When I caught wind of the fact that David Ramey was coming to Seattle for Industry tasting at the Waterfront, I was quick to sign up. I have always been a fan of the Ramey wines, especially the work he does with Chardonnay, and would never miss the chance to taste his whole portfolio.
In case you don't know who David Ramey is, or have never had the opportunity to taste his elegant wines, let me explain. David graduated from UC Davis in 1979 and immediately set his sights on classic French wine region of Bordeaux. He went to work for the Moueix family learning everything he could about the winemaking techniques utilized at the esteemed Chateau Petrus. On returning from Bordeaux, David concentrated on honing his skills at a number of California wineries and in the process learned the finer points of building a strong brand and creating a house style.
David had an advantage over many others in the business with his experience not only at Davis, but Bordeaux as well, and created a style that could be best described as a combination of old world and new. The list of wineries David helped elevate to top quality status includes Chalk Hill, Matanzas Creek, Dominus Estate (owned by the Moueix family), and Rudd.
During the short 90 minute tasting, David explained in detail how each different wine is crafted and why each step is so important. David stopped every 15 minutes, allowing anyone in the audience to ask questions for which he was not shy about answering.
While explaining how the Chardonnay is crafted, David remembered visiting Burgundy to get to the heart of how the best whites of this region are crafted. He was very concerned with how much new oak was used and why. It didn't take long for David to figure out just why the majority of winemakers used the same technique. When making the most inexpensive whites of the region,Bourgogne Blanc, no new oak was used at all. This is simply because you cannot fetch a high enough price for your wine to justify the use of any new oak at all. When you step up to the next quality level, Village, the amount of new oak increases to 25 to 33%. The next level of quality is from a single vineyard, called Premier Cru, and often sees 50% new oak. The very best white wine crafted in Burgundy is from a single vineyard, classified as Grand Cru, and usually sees 100% new oak.
David uses this Philosophy when crafting his own wines. When making a regional wine, for instance the Russian River Chardonnay, David uses maybe 25% new oak. This is not just because of price point, although he says it does have a little to do with it, but also because these wines don't have the same concentration at his single vineyards wines. When crafting say the Hyde vineyard or Hudson vineyard Chardonnay, much more new oak is utilized. This is because the best fruit from the oldest vines is used, the younger vines go into the regional wine, and also because the higher shelf price gives him the ability to use more new oak.
It was a real treat to get the chance to meet a legendary winemaker, taste through his wines, and get some insight into the winemaking process. If you have never tried a Chardonnay made by David Ramey, start out with either his Carneros or Russian River Bottling. Both of these bottles are classic examples of what California Chardonnay can be when done well. Both of these wines are bottled unfiltered, not overoaked, allowed to go through malolactic fermentation naturally, and drink just beautifully.