Chardonnay wins North Coast Wine Challenge
A classic chardonnay, grown with care by a longtime Sonoma County family in two cool-climate vineyards during an ideal growing season, took home the top prize in the 2020 North Coast Wine Competition last week.
It was a serendipitous collaboration between experienced vineyardists working in a perfect climate and a talented winemaker with a deep love of the varietal. Together, those forces pushed the 2018 white wine past a 2017 Russian River Valley pinot noir to become only the second chardonnay in the contest’s history to take home the top prize of Best of the Best.
See the full list of more than 300 wines that won gold medals at the 2020 North Coast Wine Challenge here.
The Sangiacomo 2018 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast impressed the judges as a perfect reflection of Sonoma County’s fog-kissed coastal vineyards, offering complexity, the perfect amount of crisp acidity, a whisper of integrated oak and a long, lingering finish. It also won Best of Show White Wine and Best of Sonoma County.
“It’s nice to be able to taste a sense of place,” said judge Ziggy Eschliman, a Sonoma County radio and TV personality. “That’s what the Best of the Best is all about.”
Since it launched in 2013 under the sponsorship of The Press Democrat, the North Coast Wine Challenge has awarded its top accolade to one Bordeaux blend, three pinot noirs, two chardonnays, one rosé of pinot noir and last year, for the first time, an old vine zinfandel. The contest only accepts wines grown in the six North Coast counties of Lake, Mendocino, Marin, Napa and Sonoma and parts of Solano.
This year’s contest was held July 13 through 15 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds with a total of 24 judges from all over the state and safety protocols that required hand sanitizing, masks and a 30% reduction in staff and judges. The contest was originally scheduled for April 7 and 8 but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It did have its challenges with logistics and keeping everyone safe,” said Chief Judge Daryl Groom. “But everyone ... did a fantastic job keeping the protocols and guidelines in place. I feel the judges did the best job in eight years focusing on the wines in front of them.”
For Best of Show White wine, the Sangiacomo 2018 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast edged ahead of the Dry Creek VIneyard 2019 Sauvignon Blanc by just two votes, then beat out the best red wine — Papapietro Perry Winery’s 2017 777 Clones Pinot Noir Russian River Valley — by two votes to snatch the top prize.
“It wasn’t a slam-dunk, but I know the judges loved it,” Groom said. “It was a stylish, rich, cool-climate chardonnay that just seemed to have everything in perfect balance.”
Outside of Burgundy, Sonoma County may be one of the best places in the world to grow chardonnay. In 2015, chardonnay was the top white wine grape planted in the county, occupying more than 15,600 vineyard acres.
In the 2015 competition, Roche Winery of Sonoma, another family-run winery sourcing from the cool Carneros region, won for its Roche 2013 Carneros Chardonnay French Oak Reserve.
The venerable chardonnay varietal — pinot noir’s sister grape from the Burgundy region of France — has fallen out of favor in recent years due to the tendency toward high oak extraction from barrels.
“There’s still a lot of people who love the over-oaked, big, buttery chardonnays, but they are a thing of the past for most,” said judge Liz Thach, wine educator and Master of Wine. “I love it when I can find a chardonnay that is as beautiful as that one.”
This year’s Best of the Best wine was made in a more classic style by consulting winemaker James MacPhail of Healdsburg, a self-described “noninterventionist” and a big fan of letting the vineyard speak.
“There is a group of us who are bringing chardonnays like this back, kind of authentic and real,” MacPhail said. “They are not manipulated; there’s not a lot of sugar or oak. ... We can make extremely sophisticated chardonnays here in Sonoma County.”
MacPhail sold his own brand, MacPhail Wines, to Hess Collection in 2011 but kept his small Healdsburg winery, where he has launched a new brand, Tongue Dancer Wines. He also makes wine for various clients there, including Sangiacomo Family Wines.
“My winemaking style really lends itself to the Sangiacomos, because I really enjoy the cooler climate chardonnays and pinots,” he said. “I love wines with weight and texture, and so I work in the cellar for that. ... I like to stir the dead yeast cells up into the wine, which helps with the mouthfeel and texture.”
The Sangiacomo family of Sonoma is well known on the North Coast for growing and supplying high-quality chardonnay and pinot noir to more than 60 wineries.