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A Treasure In The Glass From San Bernabe

The most important rule in my wine tasting club is “forget the idea of liking or disliking a wine.” When we taste, we do so to deconstruct a wine and learn about it in the context of old versus new world, balance, terroir, winemaker choice… Sure, we assess the quality at the end, especially during blind and deductive tastings. But we leave out the subjective words.

When Delicato Family Wines winemaker, James Ewart, pulled out his Diora 2017 Monterey Chardonnay for the two of us to taste I had to remind myself of this rule. I immediately said to myself, I don’t dislike California Chardonnay. Sadly, I’m not good at talking myself out of my strong opinions. When asked if he wanted to chill it first, James said that no, that we’d taste it as is but we’d take an ice bucket to not let it warm up too much more. He just got off a plane from California! I reminded myself. We’re in Boston! I rationalized. It’s cold in the hold! I had these on repeat along with, I don’t dislike California Chardonnay.

Having tasted James’ incredible 2015 La Petite Grace Pinot Noir—an amped up but beautifully balanced take on the varietal—I steeled myself for what I imagined was about to come. If he could do that to a Pinot Noir, I could only imagine the Chard. And outside of my tasting club, as you’ve probably guessed, I’m quick to say “Anything but a California Chard, unless it’s unoaked!” when selecting a white.

The color that filled my glass was bright and a rich lemon shade. I said a little prayer to the Universe, begging for the poker face that has eluded me my entire life. But the Universe had a more important lesson from first sniff to final sip: there’s a reason this tasting rule exists.

Geology + Chemistry + Viticulture = James Ewart

Wine is a much a part of James Ewart’s story as it is of the California land where he does his magic. It’s not just that he crafts exceptional wines, but also  his deep knowledge. Growing up with a winemaker father he was exposed to viniculture early. He also studied two wine-related (oft-unknown by the casual wine drinker) sciences during undergrad: geology and chemistry. This is evident when drinking his expert blends. James allows the soil, slopes and sun to do their thing and allows their kiss to express in the glass. His wine is exceptionally clean; not a hint of any funk. After undergrad James focused on earning a viticulture graduate degree from Adelaide University.

The two- year Master of Viticulture and Oenology at Adelaide Uni is renowned for being rigorous. It demands a scientific background. It’s also where 70% of Australian wine research is done.

Master of Monterey Chardonnay James Ewart

In 2000, James began an internship with Delicato Family Wines and hasn’t left. He lives within biking distance of the vineyards he oversees with his wife, two children, and two dogs.

Diora

After working for Delicato Family Wines, which has a number of vineyards and labels, Ewart was asked to take the helm on a new project: the Diora label. These are exceptional wines, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the same vineyard, that express the plot’s varied terroir brilliantly. The name comes from the French d’or, meaning golden and this is reflected both in bottle aesthetic and, most importantly, the liquid gold contained inside.

Diora bottles are easy to spot in the wine store, wearing a black and gold necklace around the neck. Older vintages are sealed with gold, glittery wax. The 2017 vintage saw the elimination of the wax. Diora bottles now have a more environmentally friendly closure: the screw cap.

There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills

The soils of San Bernabe are ancient sand dunes. At one time there was water here meaning the Chardonnay can get downright tropical but within the varied terroir of the vineyards there’s a plot with more limestone. Within the vineyards there are several Chardonnay clones that yield a melange of flavors and feelings on the palate.

James’ understanding of geology shines in the Chardonnay: a perfect balance of stone and tropical fruit, apple and beautiful acidity and minerality. There’s a muted touch of lime, even. Add to this soft notes from oak and you’ve got what California Chardonnay should be. Understanding the plots and clones and how they interact allows a California Chardonnay that can be defined in two words: finesse and layered were those that came to mind throughout our tasting.

This complexity, of course, doesn’t just come from the soil and the clones, but also the many choices Ewart makes as a winemaker. Grapes are brought in and gently pressed. They spend 11 months in 100% French Oak for primary and secondary fermentation. They ferment in neutral oak for four months before being tasted and selecting the best to put in neutral barrels for four months. Lees stirring and malolactic fermentation are vital to creating the end product and are evident in the mouthfeel and some of the flavor notes.

Tasting Notes

Remember how I was trying to convince myself that I don’t dislike California Chardonnay? I don’t need convincing anymore. Not when it’s crafted as expertly, from grape to glass, as James Ewart’s Diora label Chardonnay for Delicato Family Wines.

The wine is a deep lemon in the glass with nice legs and a beautiful balance of brightness in clarity and richness of color. On the nose there are primary aromas of sun-ripened tropical fruit: mango, pineapple and slight hints of the inside of a ripe banana’s peel. Swirling and allowing the wine to warm brings out a beautiful, light wash of vanilla and baking spice. There are honeyed notes hidden in there… be patient and allow some of the Chardonnay to warm to what you think is a few degrees beyond the high end of warm. On the palate expect a surprising dash of richness lifted with a zip of balanced acidity and minerality. My notes included scribbled praise that included: finesse, complexity, balance, expertise, variable, terroir-driven, expensive tasting, rich but not too decadent, bright, and silky. Possible headings and titles included, “Melon & Minerals & Melding, Oh My!” “When Chablis Kisses California” and “I’ll have a California Chard with a twist of Chablis.”

Pairing Suggestions

We tasted James’ Chardonnay with a plate of burrata, prosciutto, pistachios and arugula. The wine absolutely sang when tasted in concert with the burrata. I highly recommend a simple pairing: The wine should be allowed to be the star of the show. Offer a selection of light cheeses, without too much salt and heavy on creaminess. Mild goat cheese, buffalo mozzarella, whipped cream cheese… these will make the wine pop. Add dried fruit and nuts (unsalted or lightly salted) and chunks of simply spiced grilled chicken. Avoid cheeses that are super earthy, grassy or pungent like anything in the bleu cheese family.

For a main course pair with a pasta dish. Think of something simple like one with roma tomatoes and mozzarella or a light olive oil dressing. Chicken or pork, grilled on skewers or plated with fruit would also be a great choice, especially if dining al fresco. I would avoid cured meats—too much salt will fatten the wine and mask its beautiful balance and intricacy. Go with light food. This wine would also work beautifully with a scoop of high quality vanilla ice cream or tropical sorbet.

Go Get Your New Favorite Chardonnay

After an evening learning about Ewart’s wines and approach I’m excited to follow his winemaking journey at Delicato Family Wines closely. His passion, education, experience and instincts are bringing high quality terroir-driven wines to shops across the country at what I can only call an absolute bargain. These wines are perfect for dinner parties and events but also gorgeous to sip with a friend or loved one or enjoy solo while looking out over any landscape. Go find a bottle now.

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