In my continuing attempt to rekindle affection for chardonnay - and it's working - I opened, poured and tasted some of the Newton Vineyard 2004 Napa Valley Unfiltered Chardonnay ($55) last night. It went fine with potato chips dusted with aged white Cheddar cheese, but that wasn't what provoked my interest in the wine.
Rather, it's the prominence given "Unfiltered" on the label, in the same red and font as "Chardonnay," the key bit of information on the bottle. In their packaging, wineries usually play up appellation, not one of the techniques of winemaking, or in this case non-techniques. What's more, "Unfiltered" is repeated on the label in large bas-relief script, another costly way to make a point.
And the point is twofold. For one, Newton Vineyard, which the luxury-goods company LVMH bought a year ago from winery founders Peter and Su Hua Newton, is sticking to its three-decade principle of minimal interference in transforming grapes into wine. An unfiltered wine means it hasn't been pushed through some sort of fine membrane to screen out micro-organisms and sediment that could spoil or turn it murky. Some winemakers, however, fret that filtering also screens out some of a wine's color, complexity and capacity to age. "The less the touch to the wine, the better for the wine," says Newton's winemaker, Stephen Carrier, who only joined the winery early this year but plans to continue to not filter the Napa Valley estate's chardonnay.
Secondly, the winery's marketing branch clearly sees "unfiltered" wines as appealing to consumers keenly interested in wines subjected to little manipulation. Some consumers, and their numbers could be increasing, see such wines as being closer to the earth, more natural. Indeed, wines that haven't been filtered or fined - a similar process for cleaning them up - generally are suitable for vegetarians and vegans. (Fining agents come from a variety of sources, including such animal products as fish bladders, egg whites and milk, though others are clay, silica and charcoal.)
Without a bottle of the Newton chardonnay that had been fined and filtered, I couldn't tell what difference the lack of filtering means in this instance. The unfiltered chardonnay, however, was deep in color, rich in smell, viscous in body and complex in fruit flavors, most of them representing the kind of fresh citric and tropical tones typical of the Carneros district at the southern reaches of the Napa Valley, which is where the fruit that went into the wine was grown. It's a good-sized chardonnay, but not without grace. The oak in which it was aged was well modulated. In its roundness and ripeness, it's a traditional Napa Valley chardonnay, but with layers and verve not often found in the genre.
I can't say I'd recommend it with potato chips, though it wasn't all that bad. The winery's recommendations, however, make more sense - braised pork with apples, salmon with tarragon aioli, broiled monkfish.