Looking at the medal winners from the International Chardonnay Symposium, I’m struck by the geographic diversity of origins of the top-ranked California Chards. They range from Napa Valley down to the Santa Maria Valley, with Paso Robles, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Livermore Valley, Arroyo Seco, Sonoma Valley and the Russian River Valley inbetween. (I personally think you’d have to add Anderson Valley to the mix, although no Chardonnays from there were listed among the winners. Maybe there were no entrants.)
So from Mendocino to Santa Barbara for California’s best Chardonnays. That’s a big spread, about 375 miles. In France, we tend to think of the best Chardonnays as coming from a relatively narrow spread: Chablis down to Macon.* That’s a north-south distance of about 136 miles, but you’d obviously have to deduct most of the Cotes de Nuit from that, because it’s mainly Pinot Noir. So we have a Chardonnay terroir in coastal California that’s far bigger than the Chardonnay terroir of Burgundy.
Why is that? Examining California first, there is a true coastal terroir running along the Pacific Coast that’s obvious to anyone who regularly travels that route. Everybody knows the typical pattern: bone dry summers and autumns, warmish, sunny days and cool nights, as the maritime intrusion sweeps in dependably and bathes the land in fog. Yes, the soils differ. And yes, it is true that the further south you go the more of a change there is, especially in the quality of light. Cezanne would have loved painting the Santa Barbara mountains and coast. One senses it, also, in the softening of the air you feel as, driving from San Francisco, you hit Pismo Beach on any given summer day, then make your way southward down to Buellton. It feels different to us humans, so it must feel different to grapes, too.
But still, the terroir, in a macro way, is of one piece, and given the similarly of viticultural and enological practices nowadays, I doubt if anyone could tell the difference, on a consistent basis, between a Chardonnay from the Santa Maria Valley and one from, say, Carneros. Stones and minerals, green apples, tropical fruits, bright acidity, the usual impact of oak and lees and malo—this is why the coast makes such fine Chardonnay.
Perhaps the Chardonnay-growing area of France would be larger if it weren’t for the French system of appellation controllée, which is so much more rigid than ours. But it is what it is; the French system tends to favor a multiplicity of varieties. Ours—not molded by centuries of precedent, nor by Napoleonic law—is market-based; and the market being what it is, has resulted in only a handful of varieties, including Chardonnay, dominating vast regions.
It is a common notion nowadays that this system is changing. Led by sommeliers, responsive to a taste among younger consumers for the new and different, a new reality supposedly is emerging, of new varieties, tinkered with by a new generation of winemakers born in the waning decades of the 20th century, willing to venture where their fathers would or could not. This new paradigm—if that is not too strong a word—has much to recommend it, but it also faces stiff opposition. There is, for example, a Chardonnay Symposium in California, but not a Tannat or an Assyrtiko Symposium. One has to be careful predicting the future of anything, much less consumer preferences in foodstuffs; but we can allow History to be our guide. History tells us two things: First, what was popular, wine-wise, 100 years ago is popular today, and secondly, once a wine region becomes dominated by certain varieties, it tends to remain planted to those varieties. The two things are, of course, related.
But, you will object, younger people are turning away from the Chardonnays, Cabernets and Pinot Noirs, towards other varieties, said to be fresher, lower in alcohol, crisper and more interesting. Is this true? The media makes much of this meme. But is it more than just a story? Is it really a trend? The media loves trends, and has been known—shockingly!—to manufacture new ones for its own purposes. So, while I’m sure there will be new wines and new varietals that come and go, I’m equally sure that one grape variety—Chardonnay—will always be around. And I’m proud of my state of California for doing such a magnificent job with it.
* I suppose you could argue for extending the Chardonnay region south of Macon through the Beaujolais, but I wouldn’t go that far, either geographically or qualitatively.