The world's best Chardonnay?
The title is somewhat misleading; it's meant to be provocative, but there's a more serious side to this question. Perhaps I should have re-titled it 'the world's most important Chardonnay'. This wine is significant.
Tonight, I'm drinking Kendall Jackson's Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay (which I'll abbreviate as KJVRC) 2005, which is an interesting wine, and not just because of the liquid in the bottle. I wrote a little about Kendall Jackson here on this blog a few weeks ago. They're an important player in the premium Californian wine scene, owning about 25 different estates and pumping out between 3.5 and 4.5 million cases per year all from estate-grown fruit.
The KJVRC was first made in 1982. It was an instant hit, and was the driving force behind the establishment of KJ as one of California's top wine estates. The secret to its success was that (1) it was based on good quality fruit from Sonoma Coast; (2) the wine was attractively priced considering the quality; and (3) there was a good dollop of residual sugar, together with a hint of botrytis.
It's the residual sugar that has been the 'story' that's most often brought up in connection with this wine. Basically, the first time it was made, some sweet, low alcohol Chardonnay - the result of a stuck fermentation - was later blended back into the main batch of wine (presumably after sterile filtering), resulting in a final wine with some sweetness. But it's clear that this was one of the reasons why this wine resonated with consumers, and is now a staggering 1 million case production.
I'm sure that KJ are fed up with questions about the residual sugar level of the KJVRC. At a recent press tasting, the technical fiches didn't mention it, and the suggestion was that it is now much lower than it used to be. Interestingly, residual sugar is the key to the success of a number of branded wines. Increasingly, commercial reds are being sweetened by as much as 9 grams/litre residual sugar, most commonly added post ferment as grape juice concentrate.
KJ winemaker Jed Steele left in 1991 and in 1992 was subject to legal action by his former employers. KJ weren't happy that he took with him the secret of the success of KJVRC (see this contemporary news article). I quote:
"In a milestone ruling for the wine industry, a county court in California has ruled that a winemaking process constitutes a trade secret belonging to a winery and may not be divulged by the winemaker to subsequent employers or consulting clients."
It's a ruling that upset the industry. There are only so many ways to make wine, and most of them have been practised for generations. If you are a winemaker who leaves a previous winery, legal shackles preventing you from using the techniques you utlized in your previous employment could effectively finish your career.
So what is the wine like? First, let's judge this in context. In the USA it sells for $13, but loads of places have it for just a few cents under $10. That's a fiver over here. At this price, it's a no-brainer. In the UK, retail is £8.99 through Morrisons, which puts it into a slightly different bracket, although it can certainly compete at this price level.
My first impression is of richness allied with freshness. There's some spicy peach, apricot and fig richness, coupled with fruit sweetness, but offset by good acidity and a citrussy focus. I'm getting a hint of grapefruit, too, on the finish. The sweetness here is alluring - I'm not sure how much is due to the fruitiness or whether this is a wine that still has a bit of residual sugar in the mix. If it wasn't for some of the more distinctive Chardonnay (fig, tropical fruit) characters and the subtle oak, the texture here - with sweetness offset by acidity - would lead me in the direction of a Riesling Kabinett from the Mosel. If points mean anything to you, I'd give this 88/100. Given the quantities made, the low price, the impact this wine has had, and the market penetration, this is one of the world's most important Chardonnays.One further historical note. In the mid-1990s Gallo launched their 'Turning Leaf' range, including a Chardonnay. The logo for Turning Leaf has a picture of a vine leaf in its autumn colours, an image that appears (to my eye) to be somewhat similar to the autumnal vine leaf that's the visual hook for the KJVRC label. KJ sued Gallo about this and lost. Twice (once on appeal). Interestingly, one of my editors recently asked me a question about the 'Kendall Jackson Turning Leaf Chardonnay'.