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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.

  1. You are almost there Steve. I’ve said before and I will take this opportunity to say again, terroir encompasses the intentions and actions of the grower and vintner. No wine demonstrates this better than Chardonnay.

    What does “sense of place” mean? A good functional definition is: “this wine tastes like it comes from [insert name here].” I can 100% reliably identify any Chablis produced by Dauvissat from any Meursault produced by Lafon. Well, duh – they come from different places.

    But I can almost as reliably discern between any Chablis produced by Dauvissat from any Chablis produced by Raveneau. Or any Meursault produced by Lafon from any produced by Roulot. Same with Bâtard from Leflaive and from Ramonet. And on and on.

    The intention of the winegrower is part and parcel of the terroir of these wines. N’cest pas? All of your cognitive dissonance over “intervention” and terroir disappears if you acknowledge this simple truth.

    Though I’m not sure how trying to define terroir for California wines reduces the cognitive dissonance you experience due to our over-use of French words.

  2. This discussion must include addressing the practice of cofermenting Chard with apple, pear or pineapple juice.

  3. While most people add ML — ultimately ML bacteria are airborne and ML fermentation must be suppressed prior to bottling. I would argue that no ML is actually an intervention (since supression is required). Lees on the other hand, are from the grapes — I would argue that stirring them are “terroir enhancing” not masking

    And SUAMW — if the pears or apples come from an orchard next to the vineyard, then I would say its part of the terroir 🙂 Although seriously…who really does this? I know a lot of winemakers and not one adds non-grape fruit to their chard

  4. Andy: I never heard of adding fruit, either, but who knows what happens late at night in the winery…

  5. Good question, Steve. I have always looked at Chardonnay as being the most ‘craftable’ of wines, especially what is coming from the US, citing the same factors as you. JK brings up an interesting point about the ‘winegrower intent’ factor as it pertains to terroir. ex: If Mark Aubert was suddenly making Rombauer, it wouldn’t taste the same. I imagine your seminar will be lively. I think I will be in Walla Walla or Willamette that week.

  6. I would hope you would also address whether “Chardonnay is, by all accounts, a neutral grape” because I do not believe it is.

    Yes, on the nose Chardonnay doesn’t have the distinct aroma of a Riesling, Gewurz, or S. Blanc, but it has a distinct flavor signature and aroma in the mouth. The winemaker that recognizes this will not fiddle with the aroma on the nose where diacetyl or oak can destroy a wine’s charm at first whiff, but they will focus on the taste, acidity, richness, viscosity, and aroma in the mouth.

    Whether a winemaker ages sur lie, uses barrels, or allows a malolactic is much less important than their skill in using any of these techniques. It is possible to enhance a Chardonnay’s flavor with M-L with no affect on it’s smell if the winemaker is skilled. Same with barrel, ageing on lees, skin contact, barrel fermentation,and all manner of practices.

    Whether the wine tastes of place is not whether someone does this or doesn’t do that, but it is the skill in which the winemaker does whatever they chose to do.

  7. So Morton, why do so many writers refer to Chardonnay as neutral? Please don’t make me hit my library up and spend hours researching this, which I could.

  8. I guess it depends on your definition of neutral. My guess is yoy don’t really think it is neutral in character.

    If wine has to have a cat pee or a spicey muscat-like spell to be defined as distinctive, then, yes, Chardonnay might be termed neutral. But if your definition includes the overall structure of the wine,its taste, and particularly the aroma and flavor that comes back thru the olfactory when the wine is in the mouth, then Chardonnay is distinctive. Chardonnay character is more than what you sniff.

    Maybe these people who describe Chardonnay as neutral are talking about the 8 ton to the acre variety from big vines on deep rich soil. And if I had to work with such grapes, then maybe I might be dosing it up with oak and diacetyl. Maybe a little residual sugar, though that is a trade secret over at KJ.

    Let’s say you make wine from a number of white grape varieties. Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Semillon, Chenin blanc, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Burger, Green Hungarian, Golden Chasslas and French Colombard. And you sit down after the harvest to taste the new inventory. Nothing has been in wood, nothing has been through ML. The Burger, Green Hungarian, Chasslas, Colombard and Chenin blanc are neutral and tough to distinguish from one another dependably. (Okay Columbard has more acid,Palomino less.) But that is my definition of neutral.

    The noble varieties are quite distinct from one another and a world apart from the commons. You can pick out the Chardonnay lots quite easily. If they were truly neutral then this would not be possible.

    In my mid-twenties someone shared a bottle of Corton Charlemagne Louis Latour with me, a ’69 as I remember. Back in those days the wines from Burgundy were pretty much all made the same, used barrels, no lees stirring, no ML. They differed almost entirely by the vineyard and its climat. The ’69 wine was just top of the hill Chardonnay from a very special place made into wine very simply. But the wine was a revelation, I guarantee you it was not neutral, and I can still taste it.

  9. How about if we replace “neutral” with “subtle”?

    You left out the topic of clones, which can be hugely impactful on Chardonnay flavor, at least in comparative tastings I’ve had of California and Oregon Chardonnays by clone. Of course, the same clone in different spots may well express terroir. But comparing a Rued+Wente wine vs. a blend of Dijon clones makes things even more complicated.

    Morton, I think the Huets and Foreaus would object to your lumping of Chenin Blanc as “neutral”. OTOH, when I worked at wineries, I found very young Chardonnays hard to distinguish, one lot from another. They took a couple of months to express themselves to me, although our winemakers could discern them much earlier than I could.

    Really interesting topic, and it should be an excellent pane; schedule permitting I will try to attend.

  10. I really look forward to hearing the panel discussion at Chardonnay Symposium! Has the panel been determined?

  11. Dear Steeve, You don’t forget the chemecal yeasts. They don’t give terroir in a wine. For me The two styles of wine tasting

    Buccal (style): wines of the buccal style do not have retro-olfaction after swallowing the wine. Their qualities are only present in the mouth (concentration, tannin, etc.). Often the result of laboratory-selected yeasts, these wines may also undergo barrel aging in new oak. (Extract from Dico du Vin naturel by Jean-Charles Botte le courrier du livre Publishing.)

    Spiritual (style): wines produced organically that are certified or not, vinified with natural yeasts and containing little or no sulphur can be powerful, but the tannins of red wines of this type are fine and do not unbalance the wine, notably because of an attack in the mouth that is unctuous – proof of good phenolic maturity.
    These wines have an imposing recurrence in the mouth that can last several minutes. They don’t dry the mouth; the minerality and the menthol (aromatic characteristic) never make them sickening. I call them “spiritual” or “” in style (Petits Rendements Leveurs Indigènes et Travail de la Terre – Small Yields, Natural Yeasts and Working the Soil). It is after deglutition that these wines come back to “haunt” the taste buds. Their aromatic complexity excites the senses. It is the fruit of working the soil, of vinification without artifice (no added yeasts and little sulphur). You will have understood that I have a preference for this kind of wine (.)
    Jean-Charles Botte

  12. Carlos Toledo says:

    No need to add fruits to the must since there are yeasts, leveduras, levaduras, lies that do the job just as well and cost less.

    I believe many tintos from Australia are more manufactured, modified, than the chardonnays you have in the USA (and all over the world too). Their terroir is pure expression of test tubes, concrete, air conditioning.

    Any smallpox lab worker might be impressed with that “terroir”.

    Enjoy the event, Steve.

  13. To intervene or not to intervene? That is the question!
    Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous wine-bloggers,
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
    And by opposing end them?

  14. Wandering Wino, you can follow the panel by going to The Chardonnay Symposium website,

  15. Steve,

    I think most folk will choose the word ‘neutral’ to describe Chardonnay only as a comparative term, they really mean: “less intense than _____ (insert your favorite variety here. I’ve heard for many years people (and winemakers among them) say with conviction that sparkling wines are made from neutral base wines. No they are not, they are made from less intense base wines and you need to recalibrate your palate in order to appreciate them. Chardonnay is the one white variety that (like Cabernet for reds) produces a fairly balanced and complex base wine almost anywhere on the globe. IMHO, it is because of this basic balance that winemakers can intervene and produce different styles of a great wine type all over the planet. It is much harder to do with Viognier, for example.

    PS I am with John Kelly (surprise, surprise) on the Terroir thing. And – there is only one wine with no intervention, it is called VINEGAR. The minute we plant a European grapevine on an American rootstock and shape it to grow on a trellis, we intervene. Grapevines in nature do not grow in neat rows.

    The beauty of ‘Terroir” is that it cannot be defined, it encompasses everything about the wine up to and including the PR bullshit on the winery brochure…

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