What Chardonnay Taught Me About Site Selection

April 2009
by Rob Davis

'Great wines are associated with particular vineyards,' Tom Jordan told me in 1976. I agree. When I was a student at the University of California, Davis, my enology professor, Dr. Harold Berg, suggested that 85% of the quality of a wine is associated with grape origin.

And yet I have observed trends in winemaking that lean heavily toward the manipulation of wine in the cellar. Over the years, many of my favorite wine critics have noted that these trends tend to homogenize the wine's character, identity and varietal recognition. That's a loss for us all.

I am fortunate to have studied under great professors of wine, and I worked with a man who combined a great academic background with years of experience in Europe and the post-Prohibition days of California. André Tchelistcheff embraced many new ideas and promoted the new technology of the day. Yet his underlying philosophy was always focused on the vineyard.

More than 30 years ago, the benchmark for vinifera varietals was France. And the great crus of France associated their quality of wine with the uniqueness of their vineyards. Noted French wine professor Jacques Puisais observed, "Great wines are due to four things: the correct pairing of cultivar, climate and soil, and the fourth being the proper husbandry of those three aspects."

Jacques further noted that, "The winemaker can only mask the errors of the vineyard, not repair it." Cellar manipulation can attempt to make up for the shortfalls of fruit in a particular year and a particular vineyard, but the empirical nature of our business would support that it is the grape variety grown in a specific site that can weather even the most difficult vintage. In many ways, this is what separates great vineyards from mediocre ones…and great wines from the others, as well.

I oversaw the winemaking of Chardonnay in our estate vineyards in Alexander Valley for the greater part of the '80s with little success in producing a wine that matched my Burgundy inspirations.

It wasn't until we explored the Russian River appellation and changed our fruit sourcing to cool climate sites that we began seeing success. Once we were supplied with grapes grown in the appropriate site for the cultivar, the heavy-handed use of oak and malolactic fermentation took a back seat to the strength of fruit from well-drained soils and a cool, long growing season. Crisp acidity and alcohols under 14% provided a nice balance to the intense apple aromas and flavors. I am much more content with our style of California Chardonnay--one that is delicious, elegant and refreshing.

As a winemaker, it is not easy to make Chardonnay with less than 14% alcohol. Winemakers opting for more maturity in their fruit are picking much later in the season, and this results in higher sugar content in the grapes. High sugar content makes for higher alcohol levels in the wine. There are downsides: Higher alcohol acts as a solvent to extract greater amounts of oak. It also inhibits the ability of the yeast to ferment all of the sugar to dryness. The end result is a big, heavy, oaky and very viscous wine. When this is combined with a completed malolactic fermentation, the consumer gets what wine writers refer to as the "California Chardonnay" style.

The masking effects of oak, alcohol and butteriness overwhelm the vineyard's personality--what Europeans refer to as terroir. Jacques Puisais' observation about vineyard site and the success of the grape and wine still holds true. Heavy-handed cellar manipulation further masks the wine and makes it almost impossible to produce wines of geographic originality.

In California, we have a great tradition of experimentation and innovation. As we experiment, we advance those ideas that provide greater consistency and higher quality. Our references change, but our goal must be the same--to make great wines. Eventually many of us have come to realize that not every innovation is an improvement, not every manipulation is a move to the better. As our customers become more confident in their palates, their choices are leaning back to the wines of elegance and balance--wines that speak to their origins and complement a meal.

This trend follows what Tom Jordan observed back in 1976--that wine is best enjoyed at the table among friends and family rather than an artificial environment among a line-up of 100 other wines. As I look at the world of Chardonnay today and the trend changing for Cabernet Sauvignon as well, I'm proud to be producing wines that refresh the palate and complement the food.

Jordan Winemaker Rob Davis arrived in the Alexander Valley in 1976 to oversee production of the winery's first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon. By 1979, he was also producing a complex Chardonnay, and has worked through 32 harvests, to date. The Sacramento native also remains active in cooperative research with UC Davis. To comment on this Viewpoint, e-mail


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