American Chardonnay has gotten a bad rap—not without cause, in many cases. For a decade or more, beginning in the 1990s, it was impossible for them to be buttery enough, creamy enough or ripe enough. Sugar levels were staggering almost across the board. Returning from a trip to Germany in 1998, I was startled to find that many domestic Chardonnays were sweeter than the Rieslings I had been drinking in the Mosel and Rhine.
Fortunately, the pendulum has swung back the other way. Consumers are currently demanding a more compact style of Chardonnay, closer in spirit to what might be produced in Burgundy. Producers are picking earlier to insure higher acid levels, and oak is now a condiment rather than a food group. Completely unoaked Chardonnay is even enjoying some popularity, for reasons both stylistic and economic (if you don’t age wine in a $1000 French oak barrel, you can actually sell it for a price most people are willing to pay).
Vintners are still using those barrels on the upper end of the scale, but they’re also using restraint. For a Napa winery, it’s reasonable to question why anyone would want to make Chardonnay at all. Cabernet is the big dog that everyone is clamoring for, and prices are generally double. I once asked a famous Napa producer of Cabernet blends why he even bothered with Chardonnay. “Well,” he chuckled, “I do a lot of winemaker dinners, and we need something to serve with the fish course.”
I can’t say for sure why Palmaz Vineyards is making Chardonnay, but I’m glad they do. The wine is named for Amalia Palmaz, the matriarch of the estate, who reportedly talked her husband into it on the theory that “a little white can be delightful.” She was right.
Palmaz has an interesting history as one of the “ghost wineries” of Napa. It was founded as Cedar Knoll Vineyards and Winery in 1881 by Henry Hagen. Hagen’s brand went on to win numerous medals and accolades before his death in 1895. Like many others, the winery didn’t survive Prohibition, and the land lay fallow until it was purchased by the Palmaz family in the late 1990s. As the inventor of the Palmaz Coronary Stent, Julio Palmaz was in the perfect position to restore the estate to its former glory. His children and daughter-in-law are now involved in the operation. All the women have wines named for them, but the Amalia Chardonnay is the one that gives the Cabernet a run for its money.
The 2015 Amalia Chardonnay ($70) has a fresh, clean nose with aromas of citrus and spice, along with the faintest hint of oak and vanilla. In the mouth, the wine is gentle in texture but assertive in flavor: Meyer lemon and green apple appear first, followed by a substantial mid palate highlighted by crisp acidity, minerals and flavors of poached pear. The finish is long and mouthwatering. The wine is delightful to drink on its own, as Amalia said, yet versatile enough to accompany dishes ranging from seafood to poultry, pork and veal.
Mark Spivak is an award-winning writer specializing in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He has written several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, is available on amazon.com; his second novel, a political thriller set during the invasion of Iraq, is due out in Spring 2019.