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The Chardonnay Symposium: 8 days and counting…


There may still be time to get a ticket for my panel at next Saturday’s (June 30) Chardonnay Symposium.

Last year the topic was the role of oak in Chardonnay–which turned out to be more interesting than I initially thought it would be. This year, I chose the topic: how does the winemaker preserve “terroir” in a grape and wine that is usually so heavily manipulated? When you think of all the things winemakers do to Chardonnay–barrel fermenting it, stirring it on the lees, putting it through the malolactic fermentation, exposing it to varying degrees of oxidation, and on an on–what happens to all that terroir that was born in the grape?

A reporter for another magazine called me yesterday because she’s writing somethng up on the Symposium (now in its third year) and was shopping for quotes. She asked me if Chardonnay wine shows greater terroir than other varieties. “Good question!” I replied, which are two words a reporter loves to hear from an interviewee. Usually, people say that Pinot Noir, Riesling and Sangiovese reflect their terroir more purely or transparently than other varieties. Chardonnay is often referred to as a wine so neutral (i.e. non-terroir driven) that it needs winemaker bells and whistles in order to taste good.

Well, of course, that’s nonsense, as anyone who knows anything about Grand Cru Chablis or Montrachet understands. Here in California, we have our “grand cru” Chardonnays (you’ll pardon the expression), and I tried to round up panel members who work grand cru vineyards. They are:

Jenne Bonaccorsi – Bonaccorsi, Santa Rita Hills
Bob Cabral – Williams Selyem, Russian River Valley
Dieter Conje – Presqu’ile, Santa Maria Valley
James Hall – Patz & Hall, Carneros Valley
Eric Johnson – Talley, Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley
Heidi von der Mehden – Arrowood, Sonoma Valley
Bill Wathan – Foxen, Santa Maria Valley
Graham Weerts – Stonestreet, Alexander Valley

A pretty impressive crew, I think you’d agree. I told the reporter that there are certain noble grape varieties in the world, and when these grapes are grown to the highest standards and vinified accordingly, they all show terroir, including Chardonnay. Pinot Grigio is not a noble variety (at least, not in California) and thus you don’t expect to find “terroir” in a $15 PG. You expect freshness, crispness, cleanliness, fruit, etc., but not some eye-opening expression of the site where the grapes were grown.

Each of my winemakers will pour one wine, from a single vineyard, and tell us about the natural terroir, what he or she did in bringing up the wine, and then describe how the natural terroir still shines through. (Well, the one and only Dieter Conje is pouring two wines, but he has a very specific point he wants to make.) Perhaps some of the winemakers will say they believe they actually enhanced the expression of terroir through their interventions, the way, say, Professor Henry Higgins brought out the “real” Eliza Doolittle. Was Eliza more or less “Eliza” before the Professor taught her to speak correctly, dress and behave like a lady and be, well, more attractive to men? In some sense, she was more Eliza when she was an unkempt street urchin selling flowers from the gutter. Did she become “inauthentic” when she was transformed into “My Fair Lady”?

This is an idiotic question, one for metaphysicians to waste their time on. However, in the case of Chardonnay (and especially considering the question of oak), it is decidedly not idiotic; and to Chardonnay lovers, it’s the stuff of grand debate. I hope to see you at the Symposium.

  1. raley roger says:

    This is one of the better wine events in Cali, IMHO. Not a drink fest like some others.

  2. The rain in Buelton stays mainly on the mountain.

  3. Steve, this is such a great topic and lit the light bulb for me over a connection I felt between two wines I recently tasted. One was the Phelps Freestone Chard. The first thought I had when tasting it was that it reminded me of the Radio-Coteau Savoy Chard even though the winemaking styles were quite different. Felt the same “deja-vu” with the Freestone Pinot vs the Coteau La Neblina. When I read your post this morning, it clicked. Terroir! As you mentioned, I don’t normally think terroir with Chards. These wines share the same Sonoma Coast source (Freestone and the Savoy are perfect examples of the SC) thus the connection. Am looking forward to hearing what the folks at the symposium come up with especially the Yodas you mentioned in your post.

  4. Steve I thought the panel you had and moderated last year was fantastic discussing oak vs no oak…..which had me curious for how this year might fair. I must say I am very excited about this selected group and topic! The style of wine Dieter is producing (and some others) seems to be a perfect fit to with this symposiums topic.

    Really looking forward to this event as it is now one of my favorites of the year. See you there!

  5. Hey Steve,

    Wish I could be there this year…would love to hear this discussion.



  6. Dear Wandering Wino, I look forward to seeing you too!

  7. I agree with Shawn (see you there!)
    We are all excitedly looking forward to the event. Esp. for us being an all Chardonnay/Sta. Rita Hill’s focused project – all we do! (minus TEENY weeny amount of Mourved Rose 😉

    CHARD-A-GEDDON HERE WE COME! Excited to share LF with some new folks and try see some familiar friends and connect with a few small projects we have yet to taste as well!


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