When Françoise Woltner and Francis DeWavrin sold Château La Mission Haut-Brion in 1983, they moved to Napa Valley and planted chardonnay above the clouds. Chateau Woltner covered Howell Mountain hillsides from 1,600 to 1,800 feet, complete with an 1886 stone winery. It was French wine think: grow what will be most expressive of your land; find the land that will be most expressive of what you grow. And so Woltner produced several site-designated chardonnays, focused on their earthiness, rather than fruit sweetness or malolactic richness. I can still taste the wine, even though the couple long ago retired and sold the property in 2000. It has since been replanted to cabernet sauvignon.
There’s something about mountain-grown chardonnay in California. It’s as if the hardscrabble nature of the fruit doesn’t allow itself to be tricked out. And as the New World chardonnay style pendulum swings from heavily worked imitation Montrachet to naked adoration of Chablis, the only available tool to lend chardonnay flavor depth is the land where it grows—where a vine has the time and materials to achieve that depth in its fruit before rushing to fill it with sugar.
When we look back at our tasting results, many of the sites that consistently produce our top-scoring chardonnays in California are at altitude. It’s exciting for us to stumble blindly on a fact that’s been known for years by growers—one that is, with time, coming to be acknowledged by the market. So we asked Andrew Braithwaite and Luke Sykora to consider what the best mountain-grown chardonnays might share.
In another series of discoveries for this issue, we polled more than 20,000 members of the wine and restaurant trade across the US to ask about the top talent they’ve seen coming up through the ranks: Our Best New Sommeliers for 2013 earned the most votes from their peers.
You’ll find eight bright faces eager to lead you to a wine you’ve never seen before, one with a taste that will blow you away.
When we shot the cover for this issue, we asked Jordan Salcito to pick a wine she’d like to hold in a photo. She raced down into the Momofuku cellar and returned with three, including a pinot d’Aunis from the Loire that was completely new to me. It had been completely new to her when she arrived at the restaurant this spring—a wine that was already on the list—and she loved it.
So at 10 in the morning, we were sharing a splash of Domaine de Montrieux’s Le Verre des Poètes-ah, the smell of it!—and laughing about the whimsy of great wine.
photo of Jordan Salcito by Sara Brittany Somerset
This story appears in the print issue of October 2013.
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