Chateau Montelena may not be a name you’re too familiar with. However, you may have heard of the movie “Bottle Shock” with all-star cast Chris Pine, Alan Rickman, and Bill Pullman. This film is (loosely) based around the blind tasting in 1976 called the Judgement of Paris. Long story short, Chateau Montelena was one of many California Wineries that went up against some of the best French Chateaux at the time (and to this day!). Spoiler Alert: Chateau Montelena beat them all in the blind tasting for best Chardonnay. Even more, Stags Leap Cellars beat the French for best Cabernet Sauvignon.
You can imagine the uproar, right? Nearly every newspaper around the world covered the story — except France.
So Cheateau Montelena won, what’s the big deal?
First and foremost, this win allowed the rest of the world to take “renegade” winemakers seriously. Across the globe, people who previously snuffed their noses at California wines were now demanding them. In classic California fashion, they kept doing what they wanted to do. At this point, California could have chosen to implement laws that emulated Europe’s way of thinking about wine – restricting to only approved varietals for given areas and classifying regions based on wine style and consistency.
California Wine Law Basics
However, this is America. We don’t like to do anything like anybody else. Consequently, in California (and elsewhere in America and other New World regions), growers can grow whatever they want and put Napa Valley on the label. Or Sonoma County, Petaluma Gap, etc., etc. For example, a white wine simply labeled “California White Blend” could be any type(s) of grapes grown anywhere in California.
There are some laws, of course, to prevent fraud and help consumers know more about what they’re purchasing. Here’s the short version of California Wine Law.
If a grape varietal is listed on the label, a minimum of 75% of the specified grape must make up that wine. That gives 25% of other varietals to include without listing on the label if so desired. This is how some Pinot Noirs from California can be so dark and brooding – Rubired, Barbarera, and other varietals can be added to enhance color and body.
If an AVA (American Viticultural Area) is listed, i.e. Napa Valley, Stags Leap District, Oakville, etc., 85% of the grapes must come from that named area. That leaves 15% of grapes that can come from elsewhere. Sometimes this is beneficial for winemakers if the harvest in their region was quite low and they need to bring in grapes from elsewhere. Also, it can help to keep prices lower in the end product by bringing in less expensive grapes and mixing them with the more premiere grapes.
If a vintage (i.e. 2017, 2020) is stated on a label, 95% of the grapes must have been harvested in the listed year. This leaves 5% of the wine that can be made in a previous year. Sometimes this is helpful for consistency’s sake, or if weather caused a lower quantity or quality yield. This 5% can help to bump up quality and quantity.
Where does Chateau Montelena come from?
Chateau Montelena lays in Calistoga, which is just west of the Mayacamas Mountains and north of Diamond Mountain District. It’s about a 45-minute drive from downtown Napa.
The location of the winery is in Calistoga, but the grapes for Chateau Montelena Chardonnay are not grown there. The region on the label says “Napa Valley” which is true – but Napa Valley is quite a vast area. Furthermore, the farther north you go in Napa, the hotter it gets. Great news for varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. For varietals like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir this is too hot.
Suffice it to say, a great Chardonnay like Chateau Montelena’s does not come from the same place where the winery is. Instead, these grapes come from South Central Napa – just south of Mount Veeder (which is just north of Carneros, the coolest area of the valley). This area is much cooler due to oceanic breezes that come through gaps in the mountains. Consequently, the grapes can become more concentrated and ripen fully without losing all of their acidity levels.
What to Expect from Napa Valley Chardonnay
As mentioned above, if a wine says it’s from “Napa Valley” that’s a pretty big area. It doesn’t necessarily mean poor-quality wine. Rather, it could come from anywhere in the 44,000 acres classified as such. If a wine says “Calistoga”, “St. Helena”, “Diamond Mountain District” will be able to provide more information about what type of climate there is.
A fairly good, albeit simplistic, frame of reference is that the farther north you go in Napa Valley (Calistoga being farthest north) the hotter it gets. The farther south, the cooler it gets. Check out this brief blog post on the effects of climate on wine if you’d like to learn more. If you want to learn even more, check out my book available in print or via Kindle on Amazon.
Napa Valley Chardonnay’s reputation has more tropical, oaked, and buttery than French, Italian, and other old-world counterparts. In cooler areas of California such as coastal regions the chardonnay is crisp, high acid, and mineral. This all goes back to the climate.
In short, when looking at a Chardonnay from California, try to do a quick search to figure out where the vineyards are. If you can find the tech sheet for the wine the vineyard is typically specified.
2017 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay Wine Review
Sight: This wine is pale gold.
Nose: This wine has moderate intensity with notes of tart pineapple, ripe green apple, fresh pear, toast, yogurt, and vanilla with baking spices.
Palate: This wine has moderate intensity with notes of ripe tropical fruit (pineapple), green and yellow apple, pear, fresh lemon juice, vanilla, clove, toast, and pastry. This wine has high alcohol, moderate plus acidity, moderate plus body, and a moderate finish.
Assessment: This is a very good wine. Drink now. Could age perhaps another two years or so.
Food Pairing: This wine would be excellent with roast chicken and vegetables, grilled salmon with lemon, and grilled pork chops with an apple-based sauce.
Final Thoughts: If you can find a Chateau Montelena, I highly recommend you try it. These wines are really excellent and made with quality over quantity in mind.
Curious to learn more differences between American and French Chardonnays?
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