One way to explain both the style and price of French Burgundy is to say that the smaller the vineyard area named on the label, the higher both the quality and the cost of the wine. For example, a wine simply named after the village "Meursault" could be made from one or several of more than 80 well-delineated vineyard sites within the appellation.
A Meursault so-named is often a delicious wine, sporting its special plush, open character of chardonnay. A solid Meursault will cost anywhere from $30 to $50 a bottle, or thereabouts.
A wine that says "Meursault Les Perrieres," however, comes from a single one of those 80-plus vineyards and makes for a notable wine with noticeable characteristics; the abundance of its chardonnay is more intense. Meursault Les Perrieres will cost from $80 to $150 a bottle, sometimes more.
For $50, you know pretty much what you're getting in a Meursault, but for $100, you're guaranteed something distinct and outstanding in a Perrieres. The special, delineated, smaller piece of dirt named on the label is a promise.
Something like that is happening with chardonnay along the West Coast of the United States. Over the past 40 years, increasingly over the latter 20, winemakers have demarcated regions, sometimes small, often large, that they believe (or hope) convey to the grapes that grow there something unique or special.
Still, we make a mere start. By and large, our chardonnays are named after pieces of dirt writ large such as "Sonoma Coast" or "Santa Rita Hills," sites that are measured in the squares of many miles. Labeling a chardonnay "Russian River Valley," for instance, doesn't promise anything, really. Just that it comes from there.
Because the Russian River Valley is cool, as is often said, does that always make for higher acidities in its chardonnays? No; it's also significantly warm in spots.
And because Russian River Valley grapes do not hop into the fermenting vat of their own accord, nor sluice their way into both wine and then bottle by themselves, we also have the hand of man, increasingly of woman. The style of an American chardonnay may be a function of place, but it is always also a result of technique.
I recently asked a winemaker who makes extraordinary wine from the Russian River if she could list the defining characteristics of the appellation, those which clearly distinguish it from any other. She could not; only what makes her wines different from others.
"At one point," says another winemaker, Don van Staaveren, who fashions wines from Sonoma's Durell Vineyard for Three Sticks Wines, our appellation system of "the California AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) were helpful to the consumer. But they're more for marketing; they're way too large. It's really hard to attach any significant style to any one AVA."
This summer, I and my wine school students tasted through more than 100 California, Oregon and Washington state chardonnays, all with an eye to ferret out what might distinguish one from the other. We were looking for a sense of place in chardonnays that sported names from pieces of dirt as large as counties or vineyards as small as backyards.
Accompanying this article are our conclusions, as broadly drawn as an American AVA, with wines to recommend as examples.
What we found
In the better wines, technique ties itself to terroir. Over and over and in their several ways, winemakers would tell me that their place always told them how to make their wine — what clones to plant, when to pick, how much new wood to use and so on.
2009 La Follette Chardonnay Manchester Ridge Vineyard, Mendocino County, $43
2011 Jordan Vineyard & Winery Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, $30
Technique is less and less obvious. For years, to make a gross generalization, most American chardonnay tasted like buttered popcorn on a stick, all that a function of technique, no matter where the grapes grew. Now, we're experiencing chardonnays uniquely tied to their birthplace. Not many, in truth, but more and more each vintage.
2010 La Rochelle Chardonnay Dutton-Morelli Lane Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, $65
2010 Etre Wines Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, $28
Wending your way up the West Coast in chardonnay is like sounding the bass to the treble strings on a piano. California "plush and lush" gives way to Oregon "tensile strength" — and you can hear anything in Washington.
2010 Three Sticks Wines Chardonnay Durell Vineyard, Sonoma, $55
2011 Sanford Winery Chardonnay, Santa Rita Hills, $30
2012 Stoller Family Estate Chardonnay, Dundee Hills, Oregon, $25
2010 Chehalem Chardonnay "Ian's Reserve," Willamette Valley, Oregon, $35
Old vines speak louder than younger vines. Vines in their 40s and older tend to speak their vineyard sites very clearly, with great distinction.
2011 Stony Hill Chardonnay, Napa Valley, $42
2010 Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay, Sonoma Valley, $70-$75
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.