Chablis vs Kistler - the judgment at Ross Bott

From the mailer by Ross Bott, the organizer:
French Chablis are grown in the northernmost and among the coolest premium wine regions in the world. They bring out the minerally / flinty nature of Chardonnay, and most of them are still unoaked, allowing the essence of the varietal to shine through. The best can age effortlessly for 20 years or more.

Kistler Chardonnays are grown in much warmer California, although in some of the cooler microclimates in the state (Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Carneros). The additional sunshine allows the grapes to be harvested at higher sugar levels, and the resultant wines are listed at 14.1% and are sometimes slightly higher. Kistler Chardonnays are barrel fermented and aged in at least 50% new French oak.

In a comparative tasting of the two, it would seem that the differences will be patently obvious. And they probably will be ... but I still think it will prove to be an interesting, instructive tasting showing two very different sides of the same varietal. Kistlers are more French-styled than many California Chardonnays -- hardly the toasty, buttery, tropical wines typical of some of the warmer California regions. And some of the best Chablis are starting to see a bit of oak, and can sometimes fool one as they age into believing there is oak even when there is none. So the Kistlers and Chablis may even be a bit closer than they first appear.

Tuesday night, we'll try four highly regarded Chablis from two outstanding vintages: two each from 2002 and 2005, against four Kistler Chardonnays, also from 2002 and 2005.

Impressive line-up of cult California Chardonnays and Premiere Cru Chablis.
Chardonnay from Kistler Vineyards winery - $80-90/bottle - expectation: rich, creamy, buttery, toasty oak. Chablis - $40-50/bottle - expectation: minerally, leaner, greener, cleaner. 4 Kistlers, 4 Chablis. What a treat. Who cares if the challenge to tell them apart was a waste of time - anyone could, right? Not!

On Tuesday night, February 17, 2009, I got three Kistlers right, one wrong, and learned a lesson in the process!

For those who have read my previous posts on Ross Bott tastings know that I strive for the smallest deviation from the average. Well, last night I was quite off - 18 points off! 2002 William Fevre Fourchaume vineyard really fooled me - it tasted EXACTLY like creamy sour yogurt (from Red Mango on University Ave in Palo Alto!) Such creaminess from Chablis? No way! The room was split. 3 people, including me, marked it as their best wine, and 7 marked it as their worst, with one person claiming that the wine clearly had a "technical" fault. It WAS a Chablis!

The final ranking via blind tasting. Click on the photos to see more detail.

The room clearly preferred Kistler wines. Respect them I did, prefer them - did not. All that butter and oak made me feel like I had just eaten an overload of butter popcorn toasted with a head-on incursion of cedar shavings. But what really impressed me about Kistlers was their great acidity that cut through the butter and oak, reminding me of a Spatlese Riesling's acid cutting through sugar. The balance that I so look for in California wines, that many claim they have but I hardly ever agree, it was there in the Kistlers. After scoring the wines, I finally relaxed, and while munching on some fine cheese and warm baguette, did more sipping and actually enjoying the wines in a more natural mode of consumption. The opinionated words of Kermit Lynch who hates blind tasting kept popping in my head - "blind tastings...They seemed such tomfoolery... The method is misguided, the results spurious and misleading" (p.13, Kermit Lynch. Adventures on the Wine Route.) - the wines I had marked highly were not the ones I was enjoying with the cheese. And the poor William Fevre - my highest ranked wine of the night - was the last one left in the glass as it overpowered any attempt at pairing.

Turns out Chablis can be rich and creamy, and even a young Kistler a little dusty. And, on this day, a crusty group of winos overwhelmingly preferred Kistler Chardonnay to Chablis. The mystery of wine. Grape, me, humbled. Go figure!

For reference, here is the final ranking, from best to worst, based on the aggregate opinions of the room, along with my quick tasting notes designed to help rank rather than necessarily describe the wines:
  • 1. Kistler Chardonnay, Dutton Ranch, Russian River Valley, 2005 - My rank: 2. Nose: toast pineapple, butter. Taste: butter, oak, pineapple, good.
  • 2. Kistler Chardonnay, Durell Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, 2005 - My rank: 4. Nose: bathroom, some greeness. Taste: pineapple + light butter, nice balance, not bad (I thought this could be a rich Chablis, but it turned out to be a Kistler).
  • 3. Kistler Chardonnay, Vine Hill Vineyard, Russian River Valley, 2002 - My rank: 6. Nose: medium toast. Taste: slightly bitter, average, not very good.
  • 4. Chablis Premiere Cru, Daniel Dampt & Fils, Les Vaillons, 2005 - My rank: 3. Nose: dusty attic. Taste: nice mouthfeel, nice acidity, pretty good.
  • 5. Chablis Premiere Cru, Jean-Marc Brocard "Cuvee Extrême", 2002 - My rank: 5. Nose: clean, pretty closed. Taste: clean, classic, not too interesting, not bad.
  • 6. Kistler Chardonnay, Kistler Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, 2002 - My rank: 8. Nose: heavy toast. Taste: heavy toast + viscous + butter, so so.
  • 7. Chablis Premiere Cru, Domaine William Fevre, "Fourchaume", 2002 - My rank: 1. Nose: sour yogurt, butter (gorgeous). Taste: amazing creamy sour yogurt from Red Mango, great balance.
  • 8. Chablis Premiere Cru, Jean-Marc Brocard "Montée De Tonnerre", 2005 - My rank: 7. Nose: green, a little attic. Taste: green apple + butter, kinda too green.


Anonymous said…
Interesting tasting, although I would say it wasn't exactly a fair match. Kistler is the arguable the top California Chardonnay. Therefore its peers in Chablis are Grands Crus from Raveneau, Dauvissat and Fèvre (domaine bottlings).

Love the photo of you with the gold-hued wines.
enochchoi said…
bring on the buttered popcorn toasted with a 4by4 cedar planks to the side of my head i say! my palate would have had no deviation from this tasting (as i look longingly at the empty bottle of '97 vine hill Kistler i served my mom for her birthday...)
Anonymous said…
Well I wasn't there, but I've had all those Chablis except for the Dampt and all the Kistlers from other vintages and so I'm surprised at the results. The tasting as it often does says at least as much about the tasters as the wines, maybe more of the former int his case. I'm a big fan of Brocard, that 2005 Monte de Tonnerre is marvelous. And I'm an even bigger fan of the 2002 Fevre Fourchaume Vaulorent, one of my favorite 2002 Chablis and 2002 I regard as the greatest Chablis vintage at least of the last 10 years. My notes on the 2002 Fevre Vaulorent: The domaine bottles two Fourchames, the straightforward one and this separate parcel. Vaulorent used to be considered a separate appellation from Fourchaume, it is more east-facing. This offers outstanding balance between ripeness and acidity. It has more movement and complexity than the satisfying regular Fourchaume. Thus, it's more akin to a grand cru, especially with the long, minerally finish.
Anonymous said…
These days my tastes run toward acid and structure. So I'm guessing I'd have appreciated the chablis more. But who knows what happens to a blind man with a glass in his hand.

Very interesting tasting and nice run down too.

Tom Wark..Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog.
Emily Schindler said…
I'm with Tom. But then, we tend to agree on a lot of things. And, to be fair, I import white wines that are, perhaps, the opposite in style to Kistler.

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