Ghost Pines Chardonnay: Did Thirty-Five French Generations Get It Wrong?

I begin with a short and doubtlessly dull philippic on vineyard designated wines.  And all you smarty-pants enophiles who already know this stuff are encouraged to go back to The Marriage Plot or Unbroken or whatever the hell you’re reading these days.

The Upside of Monkdom

For the rest of you, the tale begins near the end of the Middle Ages—somewhere around 1300—when scholarly types first started to appreciate the differences in various Burgundian wines based on which vineyard was producing them.  Monks—who tended to bogart literacy in those days—took it upon themselves to map out holdings and land parcels and note the lots that were dispensing the best wines.  Most of their findings were confirmed by Denis Morelot in 1831, and although his opus La Vigne et le Vin en Côte d’Or didn’t make past a single edition (a reprint finally appeared in 2009), many of the top vineyards listed therein are still on top today and command the highest bottle prices.

The Hocus-Pocus of Locus

The reason, of course, is the omnipresent-in-wine-harangues but frequently misunderstood concept of terroir.  Defining it (beyond ‘an expression of place’) is like defining ‘irony’—examples work far better than words.  Burgundy is France’s most terroir-conscious appellation—possibly, the most site-psycho wine ward in the world.  Why?  First, it’s a consequence of Burgundy’s size.  All told, the AOC from which the noblest wines on earth geyser forth is a mere 25 miles long by a mile and a half wide, and, thanks to 1804 inheritance laws put into play by Napoleon, most of the family-owned vineyards have been divided and subdivided until a single small vineyard may have scores of owners, some of which might cultivate only a single row of vines.  Le Montrachet, the ne plus ultra of chardonnay, is less than twenty acres total and serves 18 masters—Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, whose Montrachet commands upwards of $4000 a bottle, owns a paltry acre and a half.  The result of all this is that precisely where your Burgundian parcel is located—on an ideal site midway up a slope facing southeast or in the flat, poorly-drained valleys below—makes all the difference.

"Call me a cab." Okay, you're a cab.

Another factor that determines the signature flavors of your situation is  air temperature, which in Burgundy is just barely where it needs to be to grow grapes.  And not just any grapes, either: Cabernet sauvignon, Bordeaux’s heat-seeking valedictorian, wouldn’t last a season in the Côte d’Or.  So, microclimate based on a thousand interwoven factors is frequently the difference between a Grand Cru and a Village.  Likewise in Germany, where the viticulture envelope is pushed to its limit, ripeness is key to a wine’s classification.  Only in exceptional vintages from vineyards with ideal exposures can grapes ripen to the point where they can wear labels that make them coveted and collectable.

A third reason why a specific vineyard name on a label may be considered a guarantee of breeding is soil—a key element of terroir, right up there with geography and climate. (The root of terroir, of course, is terre—‘earth’).  Despite its relatively small size, Burgundy is composed of over 400 different soil types ranging from chalky limestone to shallow compacted clay, each of which has a marked effect on a wine’s profile.  French vignerons have noticed that vines planted in blocks encrusted with chalk are healthier and the wines are deeper and more complex, so it’s not surprising that the greatest names in Burgundy and Champagne come from fiefs that sit above limestone outcroppings.

And these soils do not, for the most part, meld gradually together—they change abruptly, often within the space of a few feet.  This explains in part the haywire pricing variations between Burgundies.  Stand, for example, among the trellises of Bienvenues-Batard-Montrachet, a Grand Cru which sells for around $300 a bottle, and look toward Puligny-Montrachet, only a hop-scotch skip away, which sells for $50.  It’s all down to dirt—and nowhere in the wine world is there a better exemplar: Soil is to Beaune what oil is to the U.A.E.

In the Mosel, where the magic word is Sonnenschein, the best bottlings come from vineyards containing blue-gray slate which collects heat during the day and radiates it back to the soil during the night.  By contrast, nearby Rhein’s soil contains high concentrations of quartz, loess, sand and loam, and produces wine with a distinctly different character.


Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Later

The United States was a bit slow on the single-vineyard uptake.  The first California winery to fuse the name of a specific block of grapes with the winery’s name was Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard in 1966.  It provided not only a unique, appellation-defining sense of terroir (Heitz has a distinct minty flavor, said to come from the eucalyptus trees that surround the vineyard), but also a sense of pride as Joe Heitz, seller of the cellar, realized that he was sitting on what would be considered in France a premier cru vineyard—not to mention that the unusual labeling  became a talking point which helped nudge the fledgling enterprise onto the world stage.  (Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard currently sells for around $150, but if you’re so inspired, there are still bottles of that magical ’66 vintage available for about ten times as much.)

Martha's Vineyard: The Wampanoag called it 'Noepe', but what the hell did they know about wine?

Enlivened by the success of what was, to some extent, a gimmick, Chateau St. Jean tagged their 1975 chardonnay ‘Robert Young Vineyards’ and it was off to the races.  Such proud partnerships between grower and winemaker soon became the whip, with some vineyards—Bella Oaks and Herb Lamb, for example—becoming more famous than the wineries themselves.  In fact, Martha’s Vineyard became such a beloved brand among affluent Americans that an upscale island off Cape Cod ripped off the name.

Federal regulations require that if an American wine is called ‘Single Vineyard’ (SV), 95% of its grapes must come from one delimited vineyard.  The TTB must have plenty of Praetorian Guardsmen in the field, since in 1966, when Joe Heitz went for the gusto, there were 424 bonded wineries operating in the entire United States while today, in California alone, there are 3,364.

And more and more of them are hopping aboard the SV bandwagon.

Michael Eddy

So, Who’s Been Slashing The Tires On That SV Bandwagon?

Michael Eddy, winemaker at Ghost Pines, that’s who.

Now, it’s one thing to opt out of the single vineyard program—even to quietly pooh-pooh its theoretics.  But Eddy eschews even as broad a label as Napa or Sonoma, opting instead to buy grapes anywhere in the state he wants, and is perfectly content to wear broad, non-informational ‘California’ as an AVA.

He’s more than content, actually.  He brags about it:  “As a winemaker, I’m pretty lucky.  I’m not bound by a single appellation or vineyard, so I have a lot of freedom when it comes to choosing grapes…”

Okay.  Now, I’m pretty certain that each time Joseph Drouhin collects $2,339 for a 3-liter of Le Montrachet Marquis De Laguiche his first thought is not, ‘Damn, I wish I wasn’t bound by a single vineyard’, but there are some valid reasons for winemakers to consider the cons as well as the pros before diving in headlong to what has, for some, become a branding nightmare.

Regrets?  There’ve been a few.

The primary concern, of course, is that whenever you partner up with someone with the intention of developing a product, you’ve got to be optimistic about the future—let it be full of harmony, bliss and greenbacks.  However, even though a given winery—say, Domaine Jacktard—labels a wine ‘Dingledouche Vineyard’ and dutifully uses 95% Dingledouche fruit, it has no proprietary ownership of the name ‘Dingledouche’, which belongs to the grower.  So, when the grape-buying contract ends, there’s always the chance that the Dingledouche faction will choose not to re-up, or will raise prices beyond what Domaine Jacktard can spend.  So, after all the sweat that went into advertising, pavement-pounding and begging reviews from weenies like me, there’s no equity—and Domaine Jacktard is left with a popular brand name it can no longer use.  Dream over.

There are some SV worries on the consumer front as well.  You generally pay more—sometimes a lot more—for wines wearing a vineyard designation, but you’re willing to do so because you have an academic interest in why a 2007 Zinfandel from Ravenswood’s ‘Barricia Vineyard’ sells for $24 a bottle while an ‘05 Ravenswood ‘Belloni’ commands upward of $850.  If you shell out for the latter, you expect—and have the right to expect—a genuine understanding of what Belloni had going for it in 2005.

And yet, without research on your part, simply imagining that a vineyard listing guarantees a soulful reflection of an identifiable terroir is probably a romantic pipe dream.

As Michael Eddy phrases it, “Vineyards don’t know where the county lines are.”

Microclimate in action

People own vineyards for all sorts of reasons—egos, Last Wills and Testaments, love of the earth, more money than sense, etc.—but I assume that one of the least common reasons for farming grapes is a grower’s absolute conviction that every vine on the property is living in the precise climat as every other vine.  If you, like me, come from Hardiness Zone 6, you’ll notice that patches of snow remain on the lawn until late April or even May while the rest of it melts in March—meaning, of course, that these small areas are living in a microclimate quite different from the rest of the grass.  Likewise, in vineyards where one block of grapes may be a hundred acres distant from another, elevations, drainages, soil types and exposures—hence, terroirs—can be as different those from a completely different appellations.  And yet, no TTB regulation covers this loophole, and all grapes from the entire vineyard, no matter how different in ripeness and quality, can make up a wine labeled ‘Single Vineyard’.

And Michael Eddy’s reasons for releasing Ghost Pines Chardonnay, ‘Winemaker’s Blend’, 2010, incorporating fruit that’s 60% Sonoma, 18% Monterey and 22% Napa?

None of the above.

Eddy says, “”You may find an incredible vineyard site next to a marginal one in the same AVA. For me, it’s about ignoring the traditional boundaries and finding those great sites that let us express pure varietal character in the bottle.”

In other words, he’s just not all that enamored over terroir specifics.  Far from being the sacrilege that this attitude would be in Beaune, it reflects a very back-to-the-basics California focus on fruit—the reason why American wines are listed by grape names while the French ballyhoo location names.  Eddy believes—and has believed through stints at Trefethen Family Vineyards, Beaulieu Vineyard and Rodney Strong Vineyards—that carefully chosen blocks from multiple AVA’s can ultimately reflect the purest nature of the beast, whether the soil is volcanic, sedimentary or granitic.

Of course, the ultimate test of his hypothesis happens after the cork is popped, and tasting notes follow.  I will say that I found Eddy’s 2010 Ghost Pine to be a marvelously textured and multi-dimensional chardonnay, though at .46 g/100ml of residual sugar, nearly Spätlese sweet. A natural pH of 3.54, however, offers a nice foil.

But that’s dweebese, and if your browser does not support a Geek/English translator, you’ll have to judge Ghost Pine’s haunting complexity for yourself.

Today is Sunday, and since a lot of stores won’t sell wine on Sunday, you may have to wait until tomorrow–Halloween– to pick up your bottle of Michael Eddy Munster’s Ghost wine.

And that, class, is an example of irony.

Tasting Notes:

Ghost Pines Chardonnay, Winemaker’s Blend, 2010, about $20: Nose presents a many-layered impression beginning with Green Apple Jolly Rancher and a light oak-honey nip followed by the distinct scent of mandarin orange.  Mouthfeel is almost viscous, with evocative tones of frankincense along with spicy peach, apricot and apple, everything shored up with a pleasant acidity that balances the sweet citrus of the mid-palate.  A token hint of oaky bitterness exists on the finish.  Eddy’s wine undergoes malolactic fermentation to mellow the vintage’s higher than normal acidity, and it provides a nice creaminess throughout.

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