Dunne on wine: Sierra Vista's deliciously different way of chardonnay
Welcome to the John and Barbara MacCready School of Viticulture and Enology, also known as Sierra Vista Vineyards & Winery.
Perched on Red Rock Ridge at 2,800 feet up the Sierra in Pleasant Valley just outside of Placerville, the MacCready spread is the scenic setting for a series of experiments and innovations that have been going on since the couple bought the property 40 years ago.
John MacCready, who in his earlier life earned a doctorate in electrical engineering, takes an unusually inquisitive and cerebral approach to growing grapes and making wine. By and large, his curiosity pays off in a stream of wines recognized for their equilibrium, restraint and sense of place.
Long before most other farmers and vintners in the Mother Lode, MacCready started to plant such Rhône Valley varieties as grenache, roussanne and syrah, then watched them become staples of the state's wine trade. For nearly two decades, his proprietary wine, Fleur de Montagne "flower of the mountain" has made a consistently strong case that Rhône Valley varieties grown in California have more to say when blended than when they are released as individual varietals, a view that many other vintners are adopting. In 1999, he released a chardonnay that hadn't been aged in oak barrels, and since then has seen the style occupy a growing niche in the market.
Now he's doing something else instructive, which in time also could become emulated. Note the unusual nomenclature on the label of his Sierra Vista Vineyards & Winery 2011 El Dorado Own Rooted Old Vine Chardonnay.
"Unoaked" no longer is on the label, though the wine was fermented and stored only in stainless-steel tanks. It's been succeeded by the curious "own rooted old vine."
The "old vine" is fairly straightforward. The MacCreadys planted their chardonnay in 1982, so they figure that at 30 the vineyard qualifies to be called "old."
"Own rooted," on the other hand, may not have been used on any wine label before the MacCreadys adopted it for their 2011 unoaked chardonnay, and it calls for an explanation.
Here it is: Virtually every vine grown commercially in California involves the grafting of a variety of vitis vinifera grape onto a separate and different rootstock chosen to provide some advantage in its cultivation, principally resistance to the root louse phylloxera and parasitic nematodes.
This is a practice that has prevailed in most of the world's wine regions since 1874, when it was found to be the best solution to a crippling spread of phylloxera in France.
Few grape vines are planted on their own roots, largely because the practice would be too risky; phylloxera lice are simply too prevalent and aggressive.
John MacCready, however, with a few other vintners, is convinced that when a variety of grape is grafted onto another rootstock, something gets lost. His taste tests have persuaded him that despite the various advantages of assorted rootstocks, their use changes the character of the resulting wine.
"I feel that you can't get any closer to what the actual grape or wine should taste like than if it were grown on its own rooted vine. I feel fairly strongly about this," said MacCready.
Though he does use rootstock for some of his grapes, he's been planting vines on their own roots since he began to put in his first vineyard of cabernet sauvignon 38 years ago.
He recognizes that his approach puts his vineyard at risk of an infestation of phylloxera.
To reduce that danger, he doesn't allow any equipment into his vineyard other than his own, given that phylloxera can be spread through soil falling from such equipment. Similarly, potential grape buyers who visit his vineyard first must dip their feet into a cleansing footbath and enclose their shoes with protective booties.
MacCready knows that the "own rooted old vine" terminology on a bottle of chardonnay likely will perplex potential customers, but he doesn't shy from the role of tutor.
On the other hand, a taste of the chardonnay alone could be all the persuasion a customer needs to make in a purchase.
The wine is a dry, lush, medium-bodied take on chardonnay. Even fans of bigger chardonnays who are keen on the vanillin and butter that oak barrels and malolactic fermentation often bring to the varietal may fall for this interpretation on the strength of its tropical and apple fruit, balance and crispness.
It's unusually spicy for an unoaked chardonnay, its cinnamon and nutmeg note evoking an image of snickerdoodle cookies.
The "own rooted old vine" chardonnay, incidentally, isn't to be confused with Sierra Vista's barrel- fermented chardonnay from the same vintage, a release that MacCready crafts in the more traditional California style fat, rich, buttery, concentrated and complex.
Also note that during this transition MacCready bottled some of the 2011 unoaked chardonnay under its older label, without the "own rooted old vine" designation, though the wines are identical.
Sierra Vista Vineyards & Winery 2011
El Dorado Own Rooted Old Vine Chardonnay
By the numbers: 13.8 percent alcohol, 350 cases, $16.25.
Context: "This is one of the few wines I've found to go with artichokes. It's really good with artichokes," said John MacCready. He and his wife also enjoy it with lighter chicken and seafood dishes, though it has the acidity to handle fairly rich sauces. And they also drink it as an aperitif.
Availability: Taylor's Market and Corti Brothers in Sacramento carry the wine, which also can be found in several restaurants in the region. The wine also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.sierravistawinery.com.
More information: The tasting room at Sierra Vista Vineyards & Winery, 4560 Cabernet Way, Placerville, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.