These two wines could hardly be more different. One is a chenin blanc from Navarro Vineyards in Mendocino on the north coast of California, the other a chenin blanc from Domaine Pichot in the Vouvray appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) in the Loire Valley in France. Same grape. Very different wines.
It’s popular to talk about a wine’s terroir these days, and one might be tempted to say that the difference between these two wines is due to that somewhat vague concept. In my opinion, however, terroir has little or nothing to do with why these wines are so different.
Let’s back up for a moment and recall the definition of terroir. Here’s what Wikipedia says: “Terroir is the set of special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place, interacting with the plant's genetics, express in agricultural products such as wine…Terroir can be very loosely translated as ‘a sense of place,’ which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product.”
In brief, the idea here is that grapes from different regions will produce different kinds of wines because of the environment in which they grow. And I think that’s what most people have in mind when they say “terroir.” Some people prefer to extend the definition of terroir to encompass all aspects of winemaking, which would then include regional winemaking styles and perhaps even an individual winemaker’s technique. To broaden the definition like that, though, is to deprive the word terroir of any meaningful distinction.
Now back to the wines. Both are made from chenin blanc grapes. Both are from cool wine-growing regions. Both are from the 2011 vintage. Both were approximately $12 to $13 for a 750 ml bottle.
And yet, so different.
2011 Domaine Pichot Vouvray Domaine Le Peu de la Moriette
The Domaine Pichot Vouvray is an extrovert. It’s a demi-sec (or slightly sweet), which is not that uncommon for Vouvray. It has good acidity, but is not bracing in its acidity, suggesting that this wine will not cellar as long as some more expensive, higher-quality Vouvrays (which are known for aging potential). It has a round, rich texture – due partly to the residual sugar and partly, I suspect, to barrel aging, and maybe even sur lie aging (which, again, is common for Vouvray). The nose is distinctly yeasty, which suggests sur lie aging and/or natural yeast fermentation. The color is golden, which makes me think it’s aged or fermented in oak barrels. There may have been some malolactic, or secondary fermentation. The flavors tend to honey, not unlike a lot of California chardonnays. There’s a very subtle petroleum character, like you find in good German rieslings. In short, it’s a delicious wine that is tasty all by itself. However, to my palate a bit cloying. Alcohol: 12%.
2011 Navarro Vineyards Chenin Blanc
By comparison, the Navarro chenin blanc is an introvert. It’s much more “steely” with flavors of green apple and lime, tart and tight. The nose is more reserved: it is not nearly as aromatic or revealing as the Domaine Pichot. The green apple and absence of toasty/yeasty flavors makes me think that this was fermented and aged in stainless steel, and I would guess that this wine never saw anything resembling oak. Unlike the Domaine Pichot, it’s quite dry, with 13% alcohol. The flavors, besides being citrusy, are delicate and minerally; like riesling, one may think of wet stones – or key lime pie. The color is much lighter than the Pichot, like straw rather than honey. The wine is not as effusive or showy as the Vouvray, but I believe it would be better (in general) as a food wine. Drinking it, one feels less satiated. I could imagine the Navarro chenin blanc paired with butter or cream sauces, where it balance the richness of the dish. (We ended up drinking it for dinner with Dungeness crab and artichokes, butter and mayonnaise. It was perfect.)
The Myth of Terroir
Are the differences between these two wines due to the environment? Not possible. The winemaker in each case made numerous decisions about when and how ripe to pick the grapes, whether to use natural or commercial yeast, how much oak to use (if any), whether to age sur lie, whether to ferment all the way or leave residual sugar, whether to put the wines through malolactic fermentation, etc. In my opinion, these decision had much more effect on the final product than the region or “terroir.”
In a way, this particular blog post is the outcome of a discussion I had with Darrell Corti a couple of months ago. It was he who said to me, “terroir is bullshit.” He said this in reference, interestingly enough, to chenin blanc. We both happened to be at a tasting where all the wines were from chenin blanc grown in the Clarksburg AVA, a wine-growing region in the Sacramento Delta. Several of the wines in fact came from the same vineyard. And yet, no two wines were the same. Why not?