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The Burgundian Model

When it comes to California Chardonnays, the vineyard can make all the difference
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
The Best Places to Gamble, Sep/Oct 02

Robbie Meyer drives an SUV up dirt roads, tacking left and right. He's heading for a patch of Burgundy hidden in Sonoma's Alexander Valley, the source of two California Chardonnays that do passable imitations of Montrachet.

Meyer is the assistant winemaker for Peter Michael Winery, which makes some of America's finest Chardonnays in what is often called a Burgundian style. That means there's less blatant oakiness in Peter Michael's five single-vineyard releases than in most California Chardonnays, and only some of the intense fruit that American wine drinkers have come to associate with the grape.

In their place are elegant flavors often exquisitely balanced and, Meyer believes, a distinctiveness born of the particular vineyard in which the grapes are grown. "The wines are individual because they come from different places," Meyer says. "That's what makes them Burgundian."

In Burgundy, different vineyards create different wines. That's why village wines, regardless of the producer, cost so much less than grands cru from grapes grown a vineyard or two down the road. An attorney I know in Charlottesville, Virginia, only buys a dozen or so white Burgundies that all come from one particular vineyard, Les Folatières in Puligny-Montrachet, but are made by different producers. The wines, he told me once, remind him of different members of the same family.

Because nearly everyone makes their wines in much the same way in Burgundy, the most marked difference between one wine and the next is often that combination of soil, exposure to the elements and indefinable variables that the French have named terroir. That's not the case in Sonoma County, where advanced wine-making technique dates back to only about the Nixon Administration. Wine-making choices are still being made here. While Europeans are bound by both tradition and law to generally do things the way their predecessors did, Californians aren't. So if someone is making a big, rich Syrah somewhere in a California appellation, you can bet that someone else will be attempting an earthier, smokier type, just to see what will happen.

At the same time, no grape takes to stylistic experimentation like Chardonnay. If the famously difficult Pinot Noir grape taunts winemakers to find the tiny path through the metaphorical thicket that leads to a well-made wine, Chardonnay offers a six-lane highway with room for all styles, from lean and tight to pyrotechnically fruity. "Among winemakers," says Bill Parker, the former winemaker and director of estate operations at Matanzas Creek, "Chardonnay is called the blank canvas."

As a result, even in the small viticultural region of Sonoma County, the stylistic range of Chardonnays is astonishing. You can experience it for yourself the next time Angelo Sangiacomo holds a Chardonnay barrel-tasting involving the several dozen wineries to which he sells grapes. Every year, these single-vineyard cuvèes (many are ultimately blended with fruit from other sources before bottling) run the gamut from lush to lean, from ripe and rich to restrained, depending on how they've been made. And that's from one particular vineyard, the California equivalent of Les Folatières.

Compare such stylistic proliferation to, say, the red wines of Bordeaux, which are made of five grape varieties blended together in wildly varying proportions depending on the chateau and the vintage. Those grapes are grown over hundreds of square miles of terrain that ranges from sand to hillside, yet the blended Bordeaux wines invariably taste far more like each other than the wines that a single grape, Chardonnay, produces within the bounds of tiny Sonoma. That's what makes drinking California wines so exciting.

Meyer pulls his tenacious vehicle to a halt on a tiny dirt path that cuts between two vineyards amid a sea of vines surrounded by an azure sky. Peter Michael releases five different Chardonnays from single vineyards, and two of them -- Belle Côte and La Carrière -- originate here, high above Knight's Valley in easternmost Sonoma County. Both wines are made barrel-by-barrel by Luc Morlet and Meyer, following the same line of enological attack that started a decade ago with consultant Helen Turley. Otherwise, only the terroir is different. Think of them, then, as children of different families, each of whom attended the same finishing school.

But hold on. Sure, the sites have different sun exposure and soil type, but their distinctiveness has been enhanced by the selection of specific grape clones. Chardonnay comes in many varieties, each of which makes a slightly different kind of wine, so the Rued clone planted at Belle Côte is not quite the same raw material as the Dijon clone at La Carrière. It's not like growing peaches in one orchard to make peach juice and pears in another to make pear juice, but it's close.

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