Does Stony Hill Produce Age Worthy California Chardonnay?

My last bottles of 1990, 1991, 1993, and 1997 Stony Hill Chardonnay comprised a short vertical flight preceding two blind flights of 2007 Cabernets that sixteen members of our Boston tasting group recently slurped, swallowed, and spit their way through.  I purchased the wines on release back in the 90’s and one bottle from each vintage survived years of regular cellar raids. Stony Hill’s unique style and winemaking approach seemed a best bet for testing California Chardonnay’s potential for improvement over time.

Robert Dwyer did an admirable job with his comprehensive wrap up of the Stony Hill Chardonnay/2007 Cabernet tasting at his The Wellesley Wine Press blog; one of my favorite, no-nonsense, practical reads in the wine blogosphere.  To be honest, I have been waiting some fifteen years to line these four vintages of hillside Chardonnay up next to each other and to embrace the risky experiment’s results head on. While the California Cab flights from the strong 2007 vintage were thrilling, my anticipation and curiosity was almost completely fueled by the Chardonnays on the evening of the tasting.  So click on the preceding Wellesley Wine Press links and have a peek at the Cabernet tasting summary; it was laced with its own intrigue and surprise.

Stony Hill started making wine in their own unique style and vision, just a few miles north of St. Helena in the western hills of Napa Valley, in the 50’s.  The wine making approach highlights racking off the lees, protection of the fruit’s original acidity, avoidance of malolactic fermentation, and the utilization of neutral oak cooperage to provide some complexity without subjecting the juice to a cloak of dominant oak.  Their goal is to produce Chardonnay with balanced acidity and authentically high toned fruit flavor.  In their youth, the wines defy any preconception of oaky, buttery California Chardonnay and over the twenty years I have been drinking the wines, Stony Hill has never succumbed to market trends or pressures that could have distracted them from this mission .  As a side note, even the label has barely changed over the years and the comforting nostalgic design always make me smile.

How did the wines perform?  Well, just so-so.  Still, the drinking experience was largely educational and mostly enjoyable.  These wines are so expressively fruit driven, focused, and vibrant when they are young that even with this tasting’s validation of their ability to linger on without completely falling apart, they struggled to justify a long term cellaring strategy. Besides the fact I am on the wrong side of 50-years-old, this tasting’s results guide me to lay away new vintages closer to an eight year term.  Here is a run down of the wines’ performances:

1990 Stony Hill Chardonnay ($25 on release)

Amazingly, as the oldest vintage, this wine was thrilling immediately after opening and lingers in my mind as a wildly successful experiment in extended California Chardonnay cellaring. Slight oxidation was evident, but the wine showed off its pear and bright apple aromatics well, representing itself to be surprisingly alive and vibrant with almost bracing acidity. The wine sits in your mouth with enough weight and viscosity to raise eyebrows and nods of approval, and finishes with impressive length. The 1990 proved to be an enigma on the California Chardonnay landscape, and had me patting myself on the back for my patience and commitment to the experiment. Disappointingly, after 15 minutes of oxygen exposure in the glass the wine lost its vibrancy and started to wilt.  But, the first ten minutes were really fun, educational, and rewarding on both hedonistic and intellectual levels.  The moral: age slowly and drink quickly!

1991 Stony Hill Chardonnay ($45 on release)

As opposed to crispy fresh apple flavor in the first wine, the 1991 had distinct baked or mealy apple aromas. It was more flabby than the 1991 in the mouth, was losing its weight and fruit, had a higher degree of oxidation, and many of of the group’s tasters picked up Sherry-like qualities.  It saddened me to drink this wine now remembering its delicious youth, but comforted myself by chalking the whole project up to education.

1993 Stony Hill Chardonnay ($35 on release)

This vintage reignited my interest.  Again, baked apple dominated the nose but it combined with minerals and wet stone aromatics.  While it was struggling to cling onto a tiny bit of lasting structure, there was a lively saline flavor element that spoke to the minerality that also freshens up the nose.  Still not as good as the first ten minute experience with the 1990, the 1993 was most definitely interesting and complex but lacked in structure and lasting fruit.

1997 Stony Hill Chardonnay ($35 on release)

Regrettably, enough folks identified the bottle as corked.  It also had completely lost its fruit and structure.  It seemed closer to what I figured would happen to Chardonnay from California after sitting in a bottle and dark cellar for more than ten years.  Holding this wine was a failed experiment, but I do wish we could have tasted another bottle.

The notes on these old wines should not stop anyone from buying Stony Hill Chardonnay and drinking the wines inside the decade of their release.  They demand attention and are uniquely compelling.  Nor should these notes discourage your own cellar experiments. The learning is tremendously fun and you will taste California wines at a life stage that very few ever get to experience.  That’s special.

  • http://passionatefoodie.blogspot.com RichardPF

    I thought the Stony Hill vertical was fascinating, and the 1990 impressed me as well. To me, the vertical was even more exciting than the Cabs. It was intriguing to see how the age affected these wines, and in general, I believe the Chardonnay held up pretty well.

    I had previously read an article on Stony Hill (http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/16/dining/wines-of-the-times-napa-s-un-california-chardonnay.html) and the professionals seemed to think some of these wines can age even for 30 years. You should check it out if you have not read it before.

  • Jordan

    It was truly fascinating and fun to taste the Stony Hill wines thanks to you Adam. Personally I was frustrated by them because they were all clearly ravaged by oxidation. The 1993 had hints of fruit with minerals and green apple which had me wondering how these tasted a few years after release. I would bet they were really good.

  • http://passionatefoodie.blogspot.com RichardPF

    Jordan’s comment raises an interesting issue: whether oxidation is necessarily a bad thing or not. Some whites, and roses, have been intentionally oxidized, and I have enjoyed a number of those wines. Consider the Lopez de Heredia Rosado or the Vodopivec Vitovska. So a little oxidation is not always a bad thing. So, where is the line as to what is acceptable oxidation?

  • http://wellesleywinepress.com Robert Dwyer

    Thanks for the mention and for hosting another great tasting Adam. You’re such a gracious host – it’s always good to see you.

    Cheers!

  • http://winezag.com adamjapko

    Interesting controversy around the tasting. I hear Jordan, but not sure the standout challenge for me was oxidation. Also get Rich’s point on intentional oxidation. The LDH wines and the like that use it are seeking to achieve a final release style. The oxidation taking place here was due to extended aging beyond the winery’s release control. Think we have to look at that as a point of distinction for intentional/unintentional and good/bad oxidative quality. Now, as for 30 years of aging….even the experts could miss wide of that!

  • Michael Lester

    Hi, I have nine full cases of 1990-1997 Stony Hill bought from the winery mailing list on release and stored in a climate controlled commercial wine locker from the time of purchase. If these are of interest to you, please let me know. Thanks, Michael