John Turi - Wine, White Wine

Chateau Montelena, Chardonnay, 2009

Wine Rating: 93

Spring has sprung and summer has begun. Well not quite officially, perhaps, but as soon as June arises my palate begins to crave the delicious white wines that have been relaxing, waiting all season for just the right time to be enjoyed. In a previous review, I stated that I only drink white wine during the summer months. But I do make an occasional exception, such as enjoying a lovely dessert wine after a fine meal. My two favorite dessert wines are Dolce by Far Niente and, of course, the outstanding Sauternes from Château d’Yquem.

Chateau Montelena

I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about all different types of wines, about grape selection, about finding the perfect pairing … and the list goes on. But what I hear more often than not is, “I don’t like whites, only reds” or “I don’t like reds, only whites.” Many people think they can’t have the palate for both, and I’m here to tell you, you can. I love a good conversation about wine, so when I hear statements like that, I always ask, “Why?” When it comes to the whites, what they tell me is, “White wine is too sweet,” or “It lacks real depth.” On the other side of the coin, when I inquire regarding the reds, they say, “The sulfites give me a headache,” or “It’s too strong,” or ”It’s too heavy.” My reply in both cases is ALWAYS the same: “It’s because you drink low-priced wine!” Sulfites themselves are not the cause of headaches when it comes to red wine. It’s the histamine and, in some cases, the yeast, which is certainly known to contribute to headaches (among a dozen other issues, a topic for another time). In addition, many low-priced wines add all types of fillers. But don’t take my word for it, take that of an expert on the matter: “Sulfites can cause allergy and asthma symptoms, but they don’t cause headaches,” says Frederick Freitag, associate director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago and a board member of the National Headache Foundation. (Quoted from a Wall Street Journal article written in 2000)

My wife is a lifelong sufferer of migraines and she only gets headaches from wine when she is at a business event or a networking mixer and drinks the wine. In other words, she only gets a headache if she drinks “cheap wine.” I always tell her not to drink the wine at these events unless she wants to come home with a headache. Inexpensive wine equates to added low-cost sugar juice, food coloring, cut-rate yeast, and even acids, which are added to mellow the harshness of the sour grapes. My name for all of this is “Frankenwine.” Acids are sometimes added to higher-end wines as well, in an effort to mellow the tannins down. This is why Merlot (don’t get me started on that varietal) is grown, so it can be used as filler for the heavy grapes of Bordeaux. It is illegal in California and other parts of the world to add cane sugar to wine, so highly concentrated grape juice is used instead.

When you are drinking a wine that has been nurtured by quality winemakers, there is an unmistakable quality about it, derived from the care of the vines, through the quality of the oak barrels and everything in-between. It all plays into how someone is going to react to a wine. A wine that has some nice age to it will mellow the sugar and the yeast. The harshness you find in a young wine naturally fades over time as it matures.

If you always get headaches when drinking wine, talk to a doctor. Also try taking an aspirin or two before you begin drinking for the night, and you absolutely must drink plenty of water throughout. In addition, try to avoid sugary foods. And keep in mind, these precautions really only work when you are drinking quality wine that has been properly stored and aged. Your blood vessels will thank you – trust me on this. Your bank account, maybe not so much. But, as Sir Robert Scott Caywood said, “Compromises are for relationships, not wine.”

With quality being the banner that I’m waving this month, I had better be reviewing a pretty spectacular wine. And, simply put – I AM! I present to you one of the most famous, and one of my favorite, chardonnays. This wine is also produced by a very important winemaker, not only for the Unites States, but for the world. This wine changed the face of wine and is one of the reasons that you have heard of Napa Valley.

The wine I am reviewing this month is from the infamous Chateau Montelena. Why is their wine so important? In 1976 there was a wine competition and Montelena smacked France in the head with their now legendary 1973 Chardonnay. Here, courtesy of Wikipedia, is what happened: The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 or the Judgment of Paris was a wine competition organized in Paris on May 24th 1976 by Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant, in which French judges carried out two blind tasting comparisons: one of top-quality Chardonnays and another of red wines (Bordeaux wines from France and Cabernet Sauvignon wines from California). A California wine rated best in each category, which caused surprise as France was generally regarded as being the foremost producer of the world’s best wines. Spurrier sold only French wine and believed that the California wines would not win.

In addition, this competition was held again 30 years later, and once again California beat France. You can watch a feel-good fictionalized film version of Chateau Montelena’s historic victory in the 2008 film Bottle Shock, staring Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Bill Pullman and others. It is a great film and, even though a lot of it is Hollywood’s version of what happened, it’s shot on location in Napa Valley. If you have Netflix streaming, it’s available there. A bottle of the winning 1973 chardonnay is housed in the Smithsonian.

On a sad note, founder of Chateau Montelena and California wine pioneer Jim Barrett died on March 14, 2013 at the age of 86. So, I raise a glass to you, Sir. Salute, and thank you! My wife and I will honor your brilliance and your passion as we road trip up north in our classic Porsche this summer.

Note: Not many California Chardonnays can or should be aged for an extended period of time, five or more years. Most are bottled and ready to drink. But with the complexity of Montelena and considering how it’s produced, it can be aged for over 10 years. So this lovely 2009 is considered young, but I have stared at it for too long in my cellar and now it must be enjoyed.

If you have trouble acquiring the 2009, seek out a 2010, as the 2010s are opening up quite nicely and becoming a year to collect and sit on for a while. This goes for all wines in Northern California.

Chateau Montelena
Chardonnay, 2009

Produced by: Chateau Montelena
Winemaker: Bo Barrett (Jim’s son)
Website: Montelena.com

Winery: Chateau Montelena
Vintage: 2009
Region: Napa Valley
Location: California
Varietal: Chardonnay

Appearance (Color): Butter Popcorn
Aroma (Complexity): Apricot, Peach
Body (Texture and Weight): Full
Taste (Balance of Flavor): Butter, Peach, Watercress
Finish (What lingers): Peach and Wild Flowers
Price: $45

Food Pairing: Fresh Water Fish, Appetizers, Peppery Cheeses, Popcorn
Serving Temperature: 54°
Drink: Nnow through 2019