Tag Archives | Chardonnay

Betting Your Dessert on California Terroir

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?

Chardonnay at crusher

Chardonnay at crusher

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.

 

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Inexpensive Chardonnay

2008 Fess Parker: intense fruit, conc in mouth, honey-butter overtones, AND under $20. Fried chicken w/ yams.

Wine Market Background

     In class I often extol the virtues of Sauvignon Blanc by pointing out there are several world-class examples priced between $15 and $19. I then exclaim, “There’s no such thing as world-class Chardonnay under $20!” And I do believe that statement to be true. At least it used to be. Which is not to say there haven’t always been a handful of eminently pleasing Chardonnays priced under $20. It is just that competition amongst Chardonnays has always been so much more intense than it is in other white wine varieties. In America, Chardonnay outsells both Pinot Gris (Grigio) and Sauvignon Blanc individually by a factor of four or five. Good Chardonnay can easily command $20 to $40 a bottle, and great Chardonnay commands $50 to $100. The only reason for a winery to price a very fine Chardonnay under $20 would have been when they needed to sell 50,000 cases of it, or if they had very limited confidence in their sales and marketing capacity. Of course, this Recession economy is creating many unusual, and enjoyable surprises for buyers.

Wine Education

     There are several justifications for the expense of a good bottle of Chardonnay. First, the grape itself is not particularly distinctive. It doesn’t have the unique aromatic signature of (say) Gewürztraminer. Nor does it have the strong flavor of (say) Sauvignon Blanc. That means concentration is doubly important and, in Chardonnay, that translates to lower yield. Lower yield means higher price per ton. Whether one gets three tons per acre in Sauvignon Blanc, or five tons per acre, the distinctive flavor is still going to be fairly obvious. Not so with Chardonnay. Taking a Chardonnay vineyard from three tons/acre to five tons/acre would have an effect Continue Reading →

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Bodega Bistro, Little Saigon, S.F.

Vietnam, but w/ meat. Very sophisticated food. Break out a quality French wine. Red Burgundy esp useful.

Restaurant Recommendation

     Bodega (website, 415-921-1218, on Larkin – two doors uphill from Eddy, medium priced with a couple temptations to splurge) may sound like a noteworthy California seafood place. That’s actually Hayes St Grill, about eight blocks away. When I tell you BoDeGa is a Vietnamese restaurant, you may immediately think of plates filled with vegetables. That’s not entirely untrue, but it’s helpful to know the translation from the Vietnamese language: Bo = beef; De = lamb; Ga = chicken. Vegans can eat at Bodega, but they can’t get uppity.
     Let’s not mince words here. If you insist on ordering beer to drink with the food at Bodega, you’re a Philistine.

Wine & Food Pairing

     Chef-owner Jimmie Kwok has an enviable résumé. He worked at some of San Francisco’s top hotel restaurants, and also several years with Il Fornaio. He describes Bodega as “cuisine Indochine” and, as befits Vietnam’s history, there is a considerable French influence to several of his dishes. Take the Tournedos for example. That would be filet Mignon and foie gras wrapped in bacon with a black truffle sauce. Better order them when you make your reservation. They sell out early. An older Syrah from Santa Barbara County would be a good match. Perhaps 1999 Qupé. But, for a ‘standing O’ from your dinner companions seek out a five- or six-year-old bottle of Stolpman La Croce (50-50 split of Syrah and Sangiovese fermented together).

Educational Background

     On the more traditional side, Jimmie’s Pho (beef and noodle broth) includes a homeopathic dose of …

Read this post in its entirety on the Stanford Wine blog.

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De Tierra Vyds.

Monterey County. Two estate wines from certified organic grapes. Very good quality, bargain priced. Strongly recommended.

How green is your wine?

     Talking about how ‘green’ a wine is can be very complicated. Not using pesticides says little about the winery’s attention to energy and water conservation. Is an ‘organic’ wine from Italy still green after all that weight of liquid and glass has been shipped to San Francisco? Does your ‘bio-dynamic’ winery pay their workers a living wage? And do any of these matters contribute to good taste? How far can I trust claims of ‘greenishness?’

de Tierra Vyds

     It’s a thorny issue. We will revisit it frequently on the Stanford wine blog [StanfordAlumni.org, it’s titled Straight from the Vine]. But we will begin with a winery recommendation that needs very few qualifier adjectives. These two wines taste great, and they are both pretty reasonably priced. The grapes are grown within 100 miles of the Stanford campus. The vineyard was the very first one in Monterey County to be certified organic by CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers).

Continues at Stanford wine blog.

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