As I’ve noted before, we see patterns develop as we taste our way through the world of wine. Lately, California’s Monterey Bay has been top-of-mind, with today’s electrifying Chardonnay from Joyce being the latest in a long line of truly memorable releases from the region.
We’ve featured several gems from Monterey champion Ian Brand, San Francisco Chronicle’s 2018 “Winemaker of the Year,” and from Master Sommelier (and SommSelect contributor) Chris Miller, who’s gone “all-in” on Monterey at Seabold Cellars. And then there’s sommelier/vintner Ted Glennon (Vöcal Vineyards), who, in addition to his own Monterey wines, introduced us to the Carmel Valley-based Joyce Wine Company. There’s a reason serious wine people—especially those wanting to make Burgundy-inspired Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—are betting big on Monterey. In fact, there are many reasons: (1) it is one of the coolest climates in California, with one of the longest growing seasons in the world; (2) it is home to some of the only pockets of limestone soil in California; and (3) it is still a place where world-class wine can be made at a reasonable price. Joyce’s 2017 an invigorating example of new-generation California Chardonnay—about as far from “buttery” as you can get—at a price you’d be hard-pressed to match for a wine of similar quality from Burgundy. Sourced from an impeccable vineyard farmed by the Caraccioli family (another producer of reference-point Monterey wines), this wine is aristocratic, site-specific Chardonnay disguised as a ‘daily drinker.’
It’d be tempting to characterize this 2017 as the “future” of California Chardonnay, but, based on my experience, it’d be more accurate to call it the “present.” Yes, the more extracted, oak-slathered style most readily associated with California may still dominate the ‘end-cap’ displays in supermarkets, but, at the more artisanal level, freshness and energy are the touchstones now. Joyce is hardly alone in making wines like this, but its price point is unique: If this wine carried a vineyard designation from the Sonoma Coast, it’d likely be twice as expensive.
The Joyce family planted their first vineyard in Carmel Valley, just 12 miles from the Pacific Coast, in 1986. That six-acre ‘estate’ vineyard is supplemented by fruit from some of the region’s best growers, including the Caracciolis, whose “Escolle” vineyard at the northern end of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA produces some of the most sought-after Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the region. Situated on the eastern slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, south of Salinas, the vineyards of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA are some of the coolest-climate sites in the state, situated directly in the path of powerful winds that bring daily refreshment from the Monterey Bay—home to one of the world’s largest submarine canyons and, thus, some of its coldest water. The length of the Santa Lucia Highlands growing season is exceptional—and not threatened by autumn rains—making it possible to preserve acidity and develop proper physiological maturity in early-ripening varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Joyce’s winemaker, Russell Joyce, notes that the ’17 derives some of its considerable energy and freshness from a decision to harvest just before a major heat spike hit the region. Their Escolle Vineyard Chardonnay was harvested at about 22 degrees brix (resulting in a modest 13.4% a.b.v.) and fermented in used French oak barrels, where it eventually underwent a “partial” malolactic fermentation. It spent a total of about 8 months aging on its lees in barrel before being bottled with a minimum-possible sulfur addition and a light filtration. Already this wine feels beautifully balanced and complete, but a little more time in bottle will only be to its benefit: In the glass, it’s a bright yellow-gold with hints of silver and green, with bright aromas of yellow apple, Meyer lemon, white flowers, fresh cream, acacia honey, and wet stones. There’s plenty of freshness but no sharp edges, and it could easily be mistaken for something serious from the Côte de Beaune. Although it is delicious to drink now (give it about 30 minutes of air first), it has some legitimate aging potential as well, promising to broaden and deepen without becoming flabby or oxidative. Serve it in all-purpose white wine stems at 50 degrees with some fresh, briny oysters, sushi, or, in the spirit of its place, a classic Monterey Bay-style cioppino. You are going to remember this wine, and you’re going to want more once you’ve tried it, so plan accordingly. Cheers!
Santa Lucia Highlands AVA