Twenty years ago I knew a crowd of baby-bankers; young, single Wall Street types, whose currency of wager for their many bets was a case of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. It was this status as a high-profile, cool wine that made millions for Jess Jackson, and in the process helped define the American taste for big, oaky Chardonnay for a generation of American wine drinkers.
But times are changing, tastes are evolving, and today more and more wine drinkers are discovering the pleasures a leaner, crisper Chardonnay, Chardonnay with more emphasis on European elegance than Californian bigness.
And Jess Jackson’s successors at K-J are not standing still – they have responded with a new, more restrained Chardonnay, this week’s Nick’s Wine Of The Week, and Nick’s WineCast, the Kendal-Jackson Avant Chardonnay 2012 ($17)
It is a deliberate departure from the ubiquitous Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, and winemaker Randy Ullom explained the thinking behind its inception.
“There are a handful of consumers out there who said they wanted a Chardonnay that didn’t have a lot of oak and butter and wasn’t overly rich.”
“So we went ahead and said ‘lets see what we can do for this 17% of the market that wants low or no oak.”
Many established CA Chards are dialing back the use of oak with out making a big to-do about it – no one wants a New Coke fiasco. K-J on the other hand have chosen the more ambitious, if tricky, path of running two entirely distinct Chardonnays in parallel.
This required some pretty sophisticated marketing as they were naturally keen to avoid the situation where Avant was cannibalizing sales of Vintner’s Reserve
“We did a lot of market research because the last thing we wanted to do was somebody go from Vintner’s Reserve to Avant. Avant was to fill a void, not to detract from Vintner’s Reserve. It’s set for a target audience.”
The fruit for Avant comes from cooler Kendal-Jackson vineyards in coastal regions like Mendocino, Monterey and Santa Barbara, which helps preserve freshness in the wine.
When it comes to fermentation “Avant is half stainless steel fermented and half barrel fermented but no new oak. Avant is about half mallo and has a little crisper finish whereas Vintner’s Reserve is 95% barrel fermented, all mallo and has about 10% new oak.”
All this wine-speak means you wind up with a lighter, cleaner, crisper wine. “It has got more of the minerality of a European Chardonnay, and it doesn’t have that California sunshine coming right out of the glass like the Vintner’s Reserve.”
“Avant is crisp, clean, young and should be paired with fresh, raw oysters…compare that to Vintner’s Reserve which is rich, round opulent, tropical fruit with a kiss of butter and pair that with your lobster or Dungeness crab.”
Production of Avant is only about 8% of that of Vintner’s Reserve, but is growing steadily as more wine lovers discover it, and in the process realize that perhaps, just perhaps, California Chardonnay can not be so easily dismissed after all.
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