An Exploration of California Chardonnay, Part 1: SIMI

Few things are as frustrating to me as when people group all wines from a particular varietal, or from a particular place, into a single, homogenous category. This happens all the time, and we’ve all heard the crazy exhortations: I hate Merlot; all Pinot Noir is great; California Chardonnay universally tastes like movie-theater popcorn and caramel.
It’s this last one that’s perhaps the most widespread among casual wine-drinkers. And, as fans of the great Chardonnays of California know, it couldn’t be further from the truth. One upon a time, perhaps, it rang truer than it does now--wine styles ebb and flow, after all--but that gross generalization is certainly no longer the case.
I’ll be writing about a number of California Chardonnays in the coming weeks in an attempt to explore its many styles and variations in the Golden State. I think you’ll be surprised at the range it’s crafted in these days--even from producers you thought you knew.
To that end, we’ll begin our trip through Chard-land with two from SIMI, the Sonoma County stalwart that’s been producing wines there since 1876. Each, in its own way, either plays into or confounds our expectations for California Chardonnay. They were a fascinating side-by-side comparison to taste.

SIMI Chardonnay 2007, Russian River Valley
A beautifully shimmering, deep golden color strikes you immediately before the nose of this expressive white jumps from the glass, its classic notes of butterscotch, French vanilla creme brulee, fig, and lemon curd coming through with real exuberance and elegance. On the palate, rich, sweet flavors of fig, creme brulee, ripe melon, and minerals sing through a silky mouthfeel. This is classic California-style Chardonnay in the best sense of the term, and the lingering finish, with its flashes of tarragon and warm vanilla ice cream, are thoroughly charming. Drink now.
SIMI Chardonnay “Reserve” 2009, Russian River Valley
Aromas of apple, pastry creme, popcorn, and minerals leads to a palate that, for all its new-oak vanilla, white tea, and toast, remains unexpectedly lithe in texture. Don’t let the “reserve” designation fool you: This is less weighty than the 2007 above, though unlike that one, this wine will benefit from some time in the cellar, perhaps 1 - 3 years. Once all the oak integrates, I expect the wine to express itself even more nicely than it does now. If the 2007 is more Chassagne in style, this is Puligny, higher-strung and more feminine.