Hanzell Vineyards: Sonoma’s Historic Chardonnay Winery

Winemaker Brad Webb and Ambassador Zellerbach

In this article we review the current Chardonnay releases of Sonoma County’s historic Hanzell Vineyards.  In 1953 James Zellerbach planted Sonoma County’s first commercial Chardonnay vineyard in the foothills of the Mayacamas after returning from Europe where he managed the Marshall Plan for Italy.  Especially fond of French wine, he aimed to produce Sonoma Chardonnay and Pinot Noir equal in quality to those of Burgundy.  He even modeled his winery after Burgundy’s fabled Clos de Vougeot.

Hanzell released its first vintage of Chardonnay in 1957, made by pioneering winemaker Brad Webb, who introduced several innovations in California winemaking including temperature controlled stainless steel fermenters, fermenting and bottling using inert gases, inducing malolactic conversion (with assistance of UC Davis professor John Ingraham), and using small French oak barrels. The wines won wide acclaim in the short time before Zellerbach’s death in 1963. Webb went on to make wine at Freemark Abbey Winery in 1968, whose 1972 Chardonnay figured into the famous 1976 Paris Tasting.  He later helped develop Sonoma-Cutrer.  In 1972, Bob Sessions moved from his winemaking position at Mayacamas Vineyards to Hanzell where he made wine in the Hanzell style (i.e., restrained, nuanced, and ageable) for the next 30 years.

Hanzell’s Original Winery Under Construction in 1953

Hanzell was acquired by Barbara de Brye in 1975 and is today still owned by the de Brye family, which has expanded the vineyards and increased the Chardonnay portfolio, which we review below.  Michael McNeill has been winemaker since 2008.  Hanzell’s flagship Chardonnay is still made much the same as it was originally, fermented and aged in both stainless steel and oak.  While California Chardonnay evolved into a rich, ripe, oaky style in the 1990s, Hanzell remained true to its stylistic legacy, making powerful but subtle wines that are relatively reserved in their youth but age superbly.  The 15 year old Chardonnay we tasted for this article remains fresh and complex.  About three-quarters of the winery’s total 6 thousand case production is Chardonnay.

The Hanzell Chardonnay portfolio was reviewed as part of our tasting for the upcoming report on California Chardonnay: Terroir and Winemaking in Sonoma.   Note that Hanzell Farm selections are only sold to Hanzell Club members.

An Original Vine Planted at Hanzell in 1953

The Wines

Hanzell Vineyards 2019 Sebella Chardonnay Sonoma County 90  Made in an easy drinking, fruit driven style, the Sebella Chardonnay offers a subtle nose and firm-edged flavors of apple along with notes of apricot and spice. There’s good acidity and freshness on a lively, uncomplicated palate. Fermented in stainless steel with no malo and aged 6 months in neutral French oak. 13.9% alc.  Hanzell Vineyards 2018 Hanzell Farm The Ramos Selection Chardonnay Sonoma Valley 91  Coaxing aromas of mineral-accented quince, pear, and lemon. Mouth filling with a chalky mineral mouth feel and nervy acidity that might have benefited from partial malo. Finishes rich and very long. Harvested on Sept 5 at 22 Brix from the 4.5 acre Ramos Vineyard Block at 700-810′ elevation in red hills volcanic soils planted in 2001 to the Hanzell Heritage selection on St. George rootstock. Fermented in stainless steel with no malo and aged 6 months in stainless steel. TA 6.6 g/L, pH 3.37, 13.3% alc.  Hanzell Vineyards 2019 Hanzell Farm The Day Selection Chardonnay SS Sonoma Valley 92  Rich and complex, sumptuous bouquet of orchard fruit, almond, and a hint of marzipan. Soft on the attack with sweet, tropical-like fruit on a racy, focused palate. An unusually complex and flavorful unoaked Chardonnay. Made with the same fruit as the barrel fermented Day Selection but fermented in stainless steel with no malo and aged 8 months in stainless steel tank. Harvested Aug 30 at 23 Brix with 2 hours juice and skin contact prior to pressing. TA 6.1 g/L, pH 3.50, 13.8% alc.  Hanzell Vineyards 2019 Hanzell Farm The Day Selection Chardonnay Sonoma Valley 92+ The Day Selection Chardonnay is Hanzell’s take on all barrel fermented and aged Chardonnay using fruit from vines dating back to 1972. Unevolved aromas and flavors of citrus and apple tending towards baked with hints of herbs. Round and quite silky in the mouth with good acidity, excellent balance, and beautifully integrated oak, this is another Hanzell Chardonnay we would put aside for a couple of years. Lots of potential. Made from Hyde, Old Wente and 95 clones planted 1972-1998 in the 4.5 acre Day Vineyard Block at 415-500′ elevation with Raynor-Montara soils. Barrel fermented with 100% malo and matured 8 months in 1/3 new French oak barrels. 13.8% alc. Hanzell Vineyards 2018 Chardonnay Sonoma Valley ($78) 94 Opening with a reticent apple and fig bouquet marked by minerals and herbs, the 2018 Hanzell Chardonnay is a subtle, well defined wine unlike the showy character of some of its Sonoma Valley brethren. It’s supple and silky in the mouth with notable purity and a firm spine. Our experience with this wine suggests its flavors will deepen and become more complex with some bottle age. Sourced from the 32 acres of estate Chardonnay planted 1953-2008 at 415-810′ elevation, 75% Hanzell Heritage selection, fermented in 28% new French barrels and 72% in stainless steel and matured 18 months in a mix of new and used French oak and stainless steel. 13.8% alc. Hanzell Vineyards 2005 Chardonnay Sonoma Valley ($) 95  This bottle of Hanzell Chardonnay, which has been in our cellar for 15 years, demonstrates the longevity of well-made, Sonoma Valley Chardonnay. While marked by tertiary characteristics, it is still amazingly fresh and complex. Medium dark gold, it reveals baked apple, toasted hazelnuts, and a touch of dulce de leche on a creamy, richly flavored palate.

Contributing Editor Mark Longsworth is co-author of this article.

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