We are led to believe that in addition to each winery’s house style, wines convey a sense of place. This idea, referred to by its French name: terroir, suggests that a wine tastes a specific way because of the confluence of distinct environmental effect that a vineyard or region imprints on their fruit.
Chardonnay is a notoriously transparent variety, one that allows winemakers to mold it into a specific style, but one that also allows its terroir to shine through quite distinctly, or so we are lead to believe. With so many regions acclaimed for their Chardonnay, and so many examples from around the world, it’s an ideal candidate to use when looking for a little evidence that terroir exists. In the broadest sense, terroir for a region should at least convey some information about the climate that each region enjoys.
Chardonnay image via Shutterstock
I chose a dozen examples of Chardonnay to test out this hypothesis, opening two wines from each of six regions to see if they shared any traits, and if those traits differed in any significant way from the traits exhibited by neighboring regions. Since California Chardonnay is so popular in this country, with many regions held in high esteem, I focused on the wines from some of the appellations most readily associated with Chardonnay, while also throwing in Oregon and France for comparisons sake. What do the results say? Let’s take a look at the wines.
Since we’re going in search of terroir here, we may as well kick things off with a pair of French Chardonnays. First off is a Pouilly Fuisse from J.J. Vincent ($24).This region in the Maconnaise appellation has a reputation of producing the best whites in the region, ones that sometimes rival those from the more famous, and decidedly more expensive, Cote d’Or. With limestone-based soils, one would expect a relatively ripe yet nervy example of Chardonnay here, and the J.J. Vincent delivers on both counts with classic citrus and apple flavors supported by zesty acidity and a hint of minerality.
Chablis is arguably the most famous Chardonnay appellation on earth, and rightly so. The finest wines from Chablis offer a combination of depth, complexity and elegance driven by the cool climate and limestone-based soils that are also rich in marine fossils and sedimentary clays. The wines also see relatively less oak influence than most regions working with Chardonnay, as the winemakers are trying to preserve the delicacy and freshness their soils provide. In the case of Christian Moreau’s basic 2010 Chablis ($25) one sees a touch of winemaking, but the flavors are classic cool climate Chardonnay; all lemony and bright with a hint of the famous minerality that is often described as flintiness.
The Sonoma Coast
Moving on to California gets a little tricky. If you were to find one appellation that compares climatically with France, it would probably be the Sonoma Coast, but not all of it. This expansive appellation includes a large chunk of inland vineyards that don’t benefit from the cooling effects nearly as much as the so-called true Sonoma coast. Stretching North from Bodega Bay along the coast until the AVA meets the Mendocino County line, this is where grapes struggle to ripen, and Chardonnay is supposed to offer some of the lean brilliance we find in places like Chablis.
First I took a look at the 2010 Pali Wine Co. Chardonnay Charm Acres Sonoma Coast ($20) which showed a nice midweight frame and flavors that leaned towards the fresher end of the spectrum with apple and pear notes, but it didn’t strike me as particularly lean and focused. My next wine was the 2010 Patz & Hall Chardonnay Sonoma Coast $30 which was terribly promising on the nose, showing focused aromas of crisp orchard fruit on a nice mineral edge, but this too was just too opulent on the palate to convince me that this was a true representation of Chardonnay. Both wines also showed more oak than I would like to see on what is being sold as a cool climate appellation.