Do Chardonnay Wines Show More Terroir?

Winemakers to debate and demonstrate at Santa Maria symposium

by Jane Firstenfeld
chardonnay symposium
The winemakers for eight notable California Chardonnays will speak during a panel session Saturday at the Chardonnay Symposium in Santa Maria, Calif.
Santa Maria, Calif.—After more than a decade on top, Chardonnay continues to dominate varietal wine sales in the United States, accounting for 21% of volume in 2011, vs. 12% for second-ranking Cabernet Sauvignon. Introduced to California by Ernest Wente, who planted cultivars in his family’s Livermore vineyards in 1912, this “noble” grape now is grown in North American appellations from coast to coast.

It also has been reviled for enological oversteps. An ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement took hold in the 1990s in reaction to hard-hitting, heavily oaked examples modish during that decade. By the 2000s, many winemakers responded by releasing and promoting steel-fermented Chardonnays untouched by oak. The polar extremes—buttery, full malolactic, oak-aged vs. tropical and fruity—demonstrated even to unsophisticated palates the grape’s versatility and its adaptability to different winemaking techniques.

Does Chardonnay reflect the terroir in which it’s grown more than other varieties? Eight leading California Chardonnay producers will examine the question Saturday June 30 during a seminar at the third annual Chardonnay Symposium. Organized by Vintage Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County, “Chardonnay and Terroir: What’s it all about?” is the most technical of the weekend’s activities, which include a grand tasting after the seminar Saturday, a “Pops in the Vineyard” concert by the Santa Maria Philharmonic Society on Sunday at Tres Hermanas Vineyard & Winery and a sold-out dinner Friday evening.

Free-flowing conversation
According to publicist Linda Parker Sanpei, “The winemaker discussion is definitely technical and geared toward an informed wine industry and wine media audience. We find that the consumers who attend like the high-end discussion over a program designed for consumers.” Some tickets are still available for this morning session at Byron Vineyard & Winery; participating winemakers will pour examples of their Chardonnays to compare and contrast.

Steve Heimoff, senior West Coast editor for Wine Enthusiast, will moderate the panel. “My goal is always to please the audience,” he told Wines & Vines. “We have eight unbelievable winemakers. I know all of them and chose them because they know how to talk, are strong-minded, verbal people and very proud of their wines, wineries and vineyards. Ideally, I’ll sit back and let them go at it.” He said that, as moderator, he welcomes audience questions during the 90-minute session. “They can raise their hands any time; we’ll have a free-flowing conversation.”

Scheduled panelists include winemakers from Alexander Valley, Carneros, Arroyo Grande and several from host Santa Maria Valley. They include Bob Cabral, Williams Selyem; Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi, Bonaccorsi Wine Co.; Dieter Cronje, Presqu’ile Winery; James Hall, Patz & Hall; Eric Johnson, Talley Vineyards; Heidi von der Mehden, Arrowood Vineyards & Winery; Bill Wathan, Foxen Winery, and Graham Weerts, Stonestreet.

Winemakers go deep
To preview the session, Wines & Vines spoke with several participating winemakers from different regions. Dieter Cronje from 3,000-case Presqu’ile in Santa Maria spoke at an oak-focused Chardonnay seminar last year, and this year will be the only vintner to pour two contrasting examples of his product.

“When left alone, Chardonnay is a great indicator of terroir,” he said. A winemaker’s decisions whether or not to employ barrel fermentation, stirring on lees and malolactic fermentation can have dramatic effect. Cronje will bring one Chardonnay on which he used “macro-oxidation.” This wine, he said, is “almost brown.” The other batch is unoxidized. He hopes to see if tasters can “see the terroir train between the two,” which he believes share a common minerality from his estate-grown fruit.

His vineyard is misty almost every morning, he said, allowing grapes to sustain their acidity even with fuller malolactic. Soils in his vineyards, a few miles inland from the Santa Barbara County coast, “are basically sand dunes, with some salinity,” Cronje said. Santa Maria Valley, also home to the revered Bien Nacido vineyard, has various aspects. “We’re on the inside turn of the river,” Cronje said; “They’re on the outside turn. They got the heavier, richer, darker more fertile soil, and their fruit is more tropical.”

Presqu’ile uses native yeasts for primary and ML fermentations to create more terroir-driven wines; Cronje barrel ages in French oak for 16-17 months, and Chardonnays retail for $35. Founded in 2008, “We’re a brand new winery. We’re looking for brand-loyal customers, and dialing down our style to reflect our micro-terroir,” he said.

Patz & Hall is more established. Founded in 1988 in Southern Napa, where it still maintains a tasting room, the winery moved to the town of Sonoma in 2007, where it produces 26,000 cases of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Sourcing Chardonnay grapes from vineyards ranging from northern Mendocino County and Sonoma’s Russian River to two Carneros properties, winemaker James Hall maintains an ongoing experiment in vineyard-specific wines.

From 130-acre Alder Springs Vineyard near a Mendocino mountaintop almost at the Humboldt County border, he makes a very acidic Chardonnay redolent of citrus and herbal hay. Intensely textured, Hall said, “I’ve never had anything quite like it: heavy, mouthfilling and energetic.”

Chardonnay grapes, he believes are not necessarily more affected by terroir, but essentially neutral, the variety “shows more clearly the winemaker’s variety of style. It’s an interesting intersection between nature and the nursery,” Hall said. “There’s lots of room for the hand of man.”

Hall will pour a 2010 Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay from Napa Carneros, vinted in a “classical, Burgundian style, with 40% new French oak, native yeast and full ML. Retailing at $55, “It’s a page out of the Côte d’Or,” according to Hall. Carneros Chardonnays, he said, lean toward floral, herbal, clove and spice, with more dryness and minerality than those from Santa Maria, which he termed “more effusively fruity, peachy, with tropical fruits and pineapple.”

Because Chardonnay is a white grape, winemakers have more freedom not to “swing for the fences,” than producers of big red wines. “Chardonnay can dance on both sides,” Hall said. “Brand is not as important as style.”

Some 20 miles north of Santa Maria, and closer to the Pacific, Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande also makes only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines, producing 30,000 cases. Winemaker Eric Johnson makes three vineyard-designated and two estate-grown Chardonnays, retailing from $25 to $55 per bottle. All vinified in a similar style, with no new oak and no secondary fermentation, they remain individually distinctive.

“Our vineyards are so awesome, we don’t need to cover up the flavors,” Johnson said, describing wines dominated by stone fruit flavors, high acid, lively citrus and mineral characteristics. They are, he emphasized, “not big wines.”

Johnson credits the moderate coastal climate, with neither extreme high nor low temperatures, and a long growing season that tends to reach harvest earlier than most of California. “Our acids stay pretty high. We wait for the acid to go down, when most are waiting for sugars to rise.” In keeping with Talley’s Burgundian style, the winery labels are also simple and classic, emphasizing the vineyard name more than the winery.

Learn more from these and the other winemaking panelists at the seminar next Saturday. For details and tickets, visit thechardonnaysymposium.com.

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