The concept of terroir in wine is fascinating; also fairly complicated. The idea is that cuttings from the same grape vine grown in two separate vineyards will produce wines that taste differently. Okay, I’m on-sides so far. But why do they taste differently?
Thirty-five years ago it was common for sellers of French wine to say the soils in the various vineyards were the primary factor affecting taste characteristics. After all, the common translation of the French word terroir would be ‘earth.’ The French have had hundreds of years [thousands really] of evidence that two vineyards lying virtually side-by-side can often produce wines which consistently over centuries command dramatically different prices. The climate can not possibly be much different over such a small distance. So the difference must lie in the soil. American wine academics never really bought that argument, stating forcefully that top quality wines were produced around the world on a great many different types of soil.
The discussion has shifted somewhat these days. Most Frenchmen now speak of terroir as a concept which embraces everything about a specific vineyard location: soil, climate, viticulture techniques, even cultural tradition. American wine academics are generally inclined to go along with that point of view. Bear in mind though, terroir implies a distinctive, recognizable, predictable, reproducible taste; not necessarily quality.
Wanting to explore this idea re California, I jumped at an opportunity to see three high-end Chardonnays grown in separate districts, but all made in much the same manner by the same winemaker. These are all part of the La Rochelle line from Steven Kent Winery in Livermore Valley. Steve Mirassou (Kent was his grandmother’s surname) met me in their well attended Tasting Lounge to explain how they intend to pursue both Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from prestige growers in at least four coastal districts. The wines are fermented in half-ton bins because they make very small quantities ~ around a hundred cases each in the inaugural 2010 vintage. Should the program prove extremely successful, Steve still doesn’t foresee producing more than about 300 cases from any single vineyard. We had a vigorous discussion about whether the marketplace would demand opportunities to taste the wines side-by-side. In the end we pretty much agreed it wasn’t going to be likely in America these days, at least not outside their Tasting Room.
The current Chardonnay examples are from Ferrington Vyd in Mendocino’s AndersonValley, from Morelli Lane Vyd on the Santa Rosa Plain in Sonoma, and from Rosella’s Vyd in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands. Let’s begin with factors which blur terroir. Each of these vineyards grows a different clone of the Chardonnay grape: the Robert Young clone in Ferrington; the Hyde (Wente 1) clone in Morelli Lane; and the Dijon 76 clone in Rosella’s. There is also the fact that Chardonnay so notoriously reflects the hand of the winemaker. Our taste comparison controlled for that factor, but two winemakers acquiring grapes from the same vineyard might produce significantly different styles simply by picking two weeks apart. My impression of Morgan’s Rosella’s Vyd Chardonnay, and this one from La Rochelle, supports that notion. The Morgan is more fruit forward, less crisply elegant, more indicative of the long hang-time on the Central Coast. Moreover, American winemakers tend to take decisions that guide wines toward an idea in their head about what constitutes quality. Frenchmen would argue that tendency steps all over terroir. Even a terroir supporter like Steve Mirassou says about acidulation, “If a wine needs acid, we’ll acidulate.”
Despite all these factors which might overshadow terroir in California wines, both Steve and I found several characteristics in the three La Rochelle Chardonnays which we chose to attribute to regional terroir. The Morelli Lane had a clear citrus note. Even though reined in, the La Rochelle Rosella’s was more ‘tropical’ than the other two La Rochelle wines. I found the Ferrington less terroir-imprinted than the other two, but Steve picked it out by its green apple aroma. All of them were good wines, with fine aging potential, but they were distinguishable from each other. And they were set apart like night and day from the Chardonnay Steven Kent makes from Livermore fruit. Different strokes for different folks.
Try this little experiment at home. Get a bottle each of Morgan 2010 Rosella’s Chardonnay, the La Rochelle 2010 Rosella’s, and the La Rochelle 2010 Morelli Lane. Invite two couples for dinner. Serve a planked Salmon and potatoes au gratin. Give everybody three glasses. Serve the wines wrapped in tin foil and numbered. Tell everyone what the three wines are, but don’t tell them which bottle is which. Only those guests who correctly identify all three bottles get dessert. I don’t want to see any money changing hands.