Grapes of wrath
The terroir of comparative tastings
Uncorked by Thor Iverson
Hey, I can admit my mistakes.
A month ago, I wrote:
"California makes good
chardonnay, but it is brutally
outclassed by Corton-Charlemagne." I was right . . . but I was wrong,
As opinion, that statement was on the mark. I infinitely prefer the suppleness
and complexity of white Burgundy to the
of California chardonnay. Yes, I know that's a generalization and there are
many exceptions, but that's just one of my wine biases.
As information, however, that statement was pretty pathetic. Not, as
one West Coast winemaker lectured me via e-mail, because competitions have
"proven" that California makes wines that are equal or superior to white
Burgundy, but for the exact opposite reason: the two are simply not comparable,
nor should they be.
The Wine Spectator, the premier journal of the trade, wastes a lot of
space pitting wines from one region against those from another. "The Chardonnay
Challenge," "The Syrah Shootout," "The Riesling Riot" . . . okay, I
made up those last two, but the magazine has run three such competitions over
the past year: California chardonnay versus white Burgundy;
California cabernet sauvignon
versus the cabernet-based reds of Bordeaux; West Coast
versus red Burgundy. In each contest, two judges -- who have their own
well-known biases -- taste
all the wines. Scores are tallied; champions are declared.
And the whole exercise is -- to put it bluntly -- complete BS.
Why? Here's an analogy: consider two cows -- one in Vermont, the other in
Normandy. In Vermont, the cow's milk is turned into firm, tangy cheddar. In
France, it's turned into soft, earthy, smelly camembert. You wouldn't compare
the two as if they were the same cheese, would you? Sure, they both start with
milk, just as California chards and white Burgundies both start with chardonnay
grapes. But they don't share the same qualities; they're not even
It's much more enlightening to ask not which is better, but what makes them so
different. Technique has something to do with it, but there's something else --
something essential that goes beyond technique. With cows, the difference is in
what they eat and how that food affects their milk (and thus the cheese). The
same is true of wine. The things grapes "eat" -- the soil, pollen from the
surrounding plants, and the atmosphere itself -- all affect the end product,
Wine people ascribe this difference to
terroir (pronounced "tair-wah"),
a French word so laden with meaning that there's not even a direct translation.
It's a difficult and controversial thing, and I'll fill three more columns
before I'm done exploring the concept. But for now, use this shorthand
definition: terroir means "place-ness," the essential character of land
and environment that is expressed in products from a particular place.
So it's no surprise that chardonnay grown in Burgundy and chardonnay grown in
California should be quite different. This is a good thing. Why should
California waste its time making Burgundy? Burgundy already makes
Burgundy, and quite well, thank you. The differences between the two should be
celebrated, not judged.
Wines should be applauded for what they are, not for what they could be if
they hopped on a plane and planted themselves somewhere else. Judging regions
against each other for the purpose of determining a "winner" is an affront to
everything wine stands for.
Here are three chardonnays whose differences represent a combination of their
origins and winemaking techniques.
1997 Viña Tarapacá Chardonnay Reserva ($10). A fantastic
bargain from Chile, rich and golden with apple, banana, peach, pear,
well-integrated oak, and a minerality to the moderately
acidic finish that
makes it refreshing rather than heavy.
1988 Mayacamas Chardonnay Napa Valley ($21.50). A fantastic example of
this grape's Californian potential. The nose is a spicy mélange of
honeydew, cantaloupe, caramel, apple, brown sugar, and butternut squash.
There's substantial weight to the orange, red apple, and butter pecan ice
cream-tinged palate, but it's all cut through with clear
1991 Jean-Noël Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet Les Chenevottes ler
Cru ($35). Brilliant light gold, with earthy and raw dairy aromas drifting
over a hint of spice, then an explosion of apple, orange rind, mushroom, and
summer squash laced with a trace of garlic. Incredible, earthy finish with a
slight tartness; it's still young. It teases rather than seduces, but it's
still a flawless wine.
Being a wine writer means that retailers become close acquaintances. So to
rate a wine shop objectively, I have to visit in "disguise": T-shirt, jeans,
perhaps some stubble. The stores that really care about wine stand out
in conditions like that: after all, it's easy to get treated well in a suit and
tie, flashing my business card. Vines (1191 Centre Street, Newton) is a small
but excellent shop staffed by people who actually listen to their customers,
treat everyone like a regular, and both stock and recommend fantastic wines in
all price ranges. They'll be getting my business, and they deserve yours.
And then there's the other kind of store. I won't mention the name, but it's
diagonally across the parking lot from Vines, on Beacon Street. From the moment
I entered, the manager glared at me disapprovingly. I played up the role of
someone needing help, but he didn't budge. Piqued, I brought some really good
(and perhaps a bit pricey) wines to the counter, where they remained; obviously
not convinced of my age, they rejected my ID, claiming they couldn't take
out-of-state licenses. That didn't stop them from selling to me a few days
later, when I was wearing a jacket and tie. I won't be back.
Thor Iverson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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