The helicopter lifts off from the Hartford Court winery nestled in a canyon off the Russian River Valley in California's Sonoma County, and heads west. We climb and climb until eventually, topping the Coastal Range, we run out over the glistening Pacific. Then, banking 180 degrees, we turn back east, and there before us is our destination. Cut into the vast wall of dark green redwoods and conifers that cover the mountainside is a tiny rectangular patch of pale green, Hartford Court's Seascape Vineyard.
What's so remarkable about Seascape, and the chardonnay it produces, is that it is a perfect example of what separates truly great white wines from the merely excellent. That is, it's a wine that is a pure expression of the terroir from which it comes.
Because it is located on a ridgeline overlooking the Pacific, it is one of the coolest vineyards in California—so cool that the chardonnay is often not picked till November.
The point here is that while it's possible to make fine wine in warmer climates, as a general rule the very best wines tend to come from the extreme northern limits of where that particular varietal will ripen. A longer growing season—hang time in winery-speak—results in leaner, more intensely mineral laden wine, and that is exactly what I found in the Hartford Court Seascape Vineyards Chardonnay 2001 I tasted recently.
Reviewing my notes, I recall that at first it was so tightly wound and closed that all I got was a bracing lemony acidity. There was even that petrol-like element you often find in old Rieslings.
True Potential to Come Then, slowly, after an hour, subtle floral and mineral flavors begin to emerge, along with hints of lychees, grapefruits, and Macintosh apples. The next day, after a night spent in the refrigerator, these all become more prominent, especially the slate-like minerality, but this is a wine that's still very far from revealing it's true potential, even at eight years of age.
As such it epitomizes that unique angularity, that edgy personality, that sense of pure elegance great white wines are capable of achieving. Moreover, no other California chardonnay manages to be so totally and unmistakably an expression of its unique terroir.
A note on availability: In some years only 85 cases of this special wine are made, in some as "many" as 500 cases, so the 2001 will be pretty difficult to track down. The 2006 is available in limited quantities from the winery at $65.
When to Drink: For 10 yearsBreathing/Decanting: An hour's breathing is essentialFood Pairing: The richest fish dishes, cream saucesGrapes: 100% chardonnayAppellation: Sonoma CoastRegion: CaliforniaCountry: U.S.Price: $65Availability: Extremely limitedWeb Site: www.hartfordwines.com
See more wines at www.nickonwine.com
Nick Passmore: Wine of the Week
Sublime Seascape Chardonnay
Nick Passmore is an independent wine writer and consultant based in New York. For five years he contributed a widely read monthly wine column to Forbes.com, in addition to which his work has appeared in such publications as Forbes, Discover, Town & Country, the Robb Report, Wine Enthusiast, Saveur, Sky, and Golf Connoisseur. He is currently artisanal editor for Four Seasons magazine and contributes a twice monthly column to BusinessWeek.com. He is also a judge at the annual Critics’ Challenge wine competition.