Terroir vs. intervention: the case of Chardonnay
I’m going to be moderating a panel at The Chardonnay Symposium next June 30. They asked me to pick my topic and after long thought I came up with this:
Given that Chardonnay is, by all accounts, a neutral grape, how do you preserve or express terroir under all that winemaker influence [barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation, sur lies, barrel aging, etc.]?
I’ve heard that “Chardonnay is a neutral grape” almost ever since I started writing about wine. Wikipedia (which is blacked out as I write this to protest pending anti-piracy bills in the Congress) says “The Chardonnay grape itself is very neutral.” By “neutral” I always figured people meant that the grape and the wine made from it is somewhat linear, being neither strong in flavor nor spicy the way, say, Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc or, especially, Gewurztraminer and Riesling can have strong aromas and flavors.
It was a sentiment I accepted, because so many smart people said so, until the unoaked Chardonnay phenomenon began, and I found myself tasting Chardonnays that had never seen a splinter of wood that were magnificently rich and layered. Well, you might argue, they still might have been manipulated, with malolactic fermentation and sur lies aging adding things that never came from the grape. And you’d be right.
Yet of all the white wine grapes in the world, save possibly Riesling, experts say Chardonnay most reflects its terroir! Hence my topic idea. What the heck does it mean that Chardonnay displays terroir, when the winemaker has interfered so thoroughly in its manufacture? And I use the word “manufacture” deliberately.
We come here to the concept of lines. By that I mean, there must be a line between one form of winemaker intervention that smothers terroir, versus another that helps express it. But where is that line? And in asking this question, are we engaging in rhetorical flourishes when we get into these angels-dancing-on-pinhead metaphysics? So let me rephrase the question this way: Given that Chardonnay expresses terroir, what can the winemaker do to enhance that terroir–to sharpen its profile to make it more interesting and attractive to the wine drinker?
Well, each question leads to another, creating the risk of an infinite regress. Why do we not say that the most terroir-driven Chardonnays of all must necessarily be entirely unmanipulated? I suppose there are Chablisians who would take that position. So might Greg Brewer, who describes his approach to the grape at Diatom this way:
The challenge is to subtract all extraneous elements to arrive at the utmost level of simplicity, serenity and refinement. In order to maintain this desired purity, fermentation is carried out at a very cold temperature in neutral vessels to retain the most primary attributes of the fruit. Furthermore, malo-lactic is inhibited to avoid the distraction of that secondary level of evolution. The resultant wine is then aged on its non-disturbed lees for health and protection, and removed just before there is any risk of autolysis which could impart nondesirable yeast-like characteristics into the wine.
Great word, “subtract.” I’d call it “not add.” Yet Mr. Brewer remains very much in the minority in the Chardonnay world, where heavy winemaker intervention, including charred oak barrels, lees aging and the malolactic, remains the norm. So, once again, how do we reconcile this notion of “neutral Chardonnay” with “terroir” and all that manipulation?
I don’t know the answer, but it’s a great topic, and we’re going to have a great time knocking it around at my panel. I can guarantee we’ll have 8 or 9 fantastic winemaker speakers, tons of great food, and some surprises too. The Chardonnay Symposium, which will be in its third year this June, is growing by leaps and bounds, and is set to become the premier Chardonnay event in the country, if it isn’t already. I hope to see you there.