An American Chardonnay in Rome

In An American in Rome, Articles, Wine Insights & Thoughts by Christopher Maclean13 Comments


alessandro-pepeTo be honest, my record is mediocre at best. In my many attempts to show Alessandro Pepe that American wines can be interesting, I've failed more often than I've succeeded. The most recent attempt was a few weeks ago in Rome. Going in, I was certain the bottle would be a winner. It was a 2013 Cameron Clos Electrique Chardonnay, a great producer's best wine in a great vintage.

Cameron was new to me just a few months ago. Since moving from Rome to Washington, DC in late 2014, I've spent my free Saturdays working at a local wine store. During one shift in October, a knowledgeable customer told me he had given up on U.S. Chardonnay, which he found too clumsy almost without exception. But he mentioned a few he still buys: Cameron, in Oregon's Dundee Hills, and Ceritas, a California producer sourcing fruit in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Sonoma Coast. I threw out a couple of suggestions of my own, like Mount Eden, Rhys and Arnot-Roberts, and vowed to try his picks. As luck would have it, he had a cold bottle of Ceritas Porter-Bass Vineyard Chardonnay in his car and opened it for the store staff. This great fortune, I might add, reminded me of why I decided to work in a wine shop in the first place.

The small pour I took of the Ceritas was a revelation. It was probably the best old world-style American Chardonnay I'd ever tasted. There was elegance, harmony, and a Chablis-like, chalky and complex minerality that cleansed my palate. Almost immediately, I thought this Ceritas would be a wine to open for Alessandro Pepe. My customer then relayed that Cameron in Oregon was similar in style, but the wines had more pronounced earthy notes and perhaps a bit more opulent fruit. To me, that sounded even more Alessandro-friendly than the Ceritas!Cameron_06_16_2011_106-1018px In short order, I grabbed two bottles of Cameron 2012 Clos Electrique Chardonnay from the store, opened one to test, and, sufficiently blown away, brought the second bottle to Rome in November. It turns out Cameron is a biodynamic producer who somehow gets his barrel-maker to fly out from Burgundy every year. How could a winemaker like that fail to impress my great, albeit a bit snooty, Italian wine friend?!! Just to be sure, I decided to test the second Cameron 2012 on other Italian palates, before subjecting it to the Alessandro test.

Sure enough, my Italian wine geek friends loved it. My buddy Gianluca asked me to bring more bottles back to Italy so that he can open them blind next to Meursault, with hopes of fooling his Burgundy-loving friends. Since the 2012 was out of stock at the store, I promised to return with the 2013, which was reported to be even better. With Cameron now well-tested, I gave a bottle of the just-arrived 2013 to Alessandro on March 14th, 2016. He decided to open it that same day, slightly too warm, during an industry tasting lunch in Rome, with producers, restaurateurs and a distributor all present. You could say the pressure was high, but I was confident, and looked forward to seeing Alessandro's reaction.

Well, tIMG_3535_1024x1024hat bottle of wine was a clunker. I wouldn't say it was flabby, although it was definitely softer than the 2012 version, with more overt oak and little of the persistence I remembered. The worst part was that Alessandro, as is his habit, shared it with everyone within shouting distance, including a small group of (excellent) Italian winemakers, all of whom were anxious to sample the foreign wine. On second thought, the real worst part may have been their pity. The winemakers all said nice things about the wine, but their body language confirmed my own opinion. Fellow American Lindsay Gabbard tried to make me (and the wine) feel better by saying something like, "you know, I can see why the style of this wine was appealing. There are plenty of American Chardonnays with less backbone." More pity.

So Alessandro was right again, much to my chagrin. Where did I go wrong? I'll have to do better the next time I'm in Rome. Any suggestions on what I should bring? My first 6-pack of Ceritas Chardonnay just arrived a few days ago. Maybe I can find another 2012 Clos Electrique somewhere. I'm definitely not giving up on this noble quest. Christopher MacLean


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  1. Hey, so maybe you could give Stony Hill a try for Alessandro? How would you say their Chardonnay stacks up to the Cameron or Ceritas?

    1. That’s a good idea. While I think Stony Hill Chardonnay stacks up well vs. Cameron and Ceritas, it’s more opulent and round, so perhaps more typical of what Alessandro might expect from an American Chard. But, now that you mention it, Stony Hill could be interesting served next to a Chassagne-Montrachet.

  2. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve had it, but if see if you can’t get your hand’s on the Brick House chard – they’re in Roanoke’s book out here.

  3. Chris, Thanks for sharing. We’ll now look to find a bottle of the Cameron 2012 Clos Electrique Chardonnay for our own review.

  4. It is hard to stack any newly arrived competitor (New World) against a wine region that has hundreds of years of established practice such as Burgundy. Perhaps a more fair comparison would be to take a grape that is being experimented on in both the Old World and the New. Perhaps a cab franc from NY State against a cab franc from the Loire, or a VT wine against a wine from the Savoie?

    1. According to Wikipedia…there’s a much longer history of Cab Franc in the Loire than in NY State, but I think your point is a good one. Time is definitely on the side of European wine making regions. To be honest, I will probably be drinking an old-world wine on at least 8 of the last 10 days of my life. But I continue to make the case for new world wines simply because I’ve truly enjoyed tasting so many of them. (And because taking a side on this, the ultimate wine debate, is a lot of fun.) What’s really fascinating is that I still regularly run into knowledgeable wine people on both extremes. Either they won’t acknowledge that great wines are made in the new world, or they think this is a silly debate that was resolved many years ago, with the 1976 Judgement of Paris.

    2. Come to think of it, Alessandro Pepe and Tastingspots put on an event in late 2014 that sought to recreate the Paris wine tasting of 1976. I was there. Conveniently, he lost everyone’s notes, including his own, shortly after the event. (This post is just a ploy to try to get him to find the video.)

  5. Brother Chris: I applaud you for advancing the savoir faire on good American “vini bianchi” from your new platform near Foggy Bottom. From Bujumbura, Burundi, where I now sit after 11 straight months of conflict, I am one to unapologetically enjoy many California wines I imported here last year, be they all reds, however. I am afraid a month or so of containers baking in the port of Dar Es Salaam would not have been kind to delicate whites. And–given how hard it is to come good wine here–even the odd bottle of red that started turning has Ben consumed (shhh….) happily in this tropical heat. Alors, Bon chance avec votre noveau blog!

    1. Erick, thanks for the perspective and for infusing it with humor. Stay safe my friend. See you in DC or Rome soon.

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