Thursday, October 06, 2016

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Harken, the "Throwback Chardonnay"

When I went to the Sweet Partner in Crime's house for the first time, she offered me a glass from a big ol' bottle of Meridian chardonnay that she had in the fridge. This was in the early oughts, when most California chardonnay was chardonnay -- big, oaky, buttery wine with lots of emphasis on the oak.

That flavor profile was the common style, in my experience, up until the middle of the 2000's -- when many wine consumers, including myself, started turning their backs on chardonnay in favor of wines that were a little less rough around the edges. The rise of Sauvignon Blanc and Dry Riesling -- more fruit, less creamy charcoal -- started to eat into that market, as did relatively inexpensive imports from South America and Europe. In my personal shopping habits, California chardonnay went from "always in my shopping basket" to an aisle I rarely ventured down.

Sensing the change in consumer desire, California chardonnays started dialing back the level of oak and butter. Unoaked chardonnay became a thing, as winemakers turned to stainless steel for aging instead of oak barrels. Buttery flavors faded -- until many left coast chards became almost indistinguishable from the lighter-styled wines coming in from all over.

The pendulum is beginning to swing back in the budget wine world, as evidenced by a recent sample of Harken 2015 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay that I was lucky enough to try. Harken bills itself as "Old School Chardonnay," so I readied myself for a bit of a blast from palate's past.

Before we get to the wine, let's take a moment and talk about Chardonnay in general. Chardonnay may well be the most flexible varietal in the world. It can grow in almost any climate that supports vinifera grape growing. Chardonnay reflects the terroir of a region very distinctly. One of the fun things about unoaked chardonnay is that it gives a drinker a real sense of place (minerally soil vs. volcanic -- warm vs. cool, et al.). Unoaked chardonnay, however, can be fairly ordinary -- so adding touches of oak or butter can jazz up the overall profile.

Oakiness in wine comes from juice contact with wood. The wine soaks into the wood a bit, extracting some of that oaky flavor. Barrels can be charred, or charred staves can be added to a fermentation tank, to boost the level of smokiness.

The creamy, buttery flavors come from a process called malolactic fermentation (or just "malo" to wine heads). This is a process by which bacteria is added to wine, converting malic acid -- which is fairly tart -- to lactic acid. "Lactic" means "of milk," and this compound is found in most dairy products. Malolactic fermentation is often used to smooth out high-acid wines, such as cool climate wines, but it can also be used to really accentuate a buttery note in the wine.

Which brings us to the Harken itself. It's entirely fermented in oak barrels and goes through 100% malolactic fermentation, which cuts the acidity and sweetness. It's aged for 7 months in an 80/20 mixture of American and French oak and then bottled.

Thankfully, the Harken's constructed with a little more care than some of those inexpensive bottles from those oak bomb days of yore. I found distinct sweet apples and pears on the nose. As advertised, there are strong creamy, caramelly notes on the palate, backed by a firm smoky oak background and more pear and tropical fruit flavors. I hesitate to call it "creme brulee" -- because there's really no sweetness to speak of. The finish is solidly oaky with a bit of an apricot note.

I thought that it would make a nice accompaniment for a smoked duck breast that I'd done in my new Cameron stovetop gizmo, but I was a little disappointed by the pairing. The smoke and oak flavors really didn't agree with each other. However, I tried a little of it a couple of nights later with roasted tilapia with a garden tomato salsa, and that went really well. The oakiness is able to tame food that has a little bit of a zip to it -- so I would think it would go with any number of food selections.

The Harken Chardonnay is around $15 retail. I do have to give their marketing department a special shoutout. The promo sample I received came with its materials on the reel of an old Mattel ViewMaster. If you're of a certain age, you'll remember this 3D viewing gizmo with the two lenses. You know, something like this:

I won't lie. It gave me a pleasant childhood flashback and made me smile. The wine's pretty good, too.

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