Celebrating National Chardonnay Day the Wente Way

Bet you didn’t know that today (Thursday, May 21) is National Chardonnay Day.

We here at Wine Lines can think of no better way of commemorating the occasion than by sharing reviews of three recent releases by a true pioneer in California Chardonnay: Wente Vineyards.

Until 1936, you might never have known what grapes were used to make a bottle of white wine in California. Terms like “California Chablis” were common on labels. But that year, the Wente family became the first to print “Chardonnay” on a label, helping to bring much-deserved recognition to the variety.

Today, Wente makes Chardonnay in a number of styles, and we have reviews of three recent releases here:

2013 Wente ‘Morning Fog’ Chardonnay, Livermore Valley

2014 Wente ‘Eric’s’ Chardonnay, Livermore Valley

2013 Wente ‘Riva Ranch’ Chardonnay, Arroyo Seco, Monterey

You may also not be aware that you taste a little bit of Wente in literaly dozens — perhaps hundreds — of bottlings bearing other winery names. That’s because the Wente clone of Chardonnay is widely planted all over California. In fact, it is the most widely planted Chardonnay clone in the Golden State.

Here’s to National Chardonnay Day… and to the Wente family, known far and wide as “California’s First Family of Chardonnay.”

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2013 Wente ‘Riva Ranch’ Chardonnay, Arroyo Seco, Monterey

While Wente’s historic home is California’s Livermore Valley, the family also has a well-sited vineyard in the Arroyo Seco area of Monterey County, which has proven to be an ideal setting for growing Chardonnay. The 2013 Riva Ranch Chardonnay has a rich nose of buttered toast, vanilla, tropical fruit and ripe apple, leading to a finish that is clean and smooth. This is a well-put-together wine with a juicy quality in the finish that lingers and invites another sip.

MSRP: $22 (May 2015)

Wine Lines rating: 89

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2014 Wente ‘Eric’s’ Chardonnay, Livermore Valley

The Wente family has been making wine in California for a long time — including America’s first varietally-labeled Chardonnay in 1936. Today, fourth-generation winegrower Eric Wente prefers the “unoaked” style, and that’s why this wine bears his name. Very pale straw in hue — befitting a white wine that has seen no time in oak — it offers bright aromatics of wintergreen, lemon blossom, green apple and a hint of honey. It’s a medium-bodied wine that, because it’s “unoaked,” is quite food friendly.

MSRP:$25 (May 2015)

Wine Lines rating: 87

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2013 Wente ‘Morning Fog’ Chardonnay, Livermore Valley

Bright medium straw in hue, this wine shows toasty oak, smoke and some butter in the nose, leading to plump tropical fruit in the mouth. It’s a workhorse, value-priced wine that would pair nicely with simple fare such a grilled chicken or a turkey pot pie.

MSRP: $15 (May 2015)

Wine Lines rating: 85

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2013 Hess Select Chardonnay, Monterey County

Looking for a “house white” for your house? It would be hard to beat this easy-drinking Chardonnay from Monterey County. Vivid medium-straw in color, it has alluring aromas of sweet lemon, butter, vanilla and baking spices. Tropical fruit notes emerge in the mouth, where the wine is medium-full in body, and the fruit and wood components meld nicely. The finish is medium in length and invites another sip.

MSRP: $12 (May 2015)

Wine Lines rating: 88

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2013 Kendall-Jackson ‘Grand Reserve’ Pinot Noir, California

No winery has done a better job of maintaining a consistent style across its product line —year to year, vintage to vintage — than Kendall-Jackson. True, K-J Winemaster Randy Ullom has a diverse spectrum of wine regions, microclimates and vineyards from which to draw, but such a cornucopia of choices can sometimes be as much curse as benefit. Yet through focused grape sourcing (66% from Monterey County and 34% from Santa Barbara County for this bottling) and aging decisions (nine months in mostly French oak barrels), Ullom is able to craft a “Grand Reserve” Pinot Noir that is dependably balanced, sleek and delicious. The 2013 vintage is no exception. Nearly transparent light garnet in hue and medium in body, the wine shows off notes of raspberry, red cherry, vanilla, green tea, cinnamon and clove — a tasty menagerie of fruit and oak notes, expertly intermingled by a true master of winemaking.
MSRP: $26 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 90

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2013 Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, Grand Reserve, California

Classic scents of butter, vanilla, and spiced oak frame sweet lemon curd and plush tropical fruit. The flavors are already knit together, and the wine is broad and palate-coating, exhibiting a rosewater unctuousness. Year after year, winemaster Randy Ullom fashions outstanding wines under the Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve label. This one, sourced exclusively from K-J’s own vineyards in Monterey and Santa Barbara Counties, acquits itself well.
MSRP: $22 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 90

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Fervent For Furmint

By Glen Frederiksen

Quick now, like a bunny — tell us everything you know about wines from Hungary.

If you are from my dad’s generation, you may recall a sweet table wine called Green Hungarian that was produced by Weibel Vineyards in California. This white wine grape is thought to have originated on the border of Romania and Hungary, where it was called Butschera, and produced large crops that were made into a low-quality, lightly sweet table wine.

By the mid-1970s, plantings of Green Hungarian in California were on the decline, as higher-quality white wine grapes replaced it.

The most famous red wine produced in Hungary is called Bull’s Blood, so called because, during the invasion of Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid-16th century, the attack on Eger castle was successfully defended by the locals against overwhelming odds.

Their fierce fighting was attributed to the red wine they were served during the siege. Rumors circulated that the wine was fortified with the blood of bulls, giving them greater strength and resolve.

Centuries later, in the mid-1900s, the poet Janos Garay is thought to have coined the term Egri Bikavér, or Bull’s Blood of Eger. Today, local wine laws allow the use of three or more of 13 grape varietals in the making of this blended red wine. This modest red has been imported in small quantities into the United States for decades.

By far the highest quality wine originating from Hungary is Tokaji Aszu, a sweet, dessert wine. This topaz-colored elixir is produced primarily from the Furmint grape grown in the Tokaj wine region. The first mention of Tokaji Aszu was in 1571, with the first mention of the Furmint grape in 1611.

Grown on a plateau 1,500 feet above sea level near the Carpathian Mountains, occasional weather conditions accommodate a long ripening season followed by a damp period that allows the growth of a fungus called Botrytis cinerea.

This “noble rot” dehydrates the grapes and concentrates the sugars into a drop of honeyed nectar. When harvested and fermented, the result is a delicious dessert wine that rivals the best from anywhere in the wine world, including France’s famous Sauternes.

Historically, the quality of Tokaji Aszu wine was so renowned that Tokaj became the first wine region in the world to create rules for an appellation control. Guidelines were created dilineating which areas, grapes and growing conditions would be permitted in the use of the name Tokaji on the label. This was by royal decree in 1737, decades before similar rules were developed for Port in Portugal and more than a century prior to the 1855 Bordeaux Grand Cru classification.

But hold on a minute — is there more to this white grape called Furmint that produces the honeyed dessert wine Tokaji Aszu? It turns out it also makes some pretty delicious still table wines. Until 15 years ago, these were rarely seen outside of Eastern Europe. A few would show up at special tastings, but it was not on the radar of most wine consumers.

All that may be changing. There are now some small plantings of Furmint in California and South Africa. And higher-end producers of dry Furmint in Hungary are beginning to ship to the United States wine marketplace.

Classically, the dry bottlings of Furmint are characterized by aromas of smoke, pears and lime, and they have a naturally high acidity, making them quite food friendly. Although lesser known than Chardonnay and Riesling, Furmint has a noble heritage — the ancient grape varietal Gouais Blanc was parent to all three varietals. It should come as no surprise that Furmint has the weightiness of Chardonnay and the acidity and minerality of Riesling.

In the past, you would need to travel to the wine bars in Budapest to try a glass of dry Furmint. No more. Here, we have reviewed several examples that are now being imported into the United States.

2012 Kvaszinger Kanyargas Furmint, Hungary
Brilliant light straw in color, this wine smells like white flowers, leading to impressions of white nectarine, lemon-lime, citrus honey and sun-baked apple. Although fully dry, it has a sweet impression in the mouth with ample juicy acidity. The citrus notes echo in the finish.
MSRP: $20 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 87

2011 Grof Degenfeld Tokaji Furmint, Hungary
This creamy wine is made in an Old World style — dry, austere and well knit. Its woodspice and baked apple notes are nicely intermingled, inviting a plate of lemon scallops to accompany it.
MSRP: $20 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 86

2012 Barta Oreg Kiraly Dulo Mad Furmint, Hungary
The nose evokes gun powder (which dissipates with time in the glass), honey, sun-dappled apple, tangerine and lime. There’s a sense of fruit sweetness in the mouth, but the wine finishes fully dry. Lemon-herb chicken or veal Cordon bleu would make sublime pairing partners.
MSRP: $30 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 88

2011 Majoros Deak Furmint, Hungary
Deep straw in hue and quite pungent, this wine evokes woodspice, white grapefruit, green apple skin, lime, grapefruit and a hint of butter. Quite juicy in the mouth, it would pair nicely with pork schnitzel with lemon and capers.
MSRP: $40 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 88

2012 Gizella Szil Volgy Furmint, Hungary
Floral and alluring, this beautifully knit wine shows off sweet lime, apple, some minerality and a kiss of honey. The fruit flavors follow through on the palate, turning creamy on the finish.
MSRP: $55 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 90

2012 Sauska Medve Furmint, Hungary
Medium straw in color and slightly effervescent in the glass, this wine has a butter toffee/butterscotch and smoky nose that’s almost impossible to resist. The wine expands in the mouth with ample viscosity reflecting the plump, ripe fruit flavors of apple and citrus. A wonderful sipping wine; no food necessary.
MSRP: $65 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 91

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2013 Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc, Knights Valley, Sonoma County

The Sauvignon grapes for this bottling come from the Helena Bench region of Knights Valley, on the northern slope of Mount St. Helena. Ten percent of the grapes harvested were of the fragrant Musqué clone, which contributes scents of white flowers to add complexity to the other aromas of mint leaf, lemon and lime zest, delicate melon, white peach, and wet stone minerality. It is broad on the palate, complex yet already well-knit, with a juiciness that invites the next sip. This white is well-suited to be the welcoming wine at your next soirée, but it will also pair well with fresh shellfish and ceviche.
MSRP: $40 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 92

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2013 Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County

For over three decades, Matanzas Creek Winery has been producing some of the finest Sauvignon Blanc made in California. This bottling comes from Bennett Valley, home to the Matanzas Creek Winery estate. At first pour, it exhibits a brilliant straw color in the glass. The nose showcases varietal aromas of lime, fresh green herbs, and exotic tropical fruits, along with a kiss of vanilla cream. In the mouth, it sports a juicy acidity that is a nice counterpoint to the plump weight of the wine. All is in harmony here. Enjoy it as an aperitif, or serve it with poached Alaskan halibut with lemon wedges.
MSRP: $32 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 91

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