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USA, California, Carneros: Hyde de Villaine Chardonnay Retrospective

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Hyde de Villaine winery, founded in 2000 by Larry Hyde and Aubert de Villaine. The two families are joined by marriage—Aubert married Larry’s cousin, Pamela, in 1971—and the pair have worked closely over the years, joined by winemaker Stéphane Vivier from 2002-2015. In 2015, Guillaume Boudet took over as head winemaker at Hyde de Villaine (HdV) with Vivier as winemaking consultant.
To mark the occasion, a rare retrospective tasting of the Hyde de Villaine Chardonnay was held at the Wilson Daniels headquarters in Napa this spring, with the entire team in attendance: Aubert de Villaine and Larry Hyde were joined by Vivier and Boudet, as well as Larry’s son, Chris, who works closely in the vineyards with Guillaume. “Our library is very minimal,” says Guillaume, “and even we don’t get to taste these wines very often.”
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The retrospective tasting included the 2003-2017 vintages of Hyde de Villaine Chardonnay from Hyde vineyards.
Aubert began by saying, “Something I have learned in my life is that what lasts is well born.” This could be the mantra of HdV—here, it’s all about the vineyards, with minimal changes in the winery over the last two decades. “I could see that the wines from Hyde vineyard were wines with a sort of French touch,” says Aubert. “They had some minerality, they were not too powerful, and that was something I am familiar with. Our idea has been Burgundian inspiration from the beginning. To make wine that is an expression of place, that would be typical of the Hyde vineyard Carneros character, even though at the time the trend was for big, immense wines. We did a lot of exploration of the vineyard and its opportunities. It took time. It wasn’t always easy.”
When looking for a place to plant his vineyard, Larry wanted shallow soils and morning expositions. “The best blocks for me in California have a cool exposure,” he explains. “I had been searching for morning sun exposure, and I found a property that faces east. The morning sun allows the ripening to take place through the coolest part of the day. In the afternoon, when it’s the warmest part of the day, the vineyard is in the shade. So, that solar energy doesn’t proceed during the warmest part but the coolest part of the day. It allows you to extend the ripening period.” As a farmer, Larry is a legend in the valley—both for his early vision and for his commitment to the land. “I have the best job of anyone in town,” he says emphatically. “In the morning, I go to the vineyards and spend all day walking, to see what’s going on with the vines.”
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The HdV winery and vineyard team, from left: Stéphane Vivier, Guillaume Boudet, Aubert de Villaine, Larry Hyde and Chris Hyde
Winemaking is traditional and hands off. The Chardonnay is fermented in barrel and aged on the lees, without any stirring, and undergoes full malolactic fermentation. The most cherished tool in the winery, says Vivier, is the press. Made by Pera (now Pera-Pellenc), it was purchased in 2003 when there were just a handful of these presses on the West Coast. “It is a very well developed tool in Champagne—Billecart-Salmon uses the same press. It’s super gentle and has an extremely high yield at very low pressure.” The Pera allows for a very long cycle at low pressure, preserving the freshness and minerality of the fruit, minimizing lees and the disparity between free-run juice and press juice. “The beauty of this press is that you don’t have to separate free-run from press juice,” Vivier explains. “It’s all such high-quality juice. And our press doesn’t create a lot of lees, so we can keep everything on those very fine lees.”
New oak usage has generally hovered around 20% on average, and most of the barrels come from François Frères in Burgundy. “From the beginning, we decided to adapt our oak usage to the age of the vineyards,” says Vivier. “Our oldest vines may get up to 40% new oak, while newer vines may see 5% or none.” They have also fine-tuned their toast levels, working closely with the cooperage to create four different levels of toast. “Everything we use is aged at least 36 months. We pay great attention to the grain and the provenance of the oak. Aubert has an incredible, long-lasting relationship with cooperages in Burgundy, so there’s an attention to detail in terms of the quality of the grain and the aging of the oak.”
Guillaume emphasizes how little is done in the winery. “Because of our heritage, we do not add anything to the wine,” he explains. “There’s no stirring, fining or filtering, so it’s a more reductive approach. The grapes are picked by hand at night. They’re pressed and put to barrel to ferment and age, and then we don’t see the wine again until we rack it just before bottling. No acid adds and no water adds, period. There’s no imprint of winemaker style or preference. I want to preserve the freshness, minerality and acidity that Hyde vineyards offers.”
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The HdV winery and vineyard team with the team at Wilson Daniels in Napa, California, this spring
When tasting through the wines, the clearest standout feature is the character of the vineyard. Across vintages, the wines are saline and lively and have bright, tangy acids and loads of energetic, rocky minerality. The wines also show touches of gunflint and green herbs, characteristic of Hyde vineyards Chardonnay. Guillaume notes that these wines, with their raciness and energy, age in unexpected ways. “Usually with our Chardonnay, that California thing shows early on—that baby fat, that mouthfeel. That power we here in California have, there’s no way around it. But as the wines age, they get leaner—not hollow, not disconnected—but more precise, more focused. That energy and vibrance emerges as they age.”
What may be most exciting for the future of this project is vine age. Hyde vineyards was originally planted in 1979, with later plantings in 1992, 1994, 1999 and 2010. The oldest vines are now over 40, and anecdotally, at least, older vines tend to be more balanced and reveal different characteristics than their younger counterparts. Larry has spent much time cleaning up his clonal material with the help of UC Davis, and Guillaume points out that vine and clonal selection maturity will play a greater role in the character of the wine moving forward. Sustainability is also critical for HdV. Chris Hyde notes that they have utilized organic viticulture for a very long time, and they are currently working toward certification for some parcels. Irrigation is tightly controlled. Guilllaume says, “California is so keen on irrigation in general. But it needs to be thought out depending on the rain in winter. Deficient irrigation is like a tool for us to elevate the energy in the vines. Water brings potential dilution and more vigor to the vines. The concentration of our fruit comes with that deficient irrigation.”
Although HdV makes other varietal wines, including Pinot Noir and Syrah, about 60% of their overall production is dedicated to Chardonnay. For more information on the history of Hyde vineyards, see USA, California, Napa Valley: Hyde Estate Spotlight by our Editor-in-Chief, Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW.
6/30/20
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USA, California, Carneros: Hyde de Villaine Chardonnay Retrospective