Friday, September 15, 2006

Chamard Vineyard

I really looked forward to this particular stop on the Connecticut Wine Trail so that I could look more critically, more rigorously at a local wine I know well. I've been to Chamard Vineyard several times and I've had their chardonnay more times than I can accurately recall. It's the Connecticut wine you're most likely to find in any given Connecticut wine store, and Connecticut magazine readers consistently rate it the best Connecticut winery.

So, I've been anxious right along to really put Chamard to the test, to taste the wines carefully vs other wines, not just from Connecticut but from the best wine producing areas. It's been quite a few years since I've been to Chamard. Would there be any sign of laziness, of them going downhill?


The Facilities
Established in 1983, Chamard is one of the older wineries in Connecticut. They also boast one of the older, nicer tasting room facilities in the state, having built the stone structure in 1988. Guests have been actively encouraged and treated well here for many years.

You enter the property via a long driveway that takes you right through a vineyard, always a great device for getting visitors in the mood to taste the wines. But the real difference here is the elegant surroundings that will greet you once you step inside the building.

It's hard not to get the impression that they poured a lot of money into their facility, from the rich wood accents to the fieldstone fireplace and antiques. You get the feeling that you walked into a country club or a wealthy individual's country home rather than a winery.

But if successful at striking an upscale mood and visual impression, I think Chamard is less successful in practical terms. Despite the size of the structure, the tasting room itself feels a bit cramped on a busy weekend. They have a tiny winetasting bar that forces people to struggle for space. Consequently, they try to distract visitors with a quick tour before allowing them a turn at the winetasting bar.

Don't get me wrong. The tour is informative and fun, but if you were planning on a quick tasting, forget it -- at least on a weekend. In a way they are victims of their own success. But I'm surprised they insist on doing things largely the same as they have for 20 years. It's time to at least rearrange their space and open up the visitor space. But, not a huge complaint. If you're game for a classy environment in which to taste wines, Chamard is at or near the top. I give the facilities a 4 out of 5 score.

The Staff
We were fortunate to be hosted by an individual who, though new to Chamard, is an extremely knowledgeable gentleman with many years of retail experience in the wine business. He took us on our tour and poured our wines when it was time.

He was an engaging, informative and passionate host with the ability to ignite in others a burning enthusiasm for the wines. He was a perfect ambassador for wine country.

If you don't already know it, Chamard was owned forever by the William R. Chaney, chairman of Tiffany's in New York. However, the winery was sold earlier this year to the Jonathan Rothberg family. I'm happy to report that the commitment to doing things right is still very much in evidence. Not many local wineries can afford the facilities and the talent that Chamard employs. But it's nice to see that those who have the resources don't skimp when it comes to providing the public with an optimal experience. I give the staff a 5 out of 5 score.

The Wines
With 40 acres, Chamard is far from the largest winery in the state but they are unique. You will hear a lot while at Chamard about their microclimate -- they are only two miles from the ocean. This maritime influence makes for a milder climate than the rest of the state, and it really does show in the fact that they grow only vinifera here -- no hybrids! I don't blame them a bit. The results show their microclimate is as good as it gets in Connecticut.

Still, as I said, Chamard is not a huge estate, so up to half the grapes in their wines come from Long Island, home of arguably the best red wine grapes in the Northeast. Whatever their source, these wines are an absolute pleasure to taste. And, tasting here is COMPLIMENTARY. Truly. This is getting so hard to find, since even the most quality-challenged wineries in Connecticut are now charging.

Pinot Blanc 2005 -- This was a lovely, balanced wine that shows very nice pear and citrus aromas. This wine gets no oak.

Chardonnay (LI) 2003 -- 40 percent of the wine gets oak aging, while the rest does not. The blend shows classic apple aromas and a hint of banana, with a crisp finish.

Estate Chardonnay 2002 -- Made from local grapes, 60 percent of the wine gets oak aging, while the rest does not. It shows in the creamy texture and appetizing vanilla flavors. Delicious wine.

NV Rose -- This fun wine is a blend of cabernet franc and pinot noir. It has a light strawberry nose, and finishes dry and crisp. A nice summer quaff.

Barrel Select Reserve Estate Chardonnay 2002 -- This is a big chardonnay that was not part of the tasting, but I just had to buy a bottle and try it. Lots of spicy oak and vanilla, that may come on a little strong for delicate meals. But with a little time, I think this will soften into a delicious rich wine.

The only disappointment was that Chamard had just run out of its most recent vintage of cabernet franc, which meant that there were no reds available for tasting. Definitely a bummer, but I've had their cabernet franc and merlot in the past and know they are of good quality. The only complaint I've ever had with a Chamard wine is their cabernet sauvignon -- yes, they make a small quantity. Definitely underripe, as are the vast majority of cabernets in the Northeast. Most people won't even try them -- nor should they.

Considering the terrific quality of the white wines and knowing how good many of the reds have been in the past, I have to conclude that Chamard still is a great place to visit in Connecticut for great wines. The quality here is easily on a par with Long Island and Washingtion state, even less expensive California. I give the wines a score of 9 out 10 points.

In many ways, Chamard remains the great local success story, showing what's possible for the wine industry in Connecticut. Consumers should not miss out on a chance to visit Chamard. They have a lovely setting and great wines, and they know how to treat you right. And, tastings are complimentary -- can't beat that. Chamard gets an overall score of 18 out of 20 points.

NOTE: While most reviews tend to look only at the wines, I believe visiting wineries is as much about an "experience" as it is about the quality of wines. Wineries probably get more tourists than wine geeks for visitors, and I think they're looking for a combination of comfortable, wine-focused facilities, knowledgable and passionate staff, and enjoyable wines. So, I'm assigning scores to each winery on a 20-point scale. 5 potential points for enjoyable, mood-enhancing ambience; 5 for knowledgable, enthusiastic staff; and 10 for quality wines. The scores are purely a result of my personal judgment; I have no relationship to any of the wineries.

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