aroma and flavor. Although the chardonnay carries a weighty 14.9 percent alcohol, it does not dominate the wine.
If you have given up on California chardonnay or find the style very repetitive, try a glass of the delicious, well-made 2009 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay. It shows what is possible when a winemaker understands the refrain “less is more”.
Pour a glass with full-flavored dishes like roasted pork with apples, veal chop with mushrooms, sautéed chicken with Dijon sauce, or baked polenta with either gorgonzola or a Sicilian compote of chopped tomatoes, green and black olives, eggplant, basil, and a touch of dried red pepper flakes.
The 2009 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay retails for approximately $48.