In Search of Style

How much does winemaking trump terroir? We try 12 Chardonnays to see how many fit my idea of what they should be.


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.

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2010 Chardonnay Tasted May 2013

J.J. Vincent Pouilly Fuisse "Marie Antoniette" (2010)
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Christian Moreau Chablis (2010)
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Pali Wine Co. Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Charm Acres (2010)
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Patz & Hall Chardonnay Sonoma Coast (2010)
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Migration Russian River Valley Chardonnay (2010)
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Gallo Signature Series Chardonnay (2010)
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Schug Chardonnay Carneros (2010)
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Frank Family Chardonnay Reserve Lewis Vineyard Carneros (2010)
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Darcie Kent Vineyards Chardonnay Livermore Valley (2010)
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Sierra Madre Vineyard Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley Block 210 (2010)
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Troon Vineyard Chardonnay (2010)
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Stoller Family Estate Reserve Chardonnay (2010)
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  • Just two words and one abbreviation: Sta. Rita Hills.

    May 28, 2013 at 2:51 PM

  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 4,006

    I'm not usually one to pile on the bandwagon that California wines of quality are too expensive--after all, the best Napa cabs keep beating French first growths, and great Sonoma Syrah is still a lot less expensive than Hermitage and Cote Rotie--but I think it's a point worth making that the wines from Chablis and Pouilly Fuisse were under $25. If you stay out of the Cote d'Or, Burgundy still seems to offer the best QPR for Chardonnay--and given that's my preferred style, it's the only place I buy the grape from now.

    May 28, 2013 at 4:09 PM

  • Snooth User: steve666
    392767 156

    Livermore is hotter than hell in the summer, tho it cools a bit at night, but we are talking highs of 85 to 110 and lows probably in area of 65 to 80. This is not cool in my book. I used to go out there a lot because I dated a woman who lived in Livermore. Petaluma is another place that is very hot, tho not as consistently as LIvermore. It gets up to 105 probably every year. Marin and more especially Sonoma and Napa inlands are often blazing hot, much hotter than the SF, Berkeley or Oakland. I don't drink Chardonnay, so I cannot speak about it.

    May 28, 2013 at 8:45 PM

  • Snooth User: zinfandel1
    Hand of Snooth
    154660 1,085

    Pouilly Fuisse is my yardstick for chardonnay. This is the style I enjoy. I lean toward any California or Oregon winery that goes for that style and tries to copy this style.

    May 29, 2013 at 4:11 PM

  • Snooth User: bularry
    1276051 1

    I generally prefer the RRV chardonnays with the creamy mouth feel, although I do enjoy Burgundy whites with certain dishes. for my personal taste, I don't care for much green apple, which is what I can get from some very mineral type chards.

    May 30, 2013 at 9:37 AM

  • Why not compare with some other international cold climate regions?
    Austria also makes some very promising Chardonnays from the Thermenregion and the Laithagebirge, which are almost the same latitude.

    Jun 17, 2013 at 11:30 PM

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