I learned about wine from my father and mother, at home and well before I had a driver's license. As a family, we tasted wines, at mom's dinners mostly, but we listened to stories from our father more.
Early on, dad was taken with Chablis-maker Marcel Servin who, he said, "worked the slopes of his vineyards in Burgundy until he was in his 90s, so bent over with age that he was like the angle on a carpenter's rule."
Many years later, when I went to Burgundy for the first time, I had to go to Chablis, of course, to see those vineyards and taste Servin's wines. (Domaine Servin has made Chablis for more than seven generations.)
Chablis is 100 percent chardonnay, grown on clay and limestone that is riddled with chunks of blazing white chalk, which are fossilized marine shells and a signpost of a famed vineyard soil known as the Kimmeridgian. Many feel that the "chalky note" in both the aroma and taste of Chablis derives from this soil. In any case, it is unique to Chablis.
Unique especially in the sense that other chardonnay-based wines made elsewhere in Burgundy differ from Chablis as yes does from no — in other words, they are substantially different, and furthermore they differ from one another. Chablis is not Puligny-Montrachet, which is not Chassagne-Montrachet, nor Macon, nor Rully and so on. All 100 percent chardonnay, all related by grape alone, each a singular personality.
Thus the claim, in Burgundy, that terroir trumps technique. You always know where a well-made Burgundian chardonnay comes from because the terroir will tell you.
Back home, I asked "Is that so with American chardonnay?" Does — more important, how does — a Russian River chardonnay tell you that it's from there? Or one from the Willamette Valley? Or the Central Coast? And so on.
For many years, most high-end American-made chardonnays didn't say much more than "buttered popcorn and wood." I will make a sweeping claim to say that's because American winemakers enjoyed playing with this most manipulable of grapes in order to achieve that style of chardonnay; for just one example, soaking it in a lot of new oak barrels. Technique trumped terroir.
But nowadays and across the board, American chardonnay is changing. That again is a sweeping claim, but it's informed by a few general observations.
For this column, I tasted just under 100 chardonnays of recent vintage, from vineyards and wineries along the West Coast from Santa Barbara to Portland, and spoke with several winemakers in order to see whether terroir comes through, as the voice of a place, in American chardonnay.
Many winemakers from California and Oregon still take chardonnay at its word. It says "come play with me"; they do. When piled one atop the other, techniques such as whole cluster pressing, barrel fermentation, added yeast, lees stirring, full malolactic fermentation and more aging in barrel just add up to "buttered popcorn and wood."
But many chardonnays, from California and Oregon both, tell different stories. Some, from very old vineyards such as Sonoma's Hanzell or Durell and Napa's Stony Hill, temper a tinkering or two, or avoid one or another altogether and allow their old vines to do the speaking. The upshot is idiosyncratic wines with a true sense of place.
Other winemakers listen to the terroir, in a manner of speaking, and let it dictate to them what they ought or ought not do to the grapes, in both vineyard work or winemaking technique, in order to let through or augment the vineyard's voice.
For instance, his high-altitude Mendocino County vineyard on Manchester Ridge in northern California tells Greg La Follette, as he hears it, to "plant three different clones of chardonnay, vinify them separately, use less than 20 percent new wood, and give the wines extended lees contact" to enhance texture. "I've got to learn what the region is telling me," says La Follette, "in order to get the right balance in the wine." Whatever tinkerings he does are in service of the terroir.
Cameron Parry, winemaker at Napa's Chateau Montelena, wants "people to taste the vintage and not what I did to it" in his chardonnay. So he chooses vineyards in the Oak Knoll District of southern Napa Valley to do on-site, as it were, what he would otherwise have to do later in the winery (the "metabolizing of acidity" from malolactic fermentation).
Other winemakers embrace larger understandings of the term "terroir." It isn't just about the chalk, they'd say to me or Marcel Servin.
"The year is part of the terroir," says Harry Peterson-Nedry, winemaker at Chehalem in the Willamette Valley. "We in Oregon do not have a singular weather pattern."
"People influence terroir," too, says Steve Rogstad, winemaker at Cuvaison in Sonoma's Carneros district. "Just as in Burgundy, all that collective experience, over a long time, with the vines, the soils, the farming — it's all part of what makes the place," he says.
I want to write more about how terroir shows up in both California and Oregon chardonnay and recommend several wines from my all-too-extensive tastings, and so promise to do so before summer's end.
But to hint at the general oenological geography, I'll let Peterson-Nedry unveil the main lines: "If you move north from, say, the Russian River to Oregon, chardonnay is a trip back to the Old Country. (We're) halfway there, with the lush fruit of the West Coast but in a leaner style, high-wire tense."
Bill St. John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.