Sunday, April 26, 2015

Thinking about Chardonnay

So, I've been thinking about Chardonnay recently.  We're getting ready to add to our planting in a couple weeks, and the Chard vines will fill out our last section of white in our established vineyard.  It may be the last Chard we plant for a while.

Vineyard Manager Nelson checking out the newly-arrived vines

I got an email from Mark Chien the other day who had some remarkable observations about Chardonnay in Oregon.  Not sure if you all remember him, but he was an amazing mentor to me in grapegrowing through his position as the Winegrape Educator for Penn Sate.

What struck me most was his mentioning of the "essence of Chardonnay." Of all the grapes out there, I think of Chard as the most malleable by winemakers. It's like making a bowl by a potter. Every potter (winemaker) needs to make a bowl (Chardonnay) and they're all different. Who's to say which is the best bowl (has the essence of a bowl)? I think we can all agree on bad bowls (Chardonnays), but what is it that truly separates great bowls (Chardonnays) from good ones? And why are great bowls (Chardonnays) sometimes very dissimilar?

I think what's missing in the discussion is the consumer (to be crass about it.) Any apperception of quality is dynamic, involving both a perceiver and a perceived. This is all very Kantian. But with Kant, everything perceived was seen through the lenses of a priori concepts that not only determined that perception occurs, but also how it was perceived. If you don't have a tool to measure it, you can't measure it.

Allegro Chardonnay
It's like when I tasted Raj Parr's Santa Barbara Chards picked at, what, 14 Brix? Totally out of my wheelhouse. Are they really good? He seemed to think so. I had my doubts. But maybe it's just because I didn't have enough experience with them. They were outside of my ken. Were they close to the essence of Chardonnay? Maybe. But it definitely showed that wine is subjective, and once we agree it's subjective, I think all talk of "essence" needs to leave the conversation.

And talk of terroir is probably the right way to go, but is the fact that the big, blowzy wines sometimes aren't liked could be because the tasters don't like that style? Or is it that it's actually wrong?

I feel like I am starting to dial-in my Chard winemaking here from fruit from our estate. It's a big style, but I think it works for us. Even in the lighter 2014, it still stands up to the 2013. It's totally anathema to the Chard that some of my friends made from both vintages. So, which is correct? I have no clue.

So, what is Chardonnay?  For me, it's good wine.  And more than that, it's wine that speaks of a place AND people.  The winegrower and the winemaker.  Who cares if it tastes different?


  1. Great post! I am a big fan of all your Chardonnay. Can't wait to get up there for the next vintage! I enjoy both the steel chard and the reserve. Love that peaches and cream of the older reserves too ;-)

  2. Thanks, Nick. FYI, we're doing a Chard vertical tasting this summer. In June, I think. It may already be up on the website. Cheers!

  3. Some years back you made a pinot noir that you didn't particularly like, but I loved it. It didn't bother me - well, maybe it did a little - that the winemaker said it wasn't a great wine. My palate said it was a great wine to me, and since I was paying for it, that was what mattered. Yet, as you said, there are things that matter. I look at it like a steak: there are flavor, marbling and other factors that play a role in a steak being good, but yours can be best for you if it's rare, and mine if it's medium. If there was a single absolute in wine, you'd only need to sell one bottle (and probably charge a good bit for it) to the one palate that could interpret absolute taste criteria. Fortunately, it's not like that, and fortunately, what you do with grapes suites me just fine. Please keep doing that (and writing, too).

    1. Thanks, Frank. I think you've deftly pointed out exactly why I should not be allowed in the tasting room. My tendency towards self-criticism and my blunt honesty (although perhaps intriguing to some) is definitely detrminental.

      I remember the Pinot, and we still play with that variety. My issue is mostly that I've tasted great Pinots and always hoped that I could make one here. Having failed at that, we still made nice wine. And for that I should be happy (and happy that you enjoyed it.)

      With age comes wisdom supposedly, and hopefully I am learning to keep my mouth shut more. My mom used to tell me, "Degustibus non disputandem est." (Things of taste are not to be disputed.) There's wisdom there.


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