Believe it or not, the days of over-ripe and high-alcoholic California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are slowly going away. Well, they’ll never leave completely, but a few special wine crusaders (I like to call them) are blazing a trail back to their roots. Burgundy… the birthplace of these two beloved grapes. But what’s been the trend in California for these two varietals? Generally speaking, wine producers have been pushing fruit ripeness (in the vineyards) to obscenely high levels. What effect does this have when the fruit reaches the winery, or better yet, the bottle? High ripeness means high sugar content, which translates into high alcohol levels (sugar is converted into alcohol with the help of yeasts). It also means low acidity. So, winemakers are playing the role of a chef or chemist and tinkering with the juice until it’s right. You won’t believe this, but wine can be watered down to control high alcohol, artificially acidified with tartaric acid to make up for what’s lacking from the vineyard, reduced (burning off H20) to make the wine seem more concentrated, sugared, and even adding stabilizing chemicals so that high-sugar content wines won’t start to ferment again once the cork is inserted. And that’s just for the base wine. New oak barrel aging (or chemically flavored wood chips) acts like a flavoring additive to mask or compensate, and not as a vessel to highlight the fruit. To get the fruity and tropical flavors in Chardonnay, Muscat (a very aromatic variety) is added. For Pinot Noir to have that big, jammy quality, Syrah is added. And this stuff doesn’t just happen with these two grapes. California wine-law states that for a bottle to be labeled as a single varietal, it must be made up of at least 75% of that grape. So that means someone can put Pinot Noir on the label of a bottle and it can have 25% Syrah in it – and they don’t have to tell you! Now, you may be wondering why I’m bothering to tell you all this? Well, it’s to paint a picture of what the standard has been, and to set the stage for the new California wine.
Tucked away in a little corner between Santa Barbara and Santa Maria, just east of Lompoc, lies one of the most special places in the world to grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It’s a place called the Santa Rita Hills. Even smaller still are a few special vineyards with a few special people that make up the wines called “Sandhi”. The mastermind is a humble, yet world renowned Master Sommelier by the name of Rajat Parr. On his team is celebrated winemaker, Sashi Moorman, and fine wine entrepreneur, Charles Bank of (previously) Screaming Eagle. Sandhi means “collaboration” in Sanskrit and represents a union essential to the production of wine: the collaboration between man, earth, and vine. They preach it. They live it. And even from page one of their beautifully simple website, you’ll find the things that excite them – the things that drive them: “Sandhi is dedicated to making wine of finesse, minerality, acidity, structure, and balance. Wine achieves power and beauty throughout the seamless integration of these qualities, and for us truly expresses a vineyards terroir.” “We want to craft wines that have beauty, grace, and unusual simplicity.” “We believe that wines should be subtle, nuanced, and sublime. This is our inspiration.” Their winemaking philosophy is simply this: “From a cellar approach we go to great lengths to protect the vibrancy, freshness and energy that the Santa Rita Hills’ fruit delivers. For whites and reds, we prefer neutral barrel and concrete vessel employing a conservative amount of new French oak. We do not add water, sugar, acid, enzymes and other fixing agents. All wines are wild-yeast fermented. All Chardonnays go through malo-lactic with the lees not stirred. Almost all Pinot Noirs are whole-cluster fermented because we feel the wines smell more alive and have more complex textures than other wines.”
All wine-geek talk aside, these wines are absolutely stunning. They easily deliver what you will find in many Grand Cru Burgundies, yet for a fraction of the price. Seriously, I got goosebumps by how alive the acidity and freshness is and have never tasted anything like it. I highly recommend seeking them out. // sandhiwines.com