Columnist, Food

Winemakers love to talk about “the land vs. the hand”: Is wine an expression of the land where the grapes are grown, or the hand of the winemaker who transforms those grapes into wine?

The short answer, of course, is both. Grapes can grow almost anywhere, but the best wines are made from grapes grown in vineyards that combine an elusive formula of soil and climate. In most of Europe, the best locations were identified centuries ago. In the New World, emerging wine regions such as Virginia and even parts of more established areas in California are experiencing a gold rush of sorts: Viticultural prospectors are scrambling to find ideal hillsides with perfect soil and the optimum microclimate for producing world-class wines.

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Chehalem 2009 Ian's Reserve Chardonnay (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Yet the hand of the winemaker is crucial. A talented enologist can fashion a decent wine from mediocre grapes, and a bad decision in the winery can transform a Grand Cru into plonk. The winemaker’s art is to express the wine’s terroir while imposing just enough of his or her signature so that the hand does not dominate the land.

I recently had the opportunity to compare chardonnays grown at Stoller Vineyards in the Dundee Hills region of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The site, first planted in the 1990s, has earned a reputation for producing excellent pinot noir and chardonnay. I tasted wines made by three producers: Stoller, Chehalem Winery and Adelsheim Vineyard.

Harry Peterson-Nedry, principal owner of Chehalem Winery, describes the Stoller vineyard as “maybe the best white wine vineyard in Oregon.” He credits a mix of volcanic, glacial and marine sedimentary soils on “a gorgeous hillside,” as well as the best Dijon clones of chardonnay, good vineyard management and drip irrigation to provide “the kiss of water that gives us delicate fruit even in the ripest vintages.”

Chehalem makes two chardonnays using Stoller fruit. The grapes for Ian’s Reserve come exclusively from that site. The wine is then barrel-fermented and aged in French oak. Especially in the ripe 2008 and 2009 vintages, it is a voluptuous wine with delicious orchard fruit and just enough creamy oak influence to give it heft.

There is also an unoaked chardonnay called Inox made primarily from Stoller fruit.

“The only difference is fermentation, but the stainless-steel chardonnay is a totally different animal,” Peterson-Nedry said in a telephone interview.

For a contrasting approach, I consulted Greg La Follette, a noted producer of pinot noir and chardonnay in California’s Sonoma and Mendocino counties. I’d visited La Follette in early March for a tour of some of the vineyards he uses, so I called him to ask about his different winemaking techniques for each.

La Follette is a gregarious man with a “gee-whiz” enthusiasm and a scientific approach to winemaking who peppers his conversation with phrases such as “carbohydrate repartitioning strategy.” He makes a stunning chardonnay from Manchester Ridge vineyard in Mendocino County at an elevation of 2,200 feet overlooking the ocean. Describing what makes that wine work, La Follette focuses on his actions in the winery, using traditional Burgundian techniques such as whole-cluster pressing and native-yeast fermentation for most of the wine.

One clone, Dijon 809, he treats in a diametrically opposite way, removing the stems and pressing it gently in a basket press, a technique that yields 108 gallons per ton of grapes instead of the usual 160. The gentle handling coaxes more floral aromas from the juice, but it is expensive and involves risk, he says.

When describing how he makes wine at Sangiacomo Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast region, La Follette concentrates on his techniques in the vineyard. There, the ocean wind roars through the Petaluma Gap and slams against the base of Sonoma Mountain. The vineyard is flat and the vines vigorous, so La Follette has to coax the vines into ripening their grapes. That is where the carbohydrate repartitioning strategy comes in.

“I’m making this wine long before a single berry reaches the winery,” he explains.

“Chardonnay winemakers really need to stop resting on our butter-and-oak laurels and become partners with the land,” La Follette says. “The language of wine is really the language of yeast cell biology and vine physiology. Going there and living in that world is where it’s at nowadays. It isn’t just buying barrels and putting wine into them.”

Or as Peterson-Nedry says: “I personally believe that the hand of the winemaker should be as transparent as possible. Maybe that in itself is a winemaking style, but it’s a style that says don’t tread too heavily on what the vineyard gives you.”

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McIntyre blogs at Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine .