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 ShutterstockI 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.

France

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.



Russian River Valley

As you move inland from the southern portions of the true Sonoma Coast, you hit the Russian River Valley, which is another region generally billed as a cool climate region, but one that also covers a lot of ground with varying elevations and exposures. As such, one can find a relatively broad range of styles here, though, if pushed, one would expect the prototypical RRV Chardonnay to show fruits that are a little riper than those found on the Sonoma Coast, yet with enough acidity to keep the wines bright and lively.

First up was the 2010 Duckhorn Wine Company Chardonnay Migration Russian River Valley ($30) which showed a classic Californian creaminess paired wth flavors that ranged from lemon and pineapple, to apple. The winemaking definitely showed through here, but its medium weight and lime-toned finish spoke of its origins. The 2010 Gallo Family Chardonnay Signature Series Russian River Valley ($25) followed, and while it also had a bit of a creamy texture, it showed an impressive array of mineral-tinged green apple and citrus flavors that accurately reflects a cooler climate example of Chardonnay.  I’ve got to give it to the Gallo Family; they made a pretty convincing Chardonnay that many people are going to be surprised by.   

Carneros

South of the southern inland portion of the Sonoma Coast is the Carneros appellation, unusual because it straddles two counties: Napa and Sonoma. The appellation map was drawn this way because it was felt that the region as a whole shared certain traits, primarily the cooling effects of nearby San Pablo Bay and the winds that came through the Petaluma gap, and travelled south through the Carneros region.

To make this as interesting as possible I selected a wine from each county, beginning with the 2010 Schug Family Chardonnay Carneros ($25). Schug is as closely associated with Carneros, the Sonoma side to be specific, as just about anybody, and tend to have a rather low key winemaker’s imprint on their wines, so I wasn’t surprised to find their Chardonnay offered a crisp mouthful of green apple and lime flavors. This was a relatively rich wine, but it didn’t lack for snap. In contrast, the 2010 Frank Family Chardonnay Reserve Lewis Vineyard Carneros Napa Valley ($55) was decidedly more opulent with a rich, creamy mouthfeel and flavors that drifted off towards tropical tones of mango and pineapple, leaving an impression of a decidedly warm clime than the Schug.  



California

The Frank Family was a more typical representation of what I think a California Chardonnay is going to be like. As much winemaker over climate as anything, it’s a super popular style and one wineries have tried hard to perfect over the years. On a whim I chose to include two other regions here that have, more or less, a reputation for a cooler climate. Just east of San Francisco, Livermore is a historic wine growing region that has seen significant vineyard losses as new homes encroach on formerly agricultural areas. There are still plenty of vineyards around, and I was able to add the value-priced 2010 Darcie Kent Chardonnay De Mayo Vineyard Livermore Valley ($12) to the mix, which was probably a bit unfair. This certainly had some of the apple and citrus flavors we associate with cooler climate wines, but at the same time it was soft and creamy, seemingly being shoehorned into the popular Californian style. Not my cuppa anything as it were.

The Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara county is famous for its cool climate. Covered by fog from evening until late morning and then consistently cooled by the currents coming off the Pacific Ocean, the only reason grapes can ripen here is the luxury of an extremely long growing season.  I would expect Chardonnay from this climate to combine a certain degree of power with bright fresh flavors, but sadly the 2010 Sierra Madre Vineyard Chardonnay Block 210 Santa Maria Valley ($30) showed more California style than Santa Maria freshness. This explodes with intense pineapple fruit, laden with a heavy load of oak. Some people are going to love this, but for me it was too much style over substance, though this is a very substantial wine. Still, it doesn't speak to me.

Oregon

The 42nd parallel north marks the border shared by California and Oregon. Coincidentally, it also roughly marks the southern edge of France, so seeing as that’s where we began this discussion, it seems like a fitting way to end it as well. Of course the climate of Oregon, driven by the Humboldt currents, and that of Burgundy differ greatly, but they do share some traits, like the amount of potential sunlight they might receive through a growing season, and the fact that their temperatures are in general cooler than regions further south. One might fairly assume that if you’re going to find Chardonnay in the U.S. that compares favorably with many French examples, this is the place to look. As usual one might also be right.

Right off the bat you can tell that the 2010 Troon Chardonnay Applegate Valley ($24) celebrates its cool nature. Aromatic, tart and with an elegantly light mouthfeel, this is a clear, precise and refreshing wine that may not reveal the same minerally terroir as Chablis, but it is certainly trying. If you’re looking for more richness in a wine that still maintains the clarity and freshness of a cool climate, you need to look no further than the 2010 Stoller Chardonnay Reserve Dundee Hills ($28). Here’s a wine that deftly combines subtle winemaking with fruit that has intensity and complexity, yet remains light and elegant. It’s the epitome of new world winemaking meeting cool climate fruit, and while that’s not what I started out looking for, it is where I just ended up!

Conclusions

Whatever conclusions one gets from this admittedly tiny sample size can really only serve to inform further research, but it’s worth taking note.

1) If you enjoy French Chardonnay, and that is casting a wide net indeed, you probably will enjoy Chardonnay from Oregon. The cool climate and winemaking perspectives born of an industry that is Pinot-centric are turning out some dynamite wines.

2) The Sonoma Coast appellation is too big. I would love to see further clarification on the bottle from where within the appellation wines come from.

3) The Russian River Valley might be the perfect place to produce classically styled California Chardonnay.

4) Are the two sides of Carneros as similar as we are lead to believe? I’m not convinced.

5) Winemaking style can trump terroir, smother it in fact, so an appellation on the label remains at best a rough guide to what is in the bottle.

6) You can learn more by drinking wines than from reading books, and it’s more fun!