ALBERT BICHOT 2015 Class and Tasting

ALBERT BICHOT is unique in terms of negoçiants in Burgundy with a business model more that of the owner of multiple domaines than a traditional negoçiant. Whether the grapes are estate grown or from other vineyards, Bichot farms their grapes and makes all their wines in their own wineries. No out-side wine is brought-in to be blended-and-bottled. Here the line between a negoçiant and a domaine gets very blurry. Based in Beaune but with wineries in Chablis, Vosne Romanee, Nuits St. Georges, Beaune, Pommard, and Beaujolais, Albert Bichot operates more like a collection of passionately run domaines … but domaines that have all the resources they could need. As to the vintage, 2015 (like 2005 before it) is that great vintage across most of France referred to as “the rising tide that lifts all boats.” In this tasting we have a unique producer making great wine from grapes it grows in top terroirs in a great vintage.

On Monday, February 12th at 7pm, please join me (Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton) at the Wine School at l’Alliance Française for a Tasting of Albert Bichot’s 2015s. We’ll taste through all 15 available 2015 wines including 8 whites (3 Chablis and 5 Cote d’Or) and 7 reds (2 Cru Beaujolais and 5 Cote d’Or) with special attention paid to the specificity of place and process of each wine. The tasting includes 5 grand crus.

The line up:
Bichot A.C. Chablis
Bichot Saint Romain Blanc
Bichot Santenay Blanc
Bichot Long Depaquit Chablis Les Vaucopins 1er Cru
Bichot Domaine Pavillon Meursault
Bichot Ch Gris Nuits St Georges Les Terrasses Blanc
Bichot Long Depaquit Chablis Mountonne Grand Cru
Bichot Domaine Pavillon Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru
Bichot La Madone Fleurie
Bichot Rochegres Moulin A Vent
Bichot Aloxe Corton Clos Marechaudes 1er cru
Bichot Ch. Gris Nuits St Georges Rouge 1er Cru
Bichot Corton Clos Marechaudes Grand Cru
Bichot Latricieres Chambertin Grand Cru
Bichot Domaine Frantin Grands Echezeaux Grand Cru

ALBERT BICHOT 2015 will cost $100.00 per person (Cash or Check) or $105.26 regular. The class will meet at 7pm on Monday, February 12, 2018 at l’Alliance Française. To purchase your ticket, please contact Susan at 713-854-7855 or

L’Alliance Française is the French cultural center in Houston. Located at 427 Lovett Blvd., l’Alliance is on the southeast corner of Lovett and Whitney (one block south of Westheimer and two blocks east of Montrose).

If you buy a ticket and will not be able to attend, please cancel at least 24 hours before the class or you may be charged. Later cancellations will not be charged if we can fill the seat. This is often case as we regularly have waiting lists for these classes.

With 40 years experience in the wine business and 30-plus years experience teaching about wine, Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton is one of the top wine authorities as well as the most experienced wine educator in Texas.

Of Interest

LUXURY CHAMPAGNE Tasting Benefiting Sonoma Fires Relief – 
There are still a few seats left for this coming Monday’s (12/4/17) extraordinary and (at least in my experience unprecedented) look at most of the very top Luxury Cuvee Champagnes in a comparative format. For more information, please see

For a good, informed, even first look at the 2017 vintage in Bordeaux from one of the best Bordeaux writers working today, please see Jane Anson’s Decanter article at

MAYBE THE BEST NAPA VALLEY CHARDONNAY I’ve tasted in over two years!
I don’t often drink California Chardonnay but when I do, this 2016 from Trefethen is the kind that gets me going. Delicious, balanced, elegant. The integrated oak and subtle richness are components here but fruit and freshness are what this is all about. This is not “Cougar Juice.” Rather, it is Chardonnay that a Burgundian winemaker would recognize and drink.

TREFETHEN Estate Chardonnay, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley CA, 2016  ($29.99)
100% sustainably grown Chardonnay, half of which is given an indigenous yeast fermentation and half of which is innoculated. 69% is barrel fermented witht he balance fermented in tank. 8% gets malo-lactic fermentation. the assemblage is aged 9 months in all French oak barrels (19% new).      Straw color with well formed legs; dry, medium light-bodied with fresh acidity. Best Trefethen Chardonnay I have ever tasted and maybe the best Napa Chardonnay I’ve tasted in two or three years. Citrus and a bit of mixed apple fruit with mineral and freshness. Integrated and pure. California answer to 1er cru Chablis. Delicious.  BearScore: 93+.

Heitz Cellar Seminar and Tasting

Please join me, Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton, at 7pm on Monday, November 27th at The Wine School at l’Alliance Française in welcoming Heitz Cellar’s Daniel Vu for a Heitz Cellar Seminar and Tasting. In this single winery tasting, we will taste through and discuss the range of wines from the legendary Heitz Cellar of Napa Vallley as we look at how they are made, their styles, and from where and what grapes they are made. We will taste the full range of their classic wines available in Texas including 5 vintages of the iconic Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. All wines tasted will be served in Riedel Degustazione stemware. A selection of cheeses and bread will be offered.

The lineup includes:
Heitz Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley 2016
Heitz Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 2016
Heitz Ink Grade Zinfandel, Napa Valley, 2013
Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2012
Heitz Trailside Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2010
Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012
Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010
Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006
Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005
Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004

The Heitz Cellar Seminar and Tasting will cost $80 per person (cash or check) or $84.21 (regular). To purchase your ticket, please contact Susan Coburn at 713-854-7855 or

L’Alliance Française is French Cultural Center in Houston. Located at 427 Lovett Blvd., it is on the Southeast corner of Lovett and Whitney (one block south of Westheimer and two blocks east of Montrose).

If you purchase a ticket and will not be able to attend, please cancel at least 24 hours before the class or you may be charged. Later cancellations will not be charged if we can fill the seat. This is often case as we regularly have waiting lists for these classes.

With 40 years in the wine business and 30-plus years experience teaching about wine, Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton is one of the top wine authorities as well as the most experienced wine educator in Texas.

More Classes Coming Soon:
12.04.17          Monday          Tete de Cuvee Champagne Tasting benefitting Sonoma fires relief
12.11.17          Monday          Sparkling Rosé (Mostly Champagne)
12.18.17          Monday          Wine School Christmas Party and Toy Gather
01.08.18          Monday          TBD
01.16.18          Tuesday          Big 2015 Bordeaux Tasting at Crystal Ballroom (Houston)
01.17.18          Wednesday     Big 2015 Bordeaux Tasting at Trinity Groves (Dallas)

Domaine FONTAINE GAGNARD 2013 Class & Tasting

Domaine Fontaine Gagnard is among my favorite white wine specialists in Burgundy. Based in Chassagne Montrachet, the Domaine was founded in 1985 after the wedding of French Air Force officer Richard Fontaine to Laurence Gagnard (daughter of long-time Chassagne vignerons Jacques and Marie-Joseph Gagnard), the Domaine is now run (since 2011) by their daughter Celine who has worked with her father since 2007. There is a passion for the terroir of Chassagne in its many expressions that runs back through the generation in this domaine. With the respectful winemaking of a family that gets “place,” each wine reflects the specificity of its place. Farming is by organic principles and winemaking features indigenous yeast fermentations.
On Monday, October 9th at 7pm, please join me (Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton) at the Wine School at l’Alliance Française for this tasting of Fontaine Gagnard’s 2013s. We’ll taste through all twelve available crus including one red and eleven whites with special attention paid to the specificity of place and process of each wine.

The line up:
Fontaine Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet 2013
Fontaine Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet 1er cru Caillerets 2013
Fontaine Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet 1er cru Clos Saint Jean 2013
Fontaine Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet 1er cru La Boudriotte 2013
Fontaine Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet 1er cru La Grande Montagne 2013
Fontaine Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet 1er cru Les Vergers 2013
Fontaine Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet 1er cru Morgeot 2013
Fontaine Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet 1er cru Chenevottes 2013
Fontaine Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet 1er cru La Romanée 2013
Fontaine Gagnard Batard Montrachet 2013
Fontaine Gagnard Le Montrachet 2013
Fontaine Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet Rouge 2013

Domaine Fontaine Gagnard 2013 will cost $120.00 per person (Cash or Check) or $126.32 regular. The class will meet at 7pm on Monday, October 9, 2017 at l’Alliance Française. To purchase your ticket, please contact Susan at 713-854-7855 or

L’Alliance Française is the French cultural center in Houston. Located at 427 Lovett Blvd., l’Alliance is on the southeast corner of Lovett and Whitney (one block south of Westheimer and two blocks east of Montrose).

If you buy a ticket and will not be able to attend, please cancel at least 24 hours before the class or you may be charged. Later cancellations will not be charged if we can fill the seat. This is often case as we regularly have waiting lists for these classes.

With 40 years experience in the wine business and 30-plus years experience teaching about wine, Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton is one of the top wine authorities as well as the most experienced wine educator in Texas.


The other day, I bumped into a friend-of-some-years (thereby avoiding referring to her as an “old friend”) who asked if I’d made my list yet. Even though I look more-than-a-bit like Santa Claus, I generally wait until after all the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone to start thinking about Christmas stuff. And I said as much.

She replied “No. Not that list. Your value wine list.”

I told her that it had been a few years since I’d done that. She said I should do it again as she needed a new one … and then she pulled a much-taped-and-folded, very-beat-up piece-of-paper from her purse and showed me one of my old value wine picks lists she’d been carrying around for several years. The vintages were all way out-of-date but a good chunk of the wines that are still available are wines I’d still recommend. After I looked at it (with some wonderment on my part), she carefully refolded it and put it safely back in her purse saying “See. I need a new one … but I’ll hold on to this one until you get around to it.”

Well, OK. Good idea. And since she’s what I refer to as a “church lady” (although not all church ladies go to my church), her “request” is really more of a command anyway.

You may well ask “What makes a ‘Value Wine?’” (You also may ask “What makes a Church Lady?” but that‘s a topic for another time and place.) In the general parlance, “value wine” is a good or recommended wine below a certain price point. That well-worn list my friend had saved was all under $15.00 per bottle. And that’s fair as far as it goes but to make my list, the wines have to consistently over-deliver. That being the case, not many heavily-marketed, national brands make my list as, while many of them offer a fair value, seldom do they over-deliver (and almost never do they over deliver over a series of vintages).

bearonwinelogoWhat you’ll find on this list are my picks (wines I actually buy and drink at home) with First-of-December-2016 prices under $20 (Spec’s cash bottle price – if you’re buying six-mixed at a time or by-the-case, the prices will be lower). The prices listed will likely change (some up, some down) over time. The vintages on the list are those that are current as I compile it but don’t worry too much if you bump into a vintage that’s younger. These wines tend to be pretty consistent from vintage-to-vintage. These are wines with enough production that they are available most of the time; I’m not including anything where we don’t get at least a couple of pallets a year. Finally, these are wines that I recommend. Which means they are wines I like to drink. Which means they offer plenty of fruit but are not over-ripe or over-manipulated. Which is to say that they taste of the grapes from which they were made and (generally) of the specific place they were grown.



White Wines of Chablis and the Cote d’Or / Upcoming Events

7pm  Monday August 29, 2016 at The Wine School at l’Alliance Française

Please join Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton for this in-depth look at the Chardonnay-based white wines of BURGUNDY’s Cote d’Or and Chablis (plus one from the Cote Chalonnaise). We will examine the intricacies and differences to be found in a region with hundreds of legally delimited vineyards split into thousands of plots farmed by myriad producers large and small.   We will discuss appellation, heirarchy, terroir, tradition, style, technique, and personality. The wines tasted will be served in Riedel Degustazione stemware. A selection of cheeses and bread will be offered during each class.

We will taste:
Daniel Dampt Chablis 2015
Daniel Dampt Chablis Cote De Lechet 1er Cru 2014
Daniel Dampt Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru 2014
Dom Jessiaume Bourgogne Chardonnay 2013
Domaine Thenard Givry Clos Du Cellier Aux Moines Blanc 1er Cru 2013
Vincent Latour Saint Aubin Cuvee Les Frionnes 1er Cru 2014
Dom Jessiaume Santenay Gravieres Blanc 1er cru 2013
Vincent Latour Meursault Les Pelans 2013
Fontaine Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet 2013
Fontaine Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet Chenevottes 1er Cru 2013
Jerome Castagnier Puligny Montrachet Le Cailleret 1er Cru 2013
Domaine Thenard Montrachet 2009

This White Burgundy class will cost $100 per person cash ($105.26 regular). The class will meet at 7pm on Monday, August 29th at l’Alliance Française. To purchase your ticket, please contact Susan at 713-854-7855 or

L’Alliance Française is the French cultural center in Houston. Located at 427 Lovett Blvd., l’Alliance is on the southeast corner of Lovett and Whitney (one block south of Westheimer and two blocks east of Montrose).

If you buy a ticket and will not be able to attend, please cancel at least 24 hours before the class or you may be charged. Later cancellations will not be charged if we can fill the seat. This is often case as we regularly have waiting lists for these classes.

09/12  Red Burgundy – Cote de Beaune and Cote Chalonnaise (Monday, 7pm)
09/19  Red Burgundy – Cote de Nuits (Monday, 7pm)
09/26  Zinfandel (Monday, 7pm)
10/03  TBD (Monday, 7pm)
10/05  An Evening with Quintessa benefitting the Houston Area Women’s Center (Wednesday, 7pm) – A tasting of Quintessa vintages and components presented by Larry Stone of Quintessa
10/10  Bordeaux Basics benefitting the Houston Area Women’s Center (Monday, 7pm)
10/25  Bordeaux Basics benefitting the Houston Area Women’s Center (Tuesday, 7pm)  – These Bordeaux Basics classes are identical so please sign up for one or the other but not both.
10/18  Bordeaux and Champagne Tasting at the Crystal Ball Room at the Rice (Tuesday, 4:30pm – 8:30pm)  – 30 Bordeaux wines (mostly dry red) and over a dozen Champagnes

New Wine Class: Considering California Chardonnay

patz-hall-2013-chardonnay-hyde-vineyard-carneros-napa-valley-2On Monday, August 22nd at 7pm, please join Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton at the Wine School at l’Alliance Française for Considering California Chardonnay. We will discuss some history of Chardonnay in California, America’s on-again-off-again-on-again love affair with Chardonnay, how Chardonnay is made, where it is best grown in California, and pairing Chardonnay with food. Fourteen top quality Chardonnay wines will be tasted. Bread and a selection of fine cheeses will be served.

The line up:
Banshee Chardonnay Sonoma Coast, 2014
Expression 38 Chardonnay Russian Camp Russian River Valley, 2015
Hanzell Chardonnay Sebella Sonoma Valley, 2014
Chalk Hill Chardonnay, Chalk Hill, 2013
Patz & Hall Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, 2014
Lynmar Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 2012
Cakebread Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 2014
Ridge Vineyards Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, 2013
Flowers Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, 2014
Rochioli Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, 2014
Patz & Hall Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard, Carneros, 2013
Dumol Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 2013
Lynmar Quail Hill Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 2012
Mount Eden Chardonnay Estate, Santa Cruz Mountains, 2012
Hanzell Chardonnay, Sonoma Valley, 2013

Considering California Chardonnay will cost $80.00 per person (Cash or Check) or $84.21 regular. The class will meet at 7pm on Monday, August 22nd at l’Alliance Française. To purchase your ticket, please contact Susan at 713-854-7855 or

L’Alliance Française is the French cultural center in Houston. Located at 427 Lovett Blvd., l’Alliance is on the southeast corner of Lovett and Whitney (one block south of Westheimer and two blocks east of Montrose).

Cancellation Policy: If you buy a ticket and will not be able to attend, please cancel at least 24 hours before the class or you may be charged. Later cancellations will not be charged if we can fill the seat. This is often case as we regularly have waiting lists for these classes.

Utterly Unique: Henriot Cuve 38

2___cuve_38____dition_2___henriot__1820.jpeg_north_600x_whiteIn 1990, the late Joseph Henriot (1936-2015, former head of Veuve Clicquot and owner of Henriot in Champagne and Bouchard Pere et Fils in Burgundy) set aside one vat to add a portion of outstanding Blanc de Blancs each year, capturing the essence of every harvest in a sort of solera. The idea was to create a perpetual blend of 100% Chardonnay from 100% Cote de Blancs grands cru vineyards (Mesnil-sur-Oger, Chouilly, Avize and Oger). In 2009, the first 1,000 magnums were drawn and put through the Champagne process. After another 5 years aging on the lees in Henriot’s cellars in Reims, the wine was disgorged and given a final dosage of less than 5 grams per liter. Each year, another 1,000 magnums will be released.

From Henriot:
“Its dosage of less than 5g/l gives full rein to the aromas of its terroir.  It is a beautiful pale yellow with golden highlights and a gently efferevescent mousse, leading into a bouquet of fresh butter and white flowers. Cuve 38 also reveals both mineral and slightly creamy notes underpinned by hints of liquorice. On the palate, its richness is elegant and there are avours of citrus and ripe apricot. Finally, the wine delivers elements of both honey and viennoiserie, redolent of the Henriot style.

From Bear:
HENRIOT Cuve 38, Champagne, NV     ($669.74)
100% Chardonnay all from Grand Cru vineyards fermented and aged in a reserve wine solera representing 19 vintages made using Methode Champenoise in in Magnum, aged another 5 years on the yeasts and then finished only with a less-than-0.5 dosage. (The tank or cuve holding the wine is Cuve 38 – hence the name.)     Pale-gold-straw in color and fully sparkling; dry, medium-full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and scant phenolics.  Deep dense, unique wine. Pure expression of Chardonnay and chalk, mineral and yeast but most of all development. The wine evolves in the glass as if slowly flattens and warms. It really succeeds as wine, not just as sparkling wine. My first impression score was 94+. Three hours later it was 97. Two days later (the still 2/3s full magnum stored cold and tightly stoppered) it was 100. This is stunningly good, utterly unique champagne that almost demands decanting to help it develop in a reasonable time. Or you could keep it for a few years and then … WOW! Only 2 magnums available only at Spec’s at 2410 Smith Street in Houston.

WHAT’s HAPPENING: Two Fun Events

Here are two opportunities to drink a little wine and have a good time all while benefitting one of my favorite causes, the Houston Area Women’s Center. This coming Monday brings a tasting of some of the most terroir specific wines made by a real vineyard innovator, Bill Hill. And the following Monday brings the 3rd annual WOW Sangria Throwdown. Can Sean Beck (Backstreet/Hugo’s/Caracol) win it again?

TASTE with BILL HILL Expression Wine Blast HOU copy
of Expression, Tetra, and Prime Solum
On Monday June 9th at 6:30pm, come to Spec’s at 2410 Smith Street to meet and taste with Bill Hill (aka “William Hill”), vineyard developer extraordinaire. Bill was the founder of William Hill Winery (now owned by Gallo) and many other vineyard projects on the West Coast. He is now the owner of Expression (Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from California and Oregon) as well as Tetra (Napa Valley), and his newest project Prime Solum. For more information, CLICK HERE.

WOW! SANGRIA!!WOW_Sangria_flyer
On Monday, June 16, 2014 at 5:30pm, please join WOW (Women of Wine) at Tommy Vaughn Ford (1201 North Shepherd Drive) for their 3rd Annual Sangria Throwdown. (READ MORE)

Parsing Chardonnay

I don’t like Chardonnay.” she said.
So you don’t want any of this Puligny Montrachet les Folatieres?” he replied.
Of course I do … but that’s White Burgundy.”
Which is Chardonnay.”
So why do I like White Burgundy but not Chardonnay?”
That’s a good question . . .

If you’ve ever asked that question, if you’ve ever wondered why wines taste the way they do, the answer is that it is because of where they’re from (place) – and where they were made, what they’re made from (grapes), how they’re made (technique, tradition, and even law), who made them (person – which, in fact, has a lot to do with how), and when they were made (vintage). So Chardonnay from Chablis will taste different than Chardonnay from Puligny and Chardonnay from Puligny will taste different than Chardonnay from Carneros – which will taste different than Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast.

If you have a good knowledge about wine and you taste a Chardonnay, you may (or may not) be able to come to some conclusions about the where, the what, the how, and more. And, if you know the technical information about (the where and what and how, etc.) a particular wine, you may be able to (maybe should be able to) predict what the wine will taste like. That’s why we (the “collective we” of all of us wine geeks) go to the trouble to taste a lot of wine and learn about wine: we want to be able to more accurately pick wines we will enjoy drinking.

Just so you know: In the US, more people drink Chardonnay than any other kind of wine. Over 19% of all the wine purchased from Spec’s says “Chardonnay” on the label – and that doesn’t include any of the French Chardonnays labeled with place names like Puligny Montrachet or Pouilly Fuisse, Meursault or Macon, Chassagne or Chablis. This, even though many if not most people who are professionals in the wine business or who write about wine drink little if any wine labeled Chardonnay. Oddly enough, as they drink so little Chardonnay, many if not most of these professionals are not qualified to recommend Chardonnay. Many are not even comfortable talking about Chardonnay.

If we’re going to look at Chardonnay, lets start with “What.” Chardonnay is a green skinned grape yielding clear juice, likely native to France’ Burgundy region, used to make white wine. A crossing of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc (an almost extinct white variety that has served as a parent to several better known varieties), Chardonnay is the second most planted white wine variety and may soon pass Airen (grown only in Spain and used mostly to make brandy) to take the number one spot. Chardonnay is planted in more wine producing regions around the world than any other variety. While it is a fairly neutral variety that shows the influence of place and technique, there are some Chardonnay fruit characteristics. In the coolest climates, Chardonnay can offer a lemony citrus component along with green tree fruit (apple and pear) and green banana. In more moderate climates, more ripeness can bring a broader range of citrus with riper tree fruit, occasionally some stone fruit (peach is possible) and even some melon and other tropical notes. In the warmest areas where Chardonnay is grown, the fruit can get into the pineapple, mango, and ripe banana range without necessarily loosing all of its citrus freshness. One of the telltales for Chardonnay is a nuance of banana fruit anywhere on the scale from green to over-ripe. Maybe it easier to define in the negative: All other things being equal, Chardonnay is less grassy than Sauvignon Blanc, less juicy than Riesling, less fat than Viognier, less fresh than Pinot Gris (Grigio), etc.

Moving to where, if Chardonnay is cropped at reasonable yield levels (say from under 2 to 4 tons per acre) in a balanced vineyard (one where yields are in balance with the vigor of the vines and the soil), Chardonnay will reflect the character of the place as much as any other white wine producing grape. If the yields are too low, Chardonnay can lose its place by becoming overly extracted and even gritty tasting. If yields are too high (some Australian vineyards have “achieved” from 12 to 20 or more tons per acre), place disappears into simplistic pineapple popsicle fruit. Which is not to say that all places are good places or that all or even most places even have a recognizable character. It’s just that if there is a distinctive mark of place to be found, good Chardonnay is most likely to show it.

As Chardonnay’s spiritual home is Burgundy, it seems clear that Chardonnay should grow well in chalky soils (Chablis, and coincidentally, Champagne) and on limestone (the Cote d’Or, Cote Chalonnaise, and Macon) – and it does. What is amazing is how well Chardonnay can do in other areas where the soils range from sedimentary to volcanic in origin or even on some of California’s (and Chile’s) granitic soils. Outside of Burgundy, “great” Chardonnay has come from Texas (clay over limestone), Carneros (marine sediments), New Zealand (especially Marlborough and Central Otago), and various parts of Australia (especially Margaret River). Each of these places can have a unique gout de terroir (smell of place) that can (in the best cases) mark the wine making “Where?” an answerable question.

As to how, if it is a white winemaking technique, it has been tried on Chardonnay. About the only thing that seems never to work is trying to make Chardonnay into a sweet dessert style wine. To oversimplify: If you start with 22.5% sugar, higher acidity grapes and ferment slowly in cool stainless steel tanks and block malo-lactic fermentation and minimize subsequent air contact with no barrel aging, you get a completely different result than if you start with 25% sugar, lower acidity grapes and barrel ferment (with, let’s say, at least one third new barrels) and age the wine with lees-stirring and full malo-lactic fermentation in those barrels for 12 or so months. The first sort (as made in Chablis) offers a steelier, more focused style with fresher and maybe leaner fruit and usually (at least in Chablis) a sort of chalky-limestone minerality. The second sort (as made in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley) is likely to offer riper but less intense or even ill-defined fruit flavors with lots of milky-buttery-creamy aromas, flavors, and textures accented by an almost sawdust oak component and a toasty (from the lees) richness. The first sort is all about the fruit and the place. The second sort is at least as much (and often more) about the winemaking (technique and style) and the stamp of the winemaker as it is about fruit or place, especially as both fruit and place can so easily be overwhelmed by technique (aka “winemaking load”).

Technical Considerations (The Vineyard)
Where to plant, rootstocks, genetic material (whether clones or a massal selection), row orientation, and even trellising systems are all early on decisions that can affect the wine for many vintages. Healthy vineyards are rarely replanted before they are 30 years old and often (in the best sites) not before they are 75 or more years old. Farming techniques such as sustainable agriculture, organic agriculture, or even biodynamic farming also have a large effect but those effects are more immediate than which variety is planted.

When working the vines, are horses or tractors used? Horses are gentler and less compacting to the earth and often leave something beneficial behind. Tractors are faster and easier but they compact the ground and leave behind diesel fumes.
Picking date is a different “when” than “vintage.” Picking earlier gives more acid (and lower pH) and brighter fruit with potentially lower alcohol. Of course, picking too early leads to under ripe or even green flavors. Picking later brings lower total acidity and higher pH, more sugar (and so riper fruit flavors and higher potential alcohol) and other, not always positive, possibilities.

Technical Considerations (The Winery and Cellar)
How much sorting was done in the field and in the winery? (Sometimes too much sorting can lead to boring, homogenous wines.) Were the harvested grape clusters crushed and de-stemmed, just de-stemmed (whole berries), or left to go into the press as whole clusters. Was sulfur-dioxide used to kill any native yeast or other microbes from the vineyard before fermentation?

Was a basket, bladder, or screw press used? (Too clean juice is the current most popular villan in the effort to find the cause of “prem-ox” or premature oxidation in white Burgundy.) What “cut of the juice” was kept to be fermented into wine and what percentage was rejected as being too phenolic due to too much pressing? Was the pressing super-gentle resulting in light clear juice (again a prem-ox issue) or was there enough violence to it to put some solids from the pulp and skins into the juice. Was the juice run from the press straight into the fermenting vessels (whether tanks or barrels or even concrete eggs) or was it first run into a tank to settle and maybe even to oxidize before it was moved to the fermentation vessels.

Were those fermentation vessels temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, oak barrels, or new fangled concrete eggs? If they were oak barrels, how big were they 225 liters (a standard barrel or barrique)? 300 liters (a puncheon)? 500 liters (also called a puncheon)? Or even 600 liters (demi-muids)? And what percentage of the barrels were new? The bigger the barrel, the less flavor it imparts. And the newer the barrels, the more flavor it imparts. If the wine was fermented in tanks, were oak chips or inner-staves added to layer in an oak nuance to a non-barrel-fermented wine. Wines made with no oak contact (from barrels or chips or inner-staves) are called un-oaked or un-wooded.
If oak was used, where did the wood for the barrels (or chips or stave) grow? Some forests have tighter grain and some looser which effects the density and porosity of the wood which effects both evaporation rates and how much flavor the wood imparts. How long was the wood allowed to air dry before coopering? Two years is standard, three years is better, four to five years is best. Longer air-drying means more of the harsher elements have been leeched from the wood and so the longer air dried staves impart a more subtle and somehow cleaner set of flavors. Which cooperage(s) made the barrels? Some coopers (barrel-makers) – such as François Freres – are known for heavier toasting or a distinctive style imparted by their barrels. In some cases it’s possible to discern the cooper in the finished wine.

Was naturally present yeast utilized for fermentation or were the tanks or barrels inoculated with a cultured yeast mix. Natural fermentations sometimes develop more flavors but they may stick (as in stop before all the sugar is fermented) or develop off aromas. Inoculated fermentations are safer and better controlled but sometimes may result in bland or “corporate” tasting wines. Which yeast are “naturally present” can have a lot to do with both where the grapes were grown and how they were farmed and with the location and conditions at the winery. Organic or biodynamic farming would seem to be more conducive to a healthy yeast population in the vineyard. Chemical intensive commercial farming might not. A modern steel and concrete winery with temperature and humidity controls that was designed to be clean and sterile may not develop or maintain a beneficial yeast population. An old gravel-floored, stone and wood building that is naturally cool and humid will develop a diverse population of natural flora including yeasts and malo-lactic bacteria – and a variety of molds. Because these sorts of cellars and their flora are unique, that older-style cellar can add a further sense of place to the wine.

After the alcoholic fermentation, was malo-lactic fermentation (often “ML” or sometimes “malo”) blocked, allowed, or encouraged? If blocked, how? A blocked malo can emphasize fruit but reduce complexity. If allowed, how long was the time gap between the end of alcoholic fermentation and the onset of ML? How long did the malo-lactic fermentation take? Were the wines sulfured and racked after malo finished? ML can add richness and complexity but too much malo-lactic character can hide the fruit and make a wine too rich (too buttery, too creamy, too milky) and even blousy. Was malo stopped before it completed? If so, how? A partial malo-lactic fermentation can give the best of both worlds in adding some richness while retaining some fruit flavors. If ML was encouraged, how – and how soon after the end of primary? Later malo-lactic fermentations tend to “set the fruit” better than earlier malls.

Were the lees stirred? If so, how vigorously and how often? Lees stirring can add richness but as with malo-lactic fermentation and new oak barrels, not all wines have enough fruit to handle that level of winemaking load.
How long was the wine left to age (in barrels or tanks) before assemblage? The longer it was in oak barrels, the more exposure it has had to air. That controlled oxidation makes it a bit darker and a bit richer but also a bit less fruity. To get one thing, you give up a bit of something else.

Was the wine fined and or filtered? Fining can help clarify the wine by removing proteins and other elements that can give it a haze so that it is bright in the bottle. Filtration can do the same thing as well as remove other detrimental elements such as Brettanomyces (a detrimental yeast that can lead to earthy, barnyardy, or even fecal smelling wines) but filtration has the potential to strip some flavor if used too aggressively.
Was the wine cold stabilized? Cold stabilization is the process of chilling the wine in tank before bottling to encourage it to precipitate its tartrates (tartaric acid) in the form of crystals in the tank before bottling. I don’t see where cold stabilization has any possible negative effects but some producers wont do it.

How was the wine bottled? Was it beat up on a high pressure, high speed bottling line or coaxed into the bottle by gravity flow, or somewhere in between.

Was it given more aging in the winery’s cellar after it was bottled?

Tasting can tell you (generally in broader strokes but sometimes in precise detail) the answers to many of these questions so in tasting wine you can often deduce a lot about how it was made. Knowing this sort of information about a wine (especially a Chardonnay) before you taste it allows you to predict how the wine will taste and the more you know, the more accurately you are likely to be (picking wine you like) in making your choices.

The Who of a wine becomes important because someone has to pick which grapes to use (what and where), when to pick, and how the wine will be made. That person’s education, experience, and personal preference is the focusing force that allows the wine to become what it is. Some winemakers are all about the place and others are determined to make the wine into what they want it to be.
It used to be that the more expensive the wine was, the more it tended to reflect the place. With the advent of superstar winemakers and big name consultants (Paul Hobbes, Helen Turley, etc.), a winemaking style may supersede place, which – if the place is very good – is often a shame. There has to be a guide or a shepherd to get the wine through the process and for better or worse, that person may leave his mark whether subtle or obvious.

Do you prefer more fruit and less “winemaking load?” Then you want a cooler climate, more focused Chardonnay fermented and aged in tank with blocked or maybe partial malo-lactic and little or no lees stirring. Or do you prefer a rich buttery-oaky-ripe style of Chardonnay layered with complexity and nuance? Then maybe you want a Chardonnay grown in a riper appellation (place) and fermented in mainly (or even all) new oak barrels with full malo-lactic and extended aging (10-14 months) with lees stirring in barrels – which can all be a lot of “winemaking load” so the quality of the fruit that is the starting point becomes paramount.

So let’s look at two wines that are made with essentially the same techniques: no sulfur at reception, whole clusters pressed with some solids making it into the juice, no settling, a naturally present yeast barrel fermentation (in high quality four-year air-dried, medium-low-toast French oak barrels from tight grain interior France forests made by top coopers) in a cool environment followed with some but not a lot of batonnage (lees stirring), a subsequent natural (un-inoculated) malo-lactic fermentation in those same barrels with sulfuring and racking after ML is complete, another 5-to-8 months in those same barrels before assemblage and bottling un-filtered and un-fined but with cold stabilization on a gravity fed-bottling line.

You might think these two wines have a lot in common – and they do – but let’s also look at the differences. One is made from biodynamically farmed Chardonnay grapes planted in clonal blocks and trellised with a double cordon using vertical shoot positioning (VSP) grown in sedimentary soils (southwest facing) in Carneros in California. The grapes were picked with a potential alcohol of almost 15% and the wine was made in a modern “warehouse” (steel and concrete) winery with concrete floors and complete climate control.

The other was made from Chardonnay grapes organically grown in Puligny Montrachet on east-facing rocky limestone slopes planted to a massal selection (lots of genetic diversity) and trellised with a single cordon and minimal catch wires (but still essentially VSP) with minimal soil. The grapes were picked with a potential alcohol content of 13.5% and the wine was made in an old stone-and-wood-cellar (under-ground in the cool natural rock) with gravel floors (to allow the humidity of the earth to keep the cellar damp which naturally slows evaporation) that has been used for winemaking for over 300 years.

Both wines are from the same fine vintage, let’s say 2009.

So how will the wines taste? Both will be excellent but there will be distinct differences.

Our Carneros Chardonnay will be fairly open and easy to evaluate and appreciate. The fruit profile will show riper citrus layered with tropical fruit. It will be riper, higher in alcohol, and a bit lower in acidity. The sense of place will be there and may manifest with a certain mushroom earthiness. There will be a lot of richness, a creamy texture, and a distinct carpenter-shop oak note. A chef might say the wine is “deconstructed” in that everything is there to see. The wine is of obvious high quality and it is certainly not “Cougar Juice.”

Our Puligny Montrachet is a bit less ripe (but not under-ripe) and so offers a more citrus and apple fruit profile. The sense of place comes through as a sort of limestone minerality (which combined with fruit profile, lower alcohol, and higher acidity might – hopefully – tell me in a blind tasting that this wine is from Burgundy. It is tightly integrated and, even though the wine was fermented in all new oak and went through full malo-lactic fermentation, neither technique is obvious. Maybe it needs decanting. Finally with a fair amount of swirling, it begins to open and show layers of slowly evolving flavor.

Both are excellent and give a high level of pleasure. One may be more of a muscular sports car and the other more of a refined sedan. In terms of longevity, I think the sports car is more fun to drive (initially at least) but will look dated while the sedan (which is still fun to drive) will age into a classic. I actually enjoy both and would be sad if I had to choose only one or the other.

What made these two wines made using essentially the same techniques so different? Place. The stamp of place in both cases was more important than all the winemaking and even the who.

What good is all of this to you? If you know what you like or what you are in the mood for, you can pick the perfect wine by picking the wine from the right place made using the right techniques to yield the combination of flavors, character, and textures you want. Parsing through the details (the Ws) helps you pick the right wine for you – and that is what wine education and wine tasting is all about.