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Monday, September 26, 2011

Tolosa Shows What Chardonnay Smells Like Without Oak

Posted By on Mon, Sep 26, 2011 at 2:00 PM


Earlier this year I attended a fascinating seminar, led by a perfumer, at Tolosa Winery in San Luis Obispo County. Over the course of several mentally exhausting hours, we learned by blind-whiffing essential oils exactly what many of the descriptors we use all the time smell like.

For example, lemon and lime are so different: lime has an interesting bitter edge, while lemon is brighter and simpler. And jasmine, which I used to associate merely with tea at dim sum restaurants, actually has an earthy, sweaty, almost sexual component. I'll never use that word lightly again.

I remembered that seminar recently when I opened a fascinating pair of Tolosa Chardonnays. Both are from the same estate fruit from the 2009 vintage, but one was fermented in oak barrels and the other wasn't. Normally wineries like to put their Chards in oak to give them a whole-wheat toast aroma with notes of vanilla -- smells people have come to associate with Chard. You get some of that in the oaked version, even though winemaker Larry Brooks has a light hand with the wood.

The unoaked version, though, is a learning experience.

The first thing I smelled was mushrooms growing in soil, something people usually associate with Pinot Noir, which not coincidentally is best grown in the same places as Chardonnay (such as Burgundy, Oregon and the Russian River Valley).

Then I smelled a strong aroma of lees: the spent yeast cells that wineries leave in the barrels. It's a smell I associate with working wineries (incidentally, right now is a great time to visit nearby Sonoma County because the smells of harvest waft randomly through your car window). And it's also a smell that many people confuse with oak, because it has a similar wheat-bread quality. I wish the rather fierce perfumer, Alexandre Schmitt, was with me to correct me on my imprecise language.

The flavor of this wine is mostly citrus, a mild citrus like pomelo, and it's very restrained and food friendly; my bottle emptied quickly. For me, this is the right relationship between aroma and flavor: I would rather be wowed in the nose than knocked in the mouth by a too-powerful taste.

Tolosa Estate is among the good guys environmentally in a number of ways. It's certified sustainable by one of the few California organizations to whom that actually means something, SIP. Even in foggy Edna Valley, the winery gets more than 90 percent of its energy from solar power.

And I have to add that I really like winemaker Brooks, an industry veteran who has had a blog-commenting relationship with me for years. Brooks is not afraid to call bullshit on anybody (me included). Example: I'm a big fan of organic certification, while he thinks it's an artificial standard and that sustainable practice is actually better for the environment. We'll have that argument again, but not here today, when I have come to praise and not bury him.

Tolosa Estate No-Oak Edna Ranch Edna Valley Chardonnay 2009 ($19) is available at 6001 California Market (at 22nd) in the Richmond district and SOMA's Bayside Market (120 Brannan St. at Delancey), or direct from Tolosa's website (shipping charges apply.)

Try this wine with any white-flesh fish dish, grilled chicken, or mushroom risotto. And spend some time just enjoying its aroma.

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W. Blake Gray


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