The Chardonnay Symposium Hits High Notes 4 min read

I always look forward to the Chardonnay Symposium. Held in the Central Coast region, it attracts vintners and winemakers from California’s coast regions as well as International contributors. This year, guests were treated to a diverse group of wines, from California, to South Africa, to Italy and beyond. Producers from around the world gathered at Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa in Pismo Beach to pour their newly released chardonnays and, as a special treat, some older vintages as well.


In addition to their esteemed guests, Central Coast is also producing outstanding Chardonnays of distinction.


Chardonnay is the most popular variety in the world. Whether you like chardonnay that tastes and smells like creamy vanilla or you lean toward more toward crisp citrus, there are plenty of styles for you, and for every preference in between.


There are many factors that impact Chardonnay: ripeness when picked, soil, and climate, aging regimens and a variety of cellar practices. From rich buttery ones with hints of vanilla (which likely go through malolactic fermentation and oak aging) to the higher-acid Chardonnays (which usually spend time in cement, stainless steel tanks or neutral barrels), every style and variance were represented.


Personally, I appreciate the entire chardonnay spectrum, and always seek out wines that are balanced as opposed to looking for specific characteristics.


During the grand tasting, I asked several local wine producers to describe their favorite styles of chardonnay. The answers were as varied as the labels of the bottles. The common denominator was quality and belief in the greatness of what this variety, if treated properly, can deliver.


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“Those that say they don’t love Chardonnay haven’t had a good one.” A statement that holds true in my book. Save an odd exception, most Chardonnay haters live vicariously through hearsay or simply ran into a few bad ones and give up. The grocery store shelves are over saturated with mediocrity. Consumer confusion is rampant. The gatekeepers, sommeliers and wine shop clerks, frequently contribute to the problem.


The solution? Keep tasting for yourself.


The great news is that the craft of producing Chardonnay is improving exponentially. More are site specific, appellation based and many are produced with age-worthiness in mind.


This new approach is nurtured by the belief that winemaking should complement what’s found in the vineyard: enhance versus transform.


Brian Talley, a veteran Edna Valley grower, is convinced that the best Chardonnay is made in the vineyard, not the cellar. He believes winemaking techniques should be applied judiciously, with integrity of the original fruit characters in mind. (I have written more about Talley Vineyards here.)


The monumental highlights of the event were the Hanzell Vineyards and Mt. Eden Vineyards Retrospective Tasting moderated by Fred Dame, MS. I loved Fred’s charming, engaging personality. For a man of his stature and resume, he seemed remarkably ego-free.


He has a long history with both producers, having enthusiastically sold their wines for decades. This was a once-in-a-lifetime, historic event. Both winemakers, Michael McNeill (Hanzell) and Jeffrey Patterson (Mt. Eden) presented multiple vintages, some out of Magnums. There were the notable 1994, 2001, 2006, 2008 and 2011 vintages to sample. The older vintages showed remarkably well, and produced reverent “oohs and aahs” from the Chardonnay-erudite crowds.


The two walk-around tastings didn’t disappoint. Part of the beauty of the event is that it is small and intimate.  The tasting offered great consumer access to winery principles. Many insights were to be had by curious wine drinkers.


Some of my standouts, in a sea of great wines, were:


  • 2013 Capensis made by Graham Weertz, a blend of three South African vineyards: Stellenbosch, Overberg and Robertson.
  • 2009 Center of Effort made by Mike Sinor and Nathan Carlson
  • 2009 Hanzell Chardonnay
  • 2014 Melville Clone 76 Inox made by Greg Brewer
  • 2013 Laetitia Reserve de Domaine
  • 2013 Presqu’ille Chardonnay (and 2009 Late Harvest Chardonnay STUNNER)
  • 2013 Paul Lato Belle de Jour Hilliard Bruce Vineyard
  • 2013 Paul Lato East of Eden Pisoni Vineyard
  • 2013 Foxen Block UU
  • 2013 Cotiere Talley Rincon Vineyard


The event took place at multiple venues around Pismo Beach and Avila Beach, two picturesque coastal towns with breathtaking ocean vistas and a relaxing, casual vibe. I love this area, and always look forward to a walk on the beach or a bite at one of the local restaurants, many of which serve über fresh seafood caught close by.


When visiting the area, consider the Avila Lighthouse Suites. As the name suggest, it’s an all-suite hotel that offers spacious, luxurious accommodations at reasonable rates.


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Conveniently located steps away from the boardwalk, it presents plenty of indoor fun as well with its great pool and roomy patios. Have a glass of Central Coast wine and watch the sunset with your favorite companion.

Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson is Editor-in-Chief at PalateXposure, a destination site for oenophiles, gourmands and luxury travelers. She also recently launched #Wine, a site dedicated to wines and spirits reviews, and #Photography, a site devoted to high-quality wine, food, and travel related photography.

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